Masquerada: Songs and Shadows Review

Masquerada is an “on the rails RPG”–by which I mean that you follow along a linear path, interacting with indicated nodes, and advancing the plot along by doing so. There is no exploration to be done, unless you count gathering lore books that litter the vibrant, hand-drawn back drops, no side quests to complete, or choices to be made. The game tasks you with finding a missing man, and every task that follows after is involved with solving that case even as you discover that it’s part of a grander scheme that may change the world as you know it.

I won’t spoil anything in this review, but I will say that the story alone is worth picking the game up. The title, Masquerada, refers to people who wear the masquerade style masks called Mascherines and therefore wield the power of the elements. The world you’re introduced to is torn in two by a civil war and the main character, an investigator and ex-exile by the name of Cicero, is thrown into the chaos that ensues as a result.

The gameplay loop is as follows: plot–>move around the map to indicated location, picking up lore and raw Mascherines that you’ll find periodically–>battle or investigative segment–>investigative segment or battle. Rinse, wash, repeat. The majority of your time will be spent in the first part of the loop, listening to character exchanges as they play out. You can skip dialogue if you wish, but doing so doesn’t make much sense considering the story is the game’s main draw. Combat takes a back seat to an intricately woven story set in a fully-fleshed out fantasy world. Character dialogue is fully voice acted and, surprisingly enough for an indie title, the voice acting is top notch.

Masquerada introduces a lot of information–people, places, titles, and the politics between different groups of Mascharine bearers–at once, but it does a good job of not overwhelming you with information for the most part. The lore book is an invaluable resource because you can review every tidbit of information you’ve gathered about the game universe and the people you’ve met, all recorded by Cicero, who flavours it with his opinions rather than it being a cut and dry textbook affair.

You can have to to three people in your party–Cicero and two others–and you can assign behaviours to the AI by giving them an order of importance for using their equipped skills. The different elements–fire, water, earth, and wind–dictate what class your character plays: fire is damage heavy, water has healing spells, earth has disruptive spells and buffs, and wind has disruptive spells and debuffs.

Combat is similar to games like Pillars of Eternity, where you can pause at any time, assign your unit’s orders, and resume the flow of battle. You control one character at a time directly and can swap between characters using left and right on the d-pad. When using Cicero, pressing up and down on the d-pad switches his stance and therefore how he attacks. You can move freely on the battle field, avoiding enemy attacks–the range of which is helpfully marked in red cones, circles, and the like–and dealing out your own. Combat is also where the game falls short due to some rather frustrating issues. The AI isn’t very bright and your partners will often meet a swift and untimely end during combat. I found it was best to bring a healing unit and a tank and micromanage them to maintain their support while I dealt out damage. Your allies can be revived by standing in proximity and holding down x for the amount of seconds shown, but doing so will render you unable to defend yourself, therefore placing you at risk to meet the same fate. At the end of battle, they are automatically revived and your entire team is fully healed. Battles also feel very rushed, often lasting only a minute or two. It isn’t the game’s main focus and because of that it feels as though it wasn’t as developed as it could have been.

The party management elements are also somewhat truncated. You can equip different Mascherines–the masks that the Masqueradas can wear–should you find the undecorated “raw” ones during your travels and also assign points to skills, but the former changes what your special move does very slightly and on the other hand you’re only able to use four skills at a time, so once you’ve chosen the ones you like, you’ll usually just use the same ones over and over.

Like its art style, Masquerada’s music is beautiful. The majority of it is the orchestral sort of music you’d find in a cathedral with pipe organs and a many-singer harmony and it fits perfectly with the tone of the game. The overall presentation and atmosphere is impressive to say the least and it really lends another layer of enjoyment to the already great storyline.

Unfortunately, as beautiful as the scenery is the majority of it is beyond your reach. Large areas are usually boxed in by invisible walls and become nothing more than glorified passageways to the next checkpoint. There aren’t any secrets to discover save Mascherines and bits of lore which are always obvious and out I’m the open, which would explain the lack of a reason to walk around and poke your nose into buildings and the like, but it would have still been much more immersive had we been given the option to explore.

.Pros.

  • The writing and voice acting are fantastic.
  • Characters are believable and you’ll sympathize with them, drawing you deeper into the plot. I didn’t find any tired cliches and there were even revelations and plot twists that caught me off guard.
  • The game’s atmosphere is top notch–both art and music.
  • There’s a lot of information shared at once, but the game finds a balance between introduction and explanation so that it isn’t overwhelming.

.Cons.

  • Combat falls short of the rest of the game’s excellent quality.
  • The heavy story-light combat combo may not be for everyone.
  • The game is very linear. Even larger areas are closed off by invisible walls and are nice to look at, but are ultimately just another means of funneling you along to the next area in the story chain.

Bottom line

Those who enjoy comprehensive fantasy worlds and an intricate plot will love Masquerada. It functions more as an interactive novel than an RPG in which exploration, combat, and party management–the things that make an RPG an RPG–take a back seat to the game’s story and atmosphere. That isn’t by any means a bad thing, but it’s something to think about if you’re looking for something less story focused. The game does an excellent job of constructing a world, characterizing it’s people, and bringing you along for the journey, but those who want to move freely from town to town or tackle random tasks from villagers will be sorely disappointed. All in all, the game is a wonderful experience and if you know what to expect from it before you approach it, you’re in for a narrative treat.

REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to editor@bonusstage.co.uk.

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