A small development team based in Singapore, Witching Hour Studios, have set about to create a fully voiced tactical RPG. With the help of a Kickstarter fund, Masquerada: Songs and Shadows became much more than just an idea, getting through its final stages of development. Having released on PC last year, and recently on the PlayStation 4, it’s now time for the fantastical and dark world of Masquerada to take its place as an Xbox One title. Does this ‘pause for tactics’ RPG have enough to stand out from the crowd?
Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is a magical game, set in the Citte of Ombre – a place clearly inspired by Renaissance-era Venice. Main character Cicero Gavar returns home after a five year exile, since his brother got involved with a group of rebellious mask-wearers. These masks – Mascherines – are magical artefacts, granting those in possession of them a variety of elemental powers. There’s a reason as to why Cicero is finally allowed back into the fold: to investigate the disappearance of an old friend named Razitof, who had been researching the origins of the Mascherines. He can’t do it alone though and along the way he recruits others with an invested interest in the case to fight beside him.
One thing must be said right from the off, and that’s in reference to the lore of Masquerada; there’s so much depth to it. So much so that there’s a massive codex filled with entries, each split in decisive categories. From the political aspects of the rich and privileged, to the nature of the ongoing Civil War and the warring factions, Ombre is given as much backstory and detail as you can imagine. Surprisingly, the problem I have is that it almost offers too much complexity to the multi-faceted story, to the point where my brain becomes overloaded. Having such strange character names and places, and then having to grasp who hates who and what’s what, means there’s an awful lot to take in.
Onto the actual gameplay, and after a decent tutorial – this also serves as a Prologue in control of Cicero’s brother – it’s time to get your hands on a Mascherine. The choice is between Fire, Earth, Water and Air, and the spells Cicero is able to cast depends on the elemental decision at hand. Certain spells can tag enemies with an elemental effect, which when combined with other elements, can lead to a more powerful status effect. Hitting the host with the same elemental attack as the tag will deal an additional burst of damage. It’s a nifty idea, but one that goes out the window for the most part once a battle ensues.
The ‘pause for tactics’ angle is another example of a decent mechanic that’s not necessarily needed. At any time, time itself can be stopped to allow you to micro manage the main man and any party members by his side, choosing their next attack or movement, before un-pausing and seeing it all play out within about a second – before doing it all again. I much preferred, and am grateful for, the option to completely ignore that tactical approach, instead just going for it in real-time and letting the A.I. control the other party members.
Within the combat arsenal, there’s a regular attack and four special skills that are equip-able from a selection of seven to be unlocked using skill points. Each of the skills has a cool-down timer and expends a certain amount of a regenerating Mask Charge. There’s also an Ultimate Ability which sounds a lot more epic than it actually is; I found that the Ultimate Ability doesn’t do enough to warrant the Mask Charge spent to use it in truth. Although many of the skills, across all usable party members, are very cool to look at and have a few upgrades to purchase, I wish there were more available.
Enemies aren’t simply limited to being other people wielding magical powers, as there are also the ancient fey creatures. The fey adapt to their surroundings, therefore in forest areas they’re made of branches and bark, whereas in caverns they’ll be stone-based. These help to ensure that the enemies you’ll face throughout have a decent variation.
Battles often occur against a decent number of enemies, or one of the many well distinguished bosses. The key is to get behind them and avoid their frontal, invisible, shield to do the most efficient amount of damage possible. I don’t think any of the regular conflicts lasted over a minute; even the bosses went down fairly swiftly, to the point where Masquerada feels like all its eggs are in one basket – the story.
A lot of the time you’ll be chatting to fellow Mascherine bearers, acquaintances and faction leaders, as if the game is trying to squeeze every last drop of lore out of itself. The sheer linear style of it all means that you’ll often arrive in an area and then be in another one quite quickly as you follow the path it’s laid out for you. Exploration is rather limited.
In the sound department, both the soundtrack and voiceovers work great to ensure that each area and person of importance is given real character. Anyone that’s worth anything in the world of Masquerada is fully voiced – which is very impressively done – featuring the likes of Matt Mercer (Attack on Titan), Felicia Day (The Guild), and Ashly Burch (Borderlands 2), to name just a few of the stellar cast members. Combining these sounds with the lovely hand-drawn visuals makes for a game that really does bring the Renaissance era to life. The detail is of a high level, with vivid artwork setting the scene well, whether you’re at the ruins of Pindrop or the docks of Ombre.
Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is no doubt a story-driven RPG, with a hell of a lot of effort gone into building up the world, the characters within and the history behind it all. Credit also has to be given for the lovely artwork and the sound which accompanies the whole experience, especially the voiceovers. Unfortunately the lore is overwhelming, to the point where anything outside of the main narrative just confuses matters. I’m not sure how engaging the combat is either, with battles over in no time and lacking the depth that’s been afforded to other areas of the game.
If all you want is an interesting, but complex, tale of war and politics, then Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is probably worth a punt. If not, just wait for it to drop in price a little. It’s not a bad game; it just seems to have lost focus on a few things.