I haven’t taken in a visual novel game in a long time. Suddenly having on my plate a tactical role-playing VN, shared by the PS4 and Vita, nearly two years after its Japanese debut, was unexpected to say the least. Hopefully, any influence these factors would have had on an objective review have been mitigated by an open mind, a blank slate, and a bit of wiki-fu.
There’s a previous title?
Mask of Deception is actually the second of three Utawarerumono titles, with the next installment, Mask of Truth, due out in September. However, this is easy to miss and arguably unimportant. It’s also understandable why it might not come up—there’s been a bit of a departure, thematically, since the predecessor’s release back in 2002…as an eroge.
Indeed, this is the sequel to an erotic visual novel—not that it’s readily apparent. Art, story, and character design have been polished while explicit sexual material has been all but excised. The result is more akin to a familiar anime series than something with roots in an eroge, so much so that an anime series based on this game debuted shortly after its release. While Mask of Deception does follow its predecessor in having a Mature rating, it has to go out of its way to earn it by peppering profanity, blood splatter, and lewd comments throughout.
Unless you’ve played the original Utawarerumono already, it’s safe to ignore. Mask of Deception seems insistent, in fact, that you take it as the first part of a story to be concluded with Mask of Truth. (Some of the plot foundations are so similar that it borders on rehashing.) If you have played the original, however, there are a ton of continuity connections and character reappearances, just more in the vein of nudging those who will understand the esoteric references than providing crucial background information. If the charming Ainu fantasy setting of Utawarerumono has caught your eye, there’s no problem just diving in here.
As a Visual Novel…
The nameless protagonist awakens, amnesic and lost in an unfamiliar wood. A chance encounter with a young girl out to see the world becomes his salvation, but this guardian challenges him as much as assists him as they journey to the imperial capital of Yamato. However, a simple search for mislaid memories and gainful employment finds the pair tangled in the empire’s affairs, from the whimsy of its underworld to the intrigue of its noble court.
Mechanics & Graphics
Everything about Mask of Deception feels familiar, mechanically. For the vast majority of the game, character sprites with a few variations in facial expression and pose slide on and off of static background artwork as you scroll through a narration text-box. This has never been a rapidly-evolving genre, and I have no intention of joining the debate on whether this is approach is outdated or quaint traditionalism.
During the scenes that bookend the battles, however, the background art is replaced with an overlook of the battlefield. For the most part, the usual sprites do their usual dance, but occasionally one of the little 3D models perform a movement or attack from the cubic grid as part of the narrative.
Graphically, battlefields look like an up-scaled Playstation 2 game on television screen. To be fair, though, I find it more surprising when a TRPG/SRPG battlefield isn’t visually dated, and I’m sure this is one aspect that feels more at home on the Vita.
Art & Sound
Traditional though it may be, there’s an attention to detail in the background artwork that is apparent even at a casual glance. I would often disable the UI and browse the contents of a room or the atmosphere of a street, finding that objects, decor, and technology were thoughtfully chosen. Combined with the subtle background noises, it does a lot to draw one into the moment as they’re reading. It nails the “little things count” factor and complements the character design well.
The music, while formulaic and ordinary, is pleasantly so. Its real success is that it can go on for hours (and believe me, it will) while remaining unobtrusive. It’s, by definition, background music. No catchy melodies getting stuck in your head; no jarring loop points or shifts that draw attention; it’s just there. To the maximum extent that this can be considered praise, it’s nice. The BGM is nice.
Localization into English seems to have gone as smoothly as one could hope for; decent vocabulary, insignificant typo count, minimal liberties. With no English vocal track (though the Japanese vocals are fantastic) these easily-taken-for-granted qualities become more appreciated as the game goes on. And on. And on. And on.
Mask of Deception is karma for every 10-hour visual novel I’ve ever called “too short,” which became both boon and bane over the 50-hour playthrough (on auto-play; with button-mashing and ignoring vocal cadence, you can likely get it down to 35 before any true skipping). Each scene is vibrant in detail, but at the cost of spreading the core story very thin. It’s maddeningly easy to miss the one critical plot point whilst skimming through distractions, inner monologue, and random observations—and the temptation to skim is high due to the fact that your opinion is never requested; the story never branches and is not impacted by player input.
That’s precisely the reason why the game’s tendency to prattle and digress is able to wound it: a focused story and intriguing characters bring this Ainu-inspired fantasy world to life, only to find their development spread thin and squandered on trivialities—as if it’s all a pretense for exploring an absorbing world rather than becoming invested in its people.
Only the protagonist himself grows in any way, mainly by virtue of his ability to think fast and inquire little. The rest is a sprawling landscape of tried and true harem-anime tropes. Underachieving teenage boy with valuable talents incidentally gathers a bevy of idiosyncratic girls, hijinx ensue. Mask of Deception redeems itself for this somewhat by turning several of these tropes on their heads. These girls are stronger, harder working, and more useful than him in almost every way, and while every villain in the game blunty states their intent to have their way with them, the last thing they need is a chivalrous savior. This upends the status-quo just enough that, shallow though they may be, the character interactions are still amusing.
Perhaps these criticisms will be blunted when Mask of Deception can be judged alongside Mask of Truth, as the former clearly sets up the latter and ends midway through the overall story—though this is not to say that this game lacks a satisfying arc taken alone.
As a Tactical Role-Playing Game…
So far in this review, disproportionately little attention has been paid to the SRPG side of the game—mainly because there’s disproportionately little battle. It’s not uncommon to go several hours without engagements as the scenario contains only twelve battlefields across its fifty hours, with several clustered towards the end.
When you do make it to a battle, you will find yourself again in familiar territory. Your allies and enemies will be distributed across a cubic grid and strategically cluster based on how far and fast they can move and how long it takes to bring an enemy down. While each unit has various attacks in their repertoire, the game does most of the logic for you—simply tinker around with where the unit might move and, relative to enemy positions, it will narrow down which actions are available. The choices are fairly obvious, so either confirm or search for a better deal. The highlight of the battle system for me was the actual processing of the actions, during which you are presented prompts to time a tap or charge in order to climb through a combo or increase chances of a critical hit.
Now, I am terrible at tactics games, and I found this one to be very forgiving—especially on lower difficulty settings. Not only are you relieved of much of the math and hypotheticals, but you can freely rewind a battle in progress or even restart it entirely. Restarting a battle? You keep any EXP you’d earned so far. Failed? You still keep any EXP you’d earned. Only one character survived until the end? Everyone gets rewarded. Even against the most bitter of odds, you can fail your way to the top.
The infrequency of battle is the only real weakness of the SRPG side of Mask of Deception. Light on tactics though they were (unless I ramped up the difficulty enough that timing and grouping were crucial), I enjoyed and looked forward to battles that just didn’t come around very often. The saving grace is that you can replay any battle at almost any time and, once into the post-game, several optional battlefields open up, as well. While not satisfyingly woven into the narrative, they’re at least there if you want them.
It’s okay if you skimmed right to this section.
As a visual novel and a video game, Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception has its share of successes and stumbles both. A rich fantasy world, focused plot, and charming character design end up somewhat undermined by a story spread thin, tired tropes, and lacking character development. Tactical battlefields are streamlined and fun (albeit forgiving), but disappointingly underutilized. Visuals that are crisp and vibrant still feel dated as the title rides the veil between the Playstation 4 and Vita two years after its Japanese debut.
Yet while its objective flaws stand out, they don’t weigh Mask of Deception down quite enough to diminish its entertainment value. It lands awkwardly between a serious SRPG-VN and a quirky Aiun-inspired harem anime a mere stone’s throw from its eroge origins, yes. But will that do anything to turn off its target demographic? Probably not. So while this review aims to be an impartial critique of a video game, Mask of Deception offers plenty of opportunities to reclaim bonus points with those it was made for in the first place (especially once it is able to be taken in beside Mask of Truth).
~ Final Score: 6/10 ~
Review copy provided by Atlus for Playstation 4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.