Review: Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth

This week, I return to the charming Ainu fantasy world of Utawarerumono for Mask of Truth, the follow-up to Mask of Deception, which I reviewed back in June. Have caution, as this review will contain spoilers from the previous title.

Foreword

This review is very late—partly because it’s the final game in my backlog and partly because I find it to be a matter of pride that I complete what I critique (over one-hundred hours of it, in this case). For this, I apologize.

There’s a previous title!

When I reviewed Mask of Deception, I gave a brief history of the series’ origins and advised that skipping the 2002 debut wouldn’t thoroughly undermine your experience. I can not advise that you begin with Truth, however. Even this review shouldn’t be read without its forebear, as Deception and Truth are two sides of the same coin with the latter serving as a grand finale reining in every stray plot thread from the trilogy at large.

This is your last chance to retreat into the previous review spoiler-free.

As a Visual Novel…

On a journey to the imperial capital of Yamato, our amnesic protagonist gained a new name, a cadre of noble misfits, allies (and adversaries) within the court, and answers regarding the fallen race of humanity—but just as swiftly had his fortunes turned. The nation’s divine leader was slain—his daughter and sole heir critically wounded. The masked general Oshtor had perished in combat to see the child princess spirited away to safety, entrusting Haku with the burdens of his identity and a destiny of which he’d fallen short.

Mechanics & Graphics & Art & Sound

I won’t waste time rehashing critiques shared in the previous review; Truth utilizes the same resources as Deception. Navigation involves the same UI and sound effects. Storytelling uses the same traditional 2D stills and beautiful, thoughtfully-designed artwork (but more of it). The player is still never asked for input aside from which room to visit first; there are still no plot branches. The English localization retains a full-bodied vocabulary and scant grammatical errors. Battle sequences are constructed with the same dated 3D models, menus, and cubic grid. The music is still pleasantly ordinary and still complements the narrative atmosphere perfectly (and despite some songs being carried over from Deception, I’m somehow still not tired of them).

The bottom line is that, while there are a few minor adjustments and improvements, overall it feels more like moving from Disc 1 to Disc 2 than from one installment to another. With that out of the way, let’s return from intermission and appraise the second act on its own merits.

Storytelling

Mask of Truth is karma for when I said,

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…)

Once again, I found myself at the fifty hour mark clawing my way out from under a climactic boss battle, this time relieved to find a satisfying conclusion where there had once been a cliffhanger. With naive confidence did I stride into the resolution ready to accept that—while some shadows still loomed on the horizon, while some mysteries yet endured, while some of the future remained uncertain—the worst was over and the world of Utawarerumono would find its course unseen on the other side of the credits. This was a mistaken impression.

For a further fifty hours did I raise my mountain…of the corpses of the enemies of Yamato, of salvaged and resolved plot threads, and of the answers to nigh every question raised in this trilogy. Atop this mountain did I find another narrative climax, another final boss, and against all odds another satisfying ending.

Mask of Truth rakes up roughly one hundred hours of content by refusing to sacrifice an iota of Deception’s vibrant detail or frivolous dalliances as it sets about delivering every ounce of closure one might claim they were denied from the entire franchise. And yet—almost as if accepting a challenge—it does this while avoiding many of Deception’s missteps.

Scenes lacking meaningful narrative progression continue to pile up, but this time so too does an accumulation of character enrichment. Our cast might not be particularly deep, but I felt like I knew better where they were coming from and what made them tick. The effect is cumulative, making time spent on distractionary whimsy feel more like it belongs, especially as relief between scenes focused on the war for the heart of an empire and the complexities of friendship and duty.

It’s still a hodgepodge of tropes and genre-blur, from betting undergarments on card games to burning soldiers alive, from comical misunderstandings to heart-wrenching loss, and it’s still amusing—but there’s more of a sense of purpose to it all.

As a Tactical Role-Playing Game…

The simplicity and infrequency of battle in Mask of Deception made it feel like an afterthought—something to break up the text and stave off drowsiness—and yet it was just engaging enough that the scarcity became a fault. While the battle system itself remains largely unchanged, efforts have been made to redress the deficiencies. Mask of Truth is just as generous with experience and second-chances, but battles are more frequent (26 story battlefields, 20 post-game challenges), better paced, and require more analysis.

Mask of Truth still won’t rival the complexity or challenge of a full-time SRPG, but I did find myself making more use of the Rewind feature and attempting to control the flow of battle from farther out. The addition of a series of tutorial trials that explain the nuances of the system and the unique aspects of each character also ensured that I was making the most of my options in a way that I didn’t (and didn’t need to) last time around. The skirmish mode—randomly dividing the party into two opposing teams—also offered a more stimulating source of experience than replaying earlier stages when units were not up to a new challenge.

The most meaningful change comes in the form of co-op attacks. Strategically aligning multiple characters on the battlefield allows inactive units to apply bonus damage to an active unit’s turn. Manipulating when those characters enter and exit Overzeal mode also allows characters with relationships in the story to launch into co-op finishers together, dealing massive damage and thus offering much greater incentive to be cunning.

The Verdict

Unsurprisingly, one’s evaluation of Mask of Truth will likely parallel how they felt about Mask of Deception; they’re two halves of one whole. As it will not be driving away or winning over anyone with a passionate opinion, the crux of its critique should primarily advise those ambivalent about continuing beyond the original 50-hour investment.

Truth remains unapologetically prone to digression and distraction, but avoids diluting the plot or ignoring character enrichment to the degree that Deception did taken on its own. The SRPG elements remain simplistic and engaging, but are utilized more often and to greater effect. In both respects, relatively small refinements fortify the overall experience and bring out more of its potential.

Trudging towards the hundredth hour, my resolve to exalt Mask of Truth for sustaining Utawarerumono’s charm while buttressing its weaknesses began to waver. So far from the core scenario did it wander (tying off the franchise’s loose ends and tidying up its unanswered questions) that it began to feel like the conclusion of Deception stumbled awkwardly into a separate, equally-dense conclusion of Utawarerumono at large. Yet on the other side of a tranquil screen branded “FIN” I find that I cannot in good conscience condemn it for doing everything in its power to conclude on the right notes. A story hinges on a satisfying ending.

So I say with no reservations—and the aforementioned caveats—that for better or worse Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth is unabashedly the game it wants to be, and the game its fans will enjoy.


~ Final Score: 8/10 ~


Atlus provided us with a copy of this game on the PlayStation 4 for review purposes.