It was Reggie Fils-Aime who said, “If it’s not fun, why bother?” Video games are meant to be enjoyed. After all, fifty percent of the term video game is “game”. The last thing you would want when playing a game is to feel like you are not having a good time. That feeling becomes more crushing when even the game feels like it is trying to push you away. Unfortunately, that is the case with Mask of Mists – a confusing, dreary, and tedious game that certainly should not have bothered.
Developed by 9 Eyes Game Studio, Mask of Mists is an action-adventure title where you explore “the world full of magic and secrets!” It is weird that there is no name for the world you traverse considering the handful of proper nouns that are thrown in your face the moment you start playing. “An Archmage of the Academy has gone missing.” A what of the who? “As you know, untraceable disappearances of Archmages are extremely unusual”. Are they? I am not even sure what an Archmage is. “Archmage Crowl was studying monsters from the Abyss in an area that was once at war with the Empire.”
Can we slow it down for one second please? Who am I? What is the Academy, who is the Empire, what is the Abyss, and why am I playing this game? I did not find an answer to any of these questions by playing Mask of Mists. Granted, not every game needs to have huge lore tabs or cutscenes, but if you go out of the way to mention things that are, supposedly, part of the plot, there had better be some kind of explanation. I am sure a lot of this was thought out and kept in mind by the developers, but it does not come through in the gameplay or the world.
That feeling that the developers are leaving out a lot of information bleeds into the gameplay as well. Your primary gameplay loop in Mask of Mists is to solve a series of puzzles. Occasionally, you will slice up a monster or two but we will get to that later. None of the puzzles feel very challenging – they are almost insultingly easy. The solutions will be obvious to even the greenest of gamers. “Hmm… how will I coax this rabbit out of its hole?” Here’s a rabbit trap. “This tree needs to be cut do–”. Here’s an axe. The game does not require any sort of deep thinking at all. Puzzle solutions for runes and ancient statues are written down in scraps of paper that are not difficult to find. In fact, the only puzzle that felt challenging was challenging for the wrong reasons. Be wary of some light spoilers as I briefly explain one of the earliest puzzles in the game.
After unlocking a door to a secret room, I found a note saying, “I can’t find Fort Terrace Key anywhere. I must have dropped it when I was working on my last picture”. Okay. Well, over in that room, there is a painting that says, “This painting looks unfinished” when I interact with it. After much searching, there is no key anywhere near the painting. Fifteen minutes go by, and I, by some random stroke of luck, decide to look up. There, above the place I found the note, is a key floating against the ceiling. Why on Earth would anyone think to look up there after reading that note? Knocking the key down reveals that it is not even the Fort Terrace key talked about in the note. But it is a key that was needed to advance further in the game. It feels like an enormous oversight design-wise.
When not being frustrated by the random complexity or overly simplistic puzzles, you will occasionally fight some monsters. Poorly animated monsters with lazy designs, mind you. Some spit projectiles that travel ludicrously fast, deal lots of damage, blur your vision, and slow you down, and some will slowly wander toward you and struggle with landing a single hit. Don’t worry about those projectile-spitters. You can always heal yourself with the limited supply of healing potions that are found in the world and, for some reason, not immediately craftable in the game’s arbitrary crafting system.
All of the monsters highlight one of the game’s largest issues as well: the sound design. Each one of them makes an odd series of grunts, gurgles, and growls that sound like they were made for a low-quality, free-usage website. The absolute worst are the slimes. Imagine a man loudly chewing a banana through a crackly microphone on a Motorola Razr. The sound design’s flaws extend to the incessant music as well. Each tune feels like it was the first or second result in a Google search for “royalty-free fantasy ambience.”
If the puzzles, monsters, and sound design were not enough, I had plenty of technical hitches in the game as well. It crashed on me five times, and the loading screens are horrible. Every time you enter or exit a building there is a loading screen. This is doubly upsetting when you enter a building, realize you are in the wrong place or forgot something, and have to go sit through the loading screen again.
Mask of Mists on Xbox One is pretty disappointing. Its puzzles are uninspired, the sound design is rough, the monsters are boring, and the entire game just feels hollow. It is not a game that feels like it has an interesting story or experience to share with the player. The greatest quality I can think of is that it has some well-designed environments that are easy to navigate. Yet, when the game is not fun to play, why bother sticking around?