Developer: Witching Hour Studios | Publisher: Ysbryd Games || Overall: 8.5/10
One thing I’ve always had an interest in was creating lore from scratch. I’ve got a couple of projects that I’ve worked on but never got too far in fully fleshing them out into a self-sustaining, interconnected, and intellectually interesting universe. Masquerada: Songs and Shadows accomplishes this feat while telling an entertaining story and even some gameplay to boot. While its hard to make all the connections to this and that unless you really pay attention, the developers at Witching Hour Studios really did an amazing job in crossing their Contadini’s and dotting their Regenti’s. Oh, excuse me, I meant T’s and I’s; sometimes its easier to just make up words and hope you remember what they mean.
The immediate takeaway of Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is that it is uniquely themed. The buildings, words, and the way people dress are considered “Venetian” — to better put it into context, think 17th century Europe. All of the terms, people’s names, and frankly just about everything is finely crafted in giving this “Venetian” feel. This is in spite of the game taking place in a fictitious country named Ombre, and obviously not taking place in “Earth’s history” either. The centerpiece of the lore is the magical masks, called Mascherines, and how their use brings out magical powers that its user would otherwise not be able to have. From this simple concept grows the impressively detailed political situation of the country of Ombre, with upwards of twenty different factions, groups, organizations, and government entities, all vying for power in the world… and a place in your brain.
In fact, the game is so lore rich that I’ve spent what feels like half of the game time reading rather than playing. This can be fine to a point, and it is definitely “optional” but if you want the full experience of the narrative, its necessary to take a 10-15 minute break every time a bunch of new lore entries open up in the Codex. As the story progresses, you’ll unlock one of the grayed out squares in non-sequential order (they are also ordered by categories), and since there are made up names for just about everything and it can be hard to keep track of it all; it’s going to test your patience. One Codex entry opened up about the relationship between the main character and a good friend of his, and it was probably about two pages worth alone; I didn’t care that much and I just said fuck it! Sometimes it’s a huge pain to break up the gameplay flow to take these “lore breaks” and is the one obvious flaw of this title.
Obviously, there’s no way they could have included most of what is in the Codex into the actual game, since most of it has to do with everything other than what is immediately going on. It would have been nice to have been able to experience as side stories or extra quests or something more involved like that. By my fifth hour, the game felt exclusively just reading/watching an interactive story. Not to mention, they hide many of the core lore entries on the map and you have to find them by exploring a little bit; this means you can potentially miss them. The business of the story delivery is cumbersome, but the story is interesting, so I can give them a pass up to a point. They made up so many fucking terms it’s like I’m reading a different language and its hard not to glaze over terms if you’ve forgotten their meaning. In the end, the effort on their part and your part go hand in hand. If you skip over the lore, you are doing yourself a disservice in playing the game. But it would have been nice if they gave us a Venetian diagram (get it?) or a geographical map at least.
So I’ve talked about the story up until now, and while it is the center feature of this title, there is a battle system. I would quantify the battle system as “light” — there is no experience grinding and skill points unlock after certain story events. The talent system is varied enough where you can make different builds or choose different elements (fire, air, water, or earth) for your main character. You can also set up tactics for your AI teammates, or take direct control of them if you so choose. The battling takes place mostly with melee attacks and elemental-themed spells. A group of three or four enemies will spawn and then you just try to kill them before they kill you. Healing is mostly passive, and attached to other spells that go off, so it isn’t a mechanic that requires a lot of attention. If an AI teammate falls in battle, you can revive them Call-of-Duty-style by hovering over their body and pressing a button.
Presumably you would replay the game with different builds if you wanted to experience the different intricacies of this battle system, but I can’t say I would personally be interested. The battles aren’t really that hard on Normal — there is a difficulty slider including “Story,” “Normal,” and “Hard.” I don’t know why anyone would really want to waste time potentially wiping with a Hard difficulty considering the only reward the game has to offer is more story. There is no character progression or gameplay elements that motivate you to do well in the battle you just fought or take on a harder challenge for that matter. Only a few encounters demand elevated knowledge of the battle system and tactics, which is unfortunate. There’s also not a whole lot of exploration involved; you are basically going down corridors and running around in circles to make sure you pick up any codex entries before you move on to the next area. Since the story is so heavily scripted I can appreciate that it would be hard to allow freedom of discovery, but nonetheless the beautiful art, music, and professional voice work try to paper over any of these particular faults.
Masquerada: Songs and Shadows will hit the “story RPG” itch you might be yearning for. With its unique Venetian theme, there’s not much that can really compare. Being overwhelmed with lore words aside, the experience is not as daunting as I may have made it sound like, and while particular points kind of grate my soul, presentation-wise with the Codex entries, I am still well entertained. Considering the story gets more and more interesting, it’s hard to not want to see the adventure through. There is also a recently released New Game+ mode that actually adds more content, so you can think of it as a “director’s cut” of sorts with expanded features, dialogue lines, and a couple more boss encounters.