Masquerada: Songs and Shadows Reviews

432,312 (249,153)
TA Score for this game: 1,479
Posted on 04 September 17 at 14:31, Edited on 10 November 17 at 07:54
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Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is a linear RPG (closer to an interactive novel in some ways) that takes place in a beautifully crafted world, rich with lore and brought to life by the artwork and voice acting. At around 10-15 hours it isn’t the longest RPG in the world but Witching Hour Studios made the right call regarding quality over quantity as very rarely does the game feel too dragged out or outstays its welcome.

The story starts with a prologue that acts as both a tutorial to introduce the game mechanics and sets up the main storyline. Initially the adventure starts off in a pretty generic fashion, with the main character being called back to his homeland after exile. The pacing is good, and with the codex drip-feeding additional background information to the world and people in it then it becomes easy to immerse yourself in this universe and its lore. Sometimes the volume of new language used to describe the castes, countries and other aspects of the world becomes a little too much to keep track of but with the codex and the lack of any game related mechanics to test that knowledge it is not required to be familiar with every last term to enjoy the game or even follow the story.

As I played I picked up on a number of side-conversations happening between background characters in scenes, like a couple of bungling cut-purses who never quite manage to be prepared for the job. It is here that I spotted a couple of parodies, such as the man in a plaza giving a speech that seems familiar to the one Bioshock’s own Andrew Ryan gives as you ride the bathysphere to Rapture. At once point the character even says ‘“No”, says the man in Moscow’ before declaring ‘hey, I didn’t write this’. There are small pieces like this littered throughout that lighten the mood or serve to further show how people get wrapped up in their own worlds and opinions without considering the wider reality.

I’ll leave the story there to avoid any spoilers but overall it was an enjoyable story that managed to respectfully weave in topics affecting modern society without feeling the need to crowbar in something that didn’t fit inside the narrative just to make a political or social point.

Masquerada is a linear game with no free-roaming capability to explore the larger world. Instead each ‘scene’ is presented to the player and they are then free to explore that area, such as the docks but ultimately there is only ever one interaction to progress the story.

Each area will have colour coded light beams that indicate the type of interaction. Purple highlights an optional dialogue with a character or a collectible (either a codex entry, an ink or a pattern). Green highlights exits and there is usually just the one, however there are maze areas at a couple of points where multiple options exist. Finally an orange light highlights story progression/mandatory dialogue, character respec stations or character customisation through inks and patterns.

During scenes there are regular battles that take place, with you taking charge of the protagonist and two of the four companions you can team up with. Although you cannot change the team members on the fly, there are multiple times when the game presents the choice of who to team up with. Even if not in use, all team members progress via skill points at the same rate so the player doesn’t feel forced to rotate the squad if you find a setup that works for you.

The combat itself is pretty straight-forward with real-time action. You can jump between teammates using the d-pad and employ a tactical pause with the left bumper to plan your next moves or line up more complicated abilities. A,B,X,Y deploys the assigned ability provided the character has the charge and it is not on cooldown. As the battle progresses the characters abilities build up a mask power, which when ready can be unleashed with right bumper.

The AI does a fairly decent job of controlling two party members but there are basic customisations for the AI behaviour that can be applied to abilities and even turn off the AI altogether (although as you can only control a single character at a time this would become rather onerous). The only issues I had with the AI is that it lacks the intelligence to try and reposition if being flanked (which does a lot more damage due to bypassing the focus shield).

Other bugs I had in battles were getting stuck in scenery when using an ability that makes my character jump backwards and an enemy dying into scenery that then obstructed my access to the interactive orange light. Each time, a quick reload of the checkpoint only lost me a couple of minutes of play and I was more mindful of my positioning.

The difficulty levels are story, normal and hard. Story mode is an absolute cakewalk with boss-battles rarely posing much of a challenge. For those achievement hunters reading this, then playing on story difficulty will likely reduce the chances of naturally getting the achievement for using mask abilities 100 times because most standard enemy encounters will be over before the masks charge fully. Normal difficulty requires more intervention from the player on the team to correct AI mistakes, reposition them or utilise powers more effectively. Playing through on normal I only had one instance when my entire team died and I needed to restart the checkpoint so those that like a challenge and more tactical thinking should consider hard.

Outside of combat the game is very much just walking the character between highlighted points in the scene. This is fine when there are things to investigate but a number of occasions you are running through an empty scene just following a road or path with no other interactions and it feels unnecessarily drawn out. It’s at odds with some other narrative methods like a carriage transition screen that has some dialogue or cut-scenes which are much more welcome.

I want to make it abundantly clear, Masquerada is an absolutely beautiful game. The various locations you visit, the colours of the inhabitants clothing and the art style in general is just breathtakingly gorgeous. Taking a similar style to The Banner Saga (yet not a full-on copycat), the graphics look hand-drawn and cartoon-like, with backgrounds and cutscenes often applying more of a water-colour painting vibe to them. Combined with the music and other activity happening as you play the game, it never fails to bring the world alive.

The UI is clear, fairly minimal and the action on screen is well-presented during combat with a slightly isometric view of the world. However, although the graphics are clear, on the Xbox One I could imagine some of the UI text may be a little hard to read for some if far away from the TV. This only applies to a couple of minor things as subtitles, codex entries and other game-related text is usually clear and well sized.

The animations are smooth and frame rate felt consistent, but that isn’t too surprising as for all of the beauty, the game isn’t handling a sandbox world or hundreds of character models at once so I’d hazard a guess that the game isn’t too taxing on the hardware.

The music in Masquerada is great too. The mood of the music fitting into the general tone of the story piece or the environment in a frictionless way that often has you forgetting there is a soundtrack at all. There are times where the music kicks in and really adds to a scene and it is little touches like this where the obviously talented team behind this game shine. The music is often lead by classical instruments with vocal harmonies dropping in and out which suits the aesthetic style of the game.

The voice acting in the game is great too, with core characters giving lines with feeling. There are few lines that feel as though they were read out of context as so often happens in large RPGs where conversations are often recorded in isolation. One of my pet hates is when a character seems suddenly irritable after a perfectly decent question or a particular line just feels out of kilter with the rest of the conversation. The consistency of the language is also managed well, as Masquerada brings in a lot of new terminology. Commonly used terms like ‘inspetorre’ are used by a large number of characters and even AAA RPG games struggle to have all their voice actors use the same inflections or pronunciation but I can’t recall any instance where this during my playthrough. I’d hazard a guess that all voice actors were given a decent brief and intro before delivering their lines.

This is not a difficult game to max, with the only potentially troublesome ones being the collectibles. Even these are not difficult to miss if you keep an eye out and explore each scene fully before moving on with the story. When you complete the game you can start a new game+ and you can also use a chapter select to go back and replay any areas you may have missed collectibles. A single playthrough and maybe some chapter replays are all that is needed. There are also no difficulty achievements to contend with.

Masquerada: Songs and Shadows was a short but highly enjoyable playthrough. Any player who enjoys something a little different and likes a tactical RPG that isn’t reliant on heavy-duty statistics and character specs should enjoy this. This will never present the tactical depth of Divinity: Original Sin or Banner Saga, but it adds just enough to remove it from being a simple button basher. Positioning of characters, use of skills and synergy of the team are noticeable influences on normal difficulty, if not an absolute requirement most of the time.

The world itself was completely refreshing and although familiar, well-worn tropes like elemental magic (fire, wind, earth, water) are once again wheeled out, Masquerada does so in a way that is just different enough to distract you from noticing. It does this with almost every facet of the game and it is all the better for it. It may look similar to Banner Saga in places due to the artwork and it may play like a JRPG-lite in others, but I truly cannot say it is a derivative game as it brings so much more to the table that is fresh.

If you like a story with political intrigue, gods, magic and a little archaeology, or if you just like pretty masks then I can highly recommend this game as one to try. Treat yourself to an interactive story with a difference.
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