The Need to Interact
Video games have never really been known as a story-telling medium…but that doesn’t stop writers from trying. We have gotten some truly excellent stories in the game format. However, there is one tiny snag that writers may hit when attempting to develop a story-forward game: the need (or desire) for gameplay.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before: the obviously defining aspect of the gaming medium is in its interactivity. Gamers expect to actually do something when playing a game. Sure, you have adventure games and visual novels that manage to get away with minimal gameplay, but for the vast majority, it’s expected that some kind of actual gameplay will be included in a game.
Some games manage to pull off this “obligatory gameplay” beautifully, giving the player something to do in between the story beats the writer really wants to tell. An easy example, in my opinion, is the Metal Gear Solid series – having a huge focus on its story, but just as much care given to its gameplay aspects.
Then you have the games where the gameplay feels like an afterthought. I don’t stumble across these often, but they exist; games that have a ton of attention put into their story, but the interactive portion is greatly lacking.
Developed by Witching Hour Studios and published by Ysbryd Games, Masquerada: Songs and Shadows has been available on PC since September 2016. The game has recently received a PS4 port, released on August 8th, 2017, with an XBox One version coming on August 23rd. The PS4 version was played for this review.
Learning a Dictionary
Masquerada follows the story of Cicero Gavar, a former “Inspettore” for the “Citte” of Ombre. Having been banished for a few years following some event in his past, he is called back to investigate the sudden disappearance of his old friend and government researcher. Along the way, Cicero becomes involved in the mystery of the “Mascherines,” masks that give their wearers elemental powers.
That was an incredibly short and basic rundown of the story included here. Masquerada goes to great lengths to build and flesh out its world and, to a certain point, it succeeds. The city of Ombre and its various factions are often explored in great detail. The main plot itself, while a slow burn, is still filled with plenty of intrigue.
However, it’s the way that the actual dialogue and exposition is delivered that can make this game very difficult to follow. As you may have gleaned from the synopsis I gave, Masquerada absolutely loves to use invented in-game jargon. Inspettore, Mascherines, Varrone, White Spire, Contadani, Citte, so on and so on and so on.
I wouldn’t take much issue with this if the game would just define its terms. Half the time, though, you’ll run across some new word in the middle of conversation, and you’ll be stuck using context clues to figure out what is even being said. Even once I figured out what most of the words meant, I’d still often get words and definitions confused…and God help me if multiple terms showed up in the same sentence.
To be fair, the game does include a codex that keeps track of info for some terms, along with characters and locations. These codex entries are often incredibly in depth and there are a lot of them, making keeping up with new or updated entries exhausting.
While Masquerada‘s plot is often so in depth to the point of confusion, its gameplay ends up being just the opposite. At its base, the game is an action-RPG with a pausing mechanic to prepare certain tactics. In a way, it reminds me of Dragon Age: Origins at its most basic.
You’re able to directly control one member of your three-person party at a time, with an auto-attack mapped to the right trigger and various special attacks mapped to face buttons. You can switch to controlling another character at any time, which you’ll have to do often, as your AI companions are more than happy to take a fireball to the face rather than get out of the way.
The basic gameplay is fun in smaller battles. I had a good time pausing to set up powerful combos, then moving into live control to make smaller adjustments. In larger fights, though, things quickly become chaotic. It’s easy to lose track of your party on the field in these battles, and as I mentioned before, your AI partners seem to yearn for the sweet release of death, forcing you to rapidly jump between characters to keep them all alive.
Being an RPG, there’s certain mechanics you’d expect to come with the territory. Levels, experience points, weapons and equipment, healing items, etc. Prepare to have your expectations shattered: Masquerada does not include any of that.
The only real customization options you have for your party are the various skills you can learn. You do earn a few skill points after certain battles, which you can spend to learn and improve these special attacks, but that’s about it. No weapons, no items, and no noticeable stat improvements as you play. In effect, battles just come down to how well you can spam your strongest skills.
Outside of battle, you really don’t do anything. Truly, that is not an exaggeration. The bulk of the game is navigating Cicero between colored dots on various maps that can do one of three things: move you to another map, add an entry to your codex, or start a conversation. Masquerada is also extremely linear, shuffling you from point A to point B with nearly no option for exploration.
Really, to refer back to the introduction, I have to wonder why the developers even chose to include gameplay mechanics at all. The amount of depth put in to the story could’ve easily shone better in an adventure game or visual novel – shoehorning it into a shallow RPG just ends up hurting both story and gameplay.
The Color of Politics
Masquerada‘s graphical style provides an interesting contrast to the feel of its story. Up against a rather serious and often political plot, the game is painted in bright colors and designed in an almost cartoon-like style. I do have to praise the color palette – too often do games with serious atmospheres end up with dull and dark designs.
The environments offer a nice amount of detail as well…although the same can’t be said for the character sprites, which ends up working against the game’s favor in the gameplay department. While the full-size models of the characters are attractively and distinctly designed, the isometric view of them on the battlefield causes them to become small and often indistinct, making it easy to lose track of who is who in larger battles.
Most of the game’s cutscenes and story moments are handled as talking heads displayed at the top of the screen, which animate to (kind of) follow the motions of their sprites on the field map. I do like how said heads are fully animated, rather than static or just lipflapped (or having the weird breathing animations many JRPGs seem to include nowadays), but the animations can be a bit jerky when the sprite on the field makes a more dramatic motion. There are occasional graphic novel-style cutscenes, with comic panels layering themselves on top of each other to follow the story. I can’t say I was as much a fan of these, due to the lack of detail outside of the character models.
The soundtrack of Masquerada is extremely understated, featuring orchestral tracks that sound like they were recorded in small ensembles. The songs are composed well, and sound like music I could see a live orchestra performing, but often sound like they’re hollow…like they’re missing an underlying track. They’re like movements in a symphony that never reaches its climax.
One of the massive talking points from the publisher of this game was its voice cast, featuring performers like Matt Mercer and Jessica Hale. To their credit, promoting this aspect was a good choice – the voice acting is easily one of the highlights of the game. Using all of the unique jargon in this game in a natural way is already impressive, and the performers strike the oft subdued and political tones excellently.
Rework Your Priorities
Overall, Masquerada: Songs and Shadows feels like it’s aspiring to be something it shouldn’t, and repeatedly stumbles due to it. The incredible detail put into the world building and characters gets forced aside to shove in combat mechanics that feel half-baked and chaotic, and “exploration” moments that are wholly unnecessary.
As I mentioned, this game probably would have been much stronger as an adventure game or visual novel. Excise the combat and the codex, and you’d have a solid narrative-driven game. The shear amount of new vocabulary the game throws at you would’ve been a much smaller complaint if text and story were the only things I had to focus on.
If you can fumble your way through the gameplay, you’ll find a unique and intriguing story buried beneath it. With everything you have to put up with to get to it, though, I’m not really sure it’s worth the effort.
~ Final Score: 5/10 ~
Review copy provided by Ysbird Games for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.