Sometimes through public professionalism, we grin and bear annoyance, or put on a brave face in times of extreme stress. Sometimes, we steel ourselves to from personal embarrassment or for selfish goals. That façade is like a mask in some ways; we wear them daily but often subconsciously; hiding our true feelings or ideals from the world. This isn't because of malicious intent but rather self-preservation of our image. Our failings or annoyances, whatever they may be, can be easily sheltered to others if we decide to not let them in.
In a way, that mask is an important part of our growth as well. Eventually, we shed those facades, becoming more honest with ourselves and those around us. This is often a testament to the growth of personal character. While we don such masks on occasion, they don’t become us, a lesson that many learn in the long run of our lives. I bring this up mostly through the self-reflection of a new game, Masquerada: Songs and Shadows, a new indie RPG by Singaporean developer Witching Hour Studios. It is a game that, while flawed, has some things to offer to role-playing enthusiasts and casual RPG players alike.
Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is the latest Kickstarter game to get a finalized release, telling the tale of Cicero Gavar, a formerly exiled Inspettore from the city of Ombre. Cicero, on the behest of the ruler of the city, returns to investigate the disappearance of a well-known diplomat while citizens who are fractured by different guilds and a growing civil war rage in the streets. It is up to Cicero to not only solve the mystery of the missing diplomat but to save the city, and those he left behind, from foreboding destruction.
One of the games more refreshing takes is not presuming the player is an outsider looking in. The entirety of the game's lore and background is found in the codex, which is discovered over the course of the game's length to flesh out the world developer Witching Hour Studios created. Ombre is just the melting pot city of several nations and combines a Renaissance-styled world with magical Venetian masks, known as Mascherines in-game. It is the masks that mark your status in Ombre and it is a precious resource that provides magical power to those who can wield them. The game’s political intrigue falls along those lines; the city itself is divisive due to politics and power plays, as numerous guilds play their own games with each other, while the lower classes grow in rebellion.
This does offer a lot of interesting backstory to Masquerada, but it also makes the game one of story and intrigue first, gameplay second. Harking back to the quieter nature of role-playing games in terms of its scope, Witching Hour Studios bills Masquerada as a tactical-RPG experience, which it technically is due to the real-time pause and play gameplay reminiscent of Baldur’s Gate. The game has other roots, however, in the form of narrative driven RPGs in the vein of Secret of Mana or Terranigma due to its linear structure and more story-heavy elements.
This is not to say it is a perfect throwback to those classic games; Masquerada is light on content when it comes to actual gameplay mechanics. There are no real weapon upgrades, only a few Mascherines, runes and ink ingredients that the player can find to grant special bonuses to the party. There is no complex skill progression; outside of a singular choice early in the game, your level ups allow you to build up a group of six different skills with little deviation to their effects. There is also no real deviation from its narrative – Masquerada is linear from start to finish, guiding the player through its labyrinth of politics without any real input by the player.
Masquerada feels bare this way, and the combat itself is just as hollow at times. The party can cast “elemental affinities” on enemies, which act as marks to perform extra damage or other debilitating effects if combined with another elemental attack. This does provide some tactical options for players, but outside of this addition to the combat, the gameplay is rather standard and bare bones. It is often “fight a group of enemies” then rinse and repeat. There are also a surprising number of boss battles that offer a few challenging moments throughout.
Perhaps because of its nature as a Kickstarter game, Witching Hour Studios had to budget what they could and couldn’t put into Masquerada, and it does show at times in how quickly side characters come and go in the narrative. This is ironically the opposite problem that more overstuffed Kickstarter games such as Pillars of Eternity had. Masquerada has no fat on it, but it is too lean; there is simply very little in terms of gameplay to go back to and enjoy, save a New Game Plus mode which adds a few extra boss battles.
The real heart of Masquerada stems from its strong narrative. It is clear Witching Hour Studios hedged their bets on the star-studded voice cast and their writing team. The voices of prolific actors such as Matthew Mercer, Rick Wasserman, Jennifer Hale and Catherine Taber are just some of the names found in-game. Each provides a performance that not only carries the narrative but provides enough charismatic deliveries to make the whole cast, even in their darkest and most somber moments, relatable. This is complimented by comic-book style vignettes to give a bit of dynamism to long stretches of dialogue, which helps at breaking up the action without losing steam.
The narrative is also incredibly clever in how it carries over its themes. Behind these characters are deeper layers to their personalities, as they struggle to find their place in a world divided by politics and tradition. Playing upon the whole themes of being something you’re not, of hiding the true self behind the masks, Masquerada from a thematic standpoint is perfect. It is a bit convenient at times, most notably how the whole party comes together during the precious few days of game time, but with what the developers had to work with, such minor story quibbles can be forgivable.
The themes, worldbuilding, and voice-overs are the true stars of Masquerada, while the gameplay is simple and straightforward. For some this might be a major turn off, as a light RPG, it will not be to everyone’s tastes. It is also the kind of game that struggles to find a reason to play again unless you really enjoy the story.
I did enjoy my time with Masquerada: Songs and Shadows in the end. The story and characters grabbed my attention, and the few narrative flaws found in the game were afterthoughts after being engrossed in the political world of Ombre. For a freshman effort by an indie developer, there is just enough to really get your attention in Masquerada, and I look forward to seeing what Witching Hour Studios does next. For behind the mask of this game is a studio with a lot of heart behind it, and while their first outing is ultimately flawed, their heart is sometimes all you need to make your mark in the gaming world.
Our Masquerada: Songs and Shadows review was conducted on PlayStation 4 with a copy procured via our reviewer's $20 contribution to the game's crowdfunding campaign. It is also available on PC via Steam.
For a freshman effort by an indie developer, there is just enough to really get your attention in Masquerada, and I look forward to seeing what Witching Hour Studios does next. Behind the mask of this game is a studio with a lot of heart, and while their first outing is ultimately flawed, their heart is sometimes all you need to make your mark in the gaming world.
- Excellent Narrative...
- Strong Voiceover and Themes...
- ...with Some Minor Narrative Flaws.
- ...Extremely Simple, Linear Gameplay.
- Limited Combat Mechanics.