Masquerada: Songs and Shadows Review!

by on October 17, 2016

                Masquerada:
Songs and Shadows is another RPG delivered with the help of crowdfunding,
raising over 70,000 dollars through a Kickstarter campaign, a sum which proved
enough for Witching Hour Studios to finish this game.
                Masquerada
is set in a brand new Venetian inspired fantasy universe. The action takes
place in Citte de la Ombre, a city rich in music, free of religion but with a rather
dysfunctional society where the status of each individual is dictated by
Mascherines. Mascherines are magical masks with enigmatic origins which give
the wearer the power to bend the elements. Through events of the past, the
power of the masks has lead to a split in the society. Those legitimately
wearing the Mascherines are part of the Masquerada, the high society of Ombre divided
in multiple guilds which are in a constant political turmoil to the detriment
of the city and its people. Those who
don’t wear Mascherines are known as the Contadani, the common people striving
to survive in a city that isn’t so friendly to them and with a government that
doesn’t serve their best interests.
This long lasting schism between the city’s population has inevitably
lead to a civil war as the Contadani have been raised to battle against the
oppressing power of the government and the guilds in an attempt to acquire
Mascherines and equalize the score. The death of the main instigator doesn’t
put an end to this war as the rebels managed to acquire Mascherines for
themselves before their leader heroic death in battle.
This is not your typical black and white conflict.
                The
progatonist, Cicero Gavar, returns from exile five years after the main events
of the conflict in a city still tormented by war’s shadows. With the
disappearance of Regenti Razitof Azrus, a member of the city’s Registry, and
two Inspettores dead trying to find him, Cicero is reinstated in his rank as
Inspettore and he is appointed to continue this investigation. The war has cost
the city a great deal, not only in human life, but in Mascherines as these
magical masks mysteriously vanish when the wearer dies. Razitof was neck deep
in research trying to find the exact origins and the secret behind Mascherines
to give the city a way to produce more of these masks which are representative
for Ombre’s culture and military power. His actions have drawn the attention of some
powerful people and entities and following in Razitof’s footsteps Cicero will
have to deal with the same threats as the investigation takes him to the
shadows of Ombre and its dark secrets.
A hero troubled by the past…
                For an
RPG with an isometric perspective Masquerada has quite an unexpected
storytelling. The narrative is linear with no dialogue options or any choices
and consequences. It’s the kind of story you see through without any
interactive elements to spice it up. But despite the underwhelming narrative
style Masquerada’s storytelling is quite captivating for the most part.
                The
story is built around a massive lore codex which covers the history from times
before the birthing moment of the nation of Ombre until the present day. The
Codex acts like a journal of the protagonist providing information about
history, politics, other characters or his findings during the investigation as
well as his opinion on all these matters. The narrative does a great job at linking current
and past events with the codex entries expanding the storytelling from visual presentation
to detailed texts providing some extra information that were harder to fit into
the action. But even with all the effort put into the Codex to present the lore
as easy and well paced as possible, I still found it quite confusing to follow.
The amount of details and the non-familiar Italian names I kept forgetting made
me go back to the codex every time instead of continuing with my adventure.
Exerting power with style!
                One of
Masquerada’s redeemable qualities against its linearity and lack of
consequences to the player’s actions stands in the quality of the writing. The
dialogues don’t come with any options, but they sure are well written to make
you penalize the game less for this or even make you to forgive it all
together. Cicero is a charming protagonist with a sharp mind (maybe too sharp)
giving him an unfair power to attract on his side most of those who get in
contact with him for long enough. It helps that he is a character born of the
two worlds of Ombre, knowing the low life and the luxury of the high society,
which saves him from being an arrogant prick in a world of ignorance. Those
that follow Cicero in his dark and deadly investigation are quite the stereotypical
type, but the writing proves its redeemable qualities once again and while none
of these characters are that special I’ve grown to like and care for them.
She plays hard to get!
                Each
character has a past that heavily interferes with the present, stopping their
growth as human beings and their contact with Cicero will change that as it
will change the protagonist itself. By the end of the game a powerful bond has
already been formed between the party members and Cicero and I felt entrapped
in this strong friendship.
The Mariner is so easy to troll!
                As a
game with limited production value, Masquerada has an interesting way of
presenting the more crucial events in the story. The usual cutscenes are
replaced by 2D comic book like pages which keep changing to be relevant with
the action they present. It’s a rather unique exposition which I would have
really loved all the way if it wasn’t so intrusive, constantly interrupting the
action and dialogues in a forcibly way.
A feyplosion!
                Design
choices aside, the narrative of Masquerada is not devoid of problems, losing some
of its charm and originality to the point where it becomes silly. There is also
an implausible positive tone filled with hope and forgiveness which is
inconsistent with the situation at hand (like a typical shounen manga). But
what bothered me the most was the small role the relationship between Cicero
and his brother, the dead leader of the rebellion, played in the story.
                On an
overall note, the story of Masquerada: Songs and Shadows comes into a positive
light through good writing, lovely
characters and a captivating enough narrative that made me see it whole, which
is quite a plus for me because as of late I’ve been struggling to finish the
games I play.
He got the Mariner mad, now he’s in a world of hurt!
                As a
game inspired by Dragon Age: Origins and Transistor I was expecting from
Masquerada a good story as well as some competent gameplay and while the first
delivered the latter is a tormenting and unsatisfying experience.
                The
game starts in a brutally unfair fashion and not because the AI shows amazing
qualities. The enemies usually outnumber you badly and dealing with huge groups
is not an easy thing to do. Deaths happen often and the amount of
micromanagement required to get out of certain situations was at times insane.
It didn’t help that the game relies on checkpoints and every time my group died
required me to restart the area really putting my nerves to the test. I can’t
remember the last game where I had to grind my way through the same dialogue
scenes, fights and exploration over and over again because of a design choice
meant to make the player’s life hell for no reason. To make matters worse, bugs
are an ever present danger that could easily cause unavoidable deaths through
endless spawning enemies or taking damage while watching cutscenes. But then,
after a slight advancement in the story there is a drastic shift in difficulty and
the game goes from one extreme to the other. The type of fights that used to be
hard become a walk in the park and from a game filled with unfair challenges Masquerada
becomes challengeless. These types of issues stemming from untested content
really bother me as the gameplay enjoyment can be completely ruined which is
quite the case here.
The kite, die and repeat everything fight…
                I’m
quite a sucker for real time combat with pause in my isometric RPGs (Mask of
the Betrayer holds a special place in my critic heart), but even if Masquerada
is using this system I can’t say it was enjoyable. Surely it has its moments
born of the unfair battles of the early game and a few of the late game.
Moments that require some tactical prowess and micromanaging the hell out of
your party to win against the odds and the idiotic party AI that could ruin
everything in a matter of seconds by changing targets for no reason or by playing
dumb. But these moments can’t overshadow the combat system’s deficiencies.
Brace yourselves, no room for kiting!
                Masquerada
has managed to transform a combat system designed to be a real time tactical
delight in some sort of Hack & Slash. The action is paced beyond the
average player’s reaction time forcing a constant usage of the pause mechanic, turning
something that should offer respite in key moments of the battle into a spammy
necessity (I guess we are lucky that the difficulty dropped the ball). Ironically
enough, the game not only is incapable of capturing the tactical essence of the
chosen combat system leaning towards action, but it’s also not using the
elements that make H&S RPGs so attractive.
AoE spam!
                There
is no XP progression in this game. Skill points are given at fixed moments,
usually after finding story information or winning battles against special
enemies. The skill points are then used in a pretty linear and uninteresting abilities
system split between elements but restricted to the element chosen when picking
up Cicero’s Mascherine. The abilities unlocked usually have an identity fitting
for this universe, but suffer from uniqueness in mechanics being your usual
crowd control, AoE damage, taunting and summons. The threat system is present
to induce a sense of tactical control, but its necessity is questionable. Masquerada’s
character progression barely keeps its head above the water through the
management of elemental tags debuffs and a MoBA inspired ultimate which
requires resources charged by combat actions before unleashing devastating
effects.
                As if
the skimpy character progression wasn’t enough, the game has no itemization and
the only customization outside of the skill system comes from the inks,
engravements and the different masks found during exploration. New masks unlock
new ultimate abilities to use and the inks and engravements provide some buffs
on a proc basis. The overall character customization is simplistic and barely
provided any build choices to the point where I didn’t even care if my
characters had points left to invest, as the few abilities already unlocked
were enough to deal with any enemy type.
The linearity…
                As with
any other gameplay feature in the game, the exploration didn’t receive enough
attention either. Each level is comprised of multiple small maps tied through
loading screen that lead from one to the next with the rare option of going
back from where you came. The maps are enclosed and quite linear therefore the
exploration is restricted if not nonexistent. Each level usually has some
highlighted spots which provide Codex entries relevant to the area or customization
loot like inks, engravements or masks, but sometimes they can easily be missed.
I do understand that the levels were designed to serve the narrative of the
game. But the linearity is so excessive in every aspect and Masquerada really
needed to escape this grip.
Exploration at its best!!!
                Masquerada’s
gameplay is crippled in every aspect possible, I’m not sure what prompted these
weird design choices, but even the console influences couldn’t have done so
much harm (feels more like a tablet game at times).  The sense of progression is minimal and the
way the story and gameplay are wired together adds little to no incentive for
replayability.
                I can’t
get enough of 2D isometric RPGs, probably because there aren’t enough quality
2D isometric RPGs out there and this was one of the reasons I was excited about
Masquerada.  The combination of 2D
landscape and 3D characters is nothing new in games with an isometric camera
and when done right we get a beautiful end result like in Pillars of Eternity
where the blend is perfect. But such is not the case with this game.
                The 3D
characters and object models in Masquerada are well contoured but their quality
and shape stand out because of a 2D environment that is quite flat and doesn’t
scale well with changes in the camera’s distance. The difference in details is
so visible to the point where it becomes an annoying distraction instead of
inducing a state of immersivity as good graphics should do. There is also the
weird discrepancy of having some of the objects as 3D models while keeping the
rest as part of the 2D landscape which doesn’t bold well on the visuals and
make the navigation quite a drag. Despite these issues, I wouldn’t say
Masquerada is an ugly game. The art style is pretty interesting and the
colorful visuals do complement this unique world, but there is a lot of room
left for improvements.
Those boxes… No, wait! Those books…
Details are not always scarce.
                For an
indie game with a limited budget, Masquerada has pulled off some impressive
feats when it comes to sound, one of them is having fully voiced dialogues. But
fully voice acted indie games are nothing new, what’s actually even more
impressive is the high quality of the voice acting. Each character’s voice is
unique and it’s matching their personality bringing them closer to life.
                The
music doesn’t disappoint either, in fact I was quite sure about this from the
first moments spent in the game’s main menu. The soundtrack perfectly conveys the
atmosphere of the city constantly switching from the calm songs presenting the
tranquility of certain areas to an upbeat tempo capturing the turmoil of an
ongoing civil war that’s covering dark secrets.
The music can get slightly repetitive at times and it
doesn’t always transition properly from one song to another shattering the
immersive state it was creating. But the few flaws didn’t stop me from greatly
enjoying the audio part of this game.
Half mute, facing death and he can still crack a joke!
There is friendship…
…and loss.
                I dived
into Masquerada with the hope of finding a classic style RPG, but what I found
instead was more of an action game with a wider story. Even so, I loved the
characters with all their stereotypical personality, I liked the universe with
all its hard to remember Italian names, but I hated the gameplay for ruining
everything that was great in this game with its issues and simplicity.
                I can’t
recommend Masquerada: Songs and Shadows to the hardcore fans of the RPG genre.
The inexistent dialogue options or c&c, the clumsy combat system and the
limited character progression stop me from doing it. But if you want an action
packed adventure in a universe full of color, songs and political intrigue, you
might want to put on the mask of Cicero Gavar.
(This article is
based on a press copy of the game provided by the developer.)
Pros:
+ Well written story
+ Loveable characters
+ Art style
+ Interesting yet confusing lore
+ Good voice acting
+ The soundtrack
Cons:
– Linear
– Average graphics
– Undeveloped combat system
– Simplistic character progression
– Annoying party AI
– The checkpoints system
– Bugs
Nodrim