Masquerada: Songs and Shadows came out on PC in 2016, and has recently just hit the PS4. It isn’t Witching Hour Studios’ first game, but it is their first non-mobile one – and it’s an impressive debut. With a well developed world, and a beautiful isometric design, there’s a lot about Masquerada to love.
Masquerada is best described as a tactical RPG. In combat you flick between characters to coordinate attacks. Think Dragon Age Inquisition, but with fewer dragons, more masks, and about the same amount of horrifying blood magic. Masquerada also gives you the option to freeze the battle as soon as it starts, to allow you to plan everything from the get go.
Combat is well thought out. A press of a face button to aim and a second press to launch your attack. This can be done both in and out of tactical mode, meaning you can launch powerful attacks on the fly if you want a more fluid combat experience – or if you’re just too lazy to pause the battle like me.
After you’ve picked your element (I was an Air Bender) you can level up several skills for Cicero and the rest of your party as you see fit. Air squirrel of doom is a legitimate choice, though it does have a fancy Italian name. Along with picking out your favourite skills, you can also pick up new masks which give you a new ultimate move. My favourite was “raging air horse stampede,” which also has a more appropriate Italian name. I just can’t remember it.
The one downside to combat is the frankly stupid AI companions. While you can set when a companion will use an ability, you have little control over their fighting. This means that when an enemy powers up a particularly aggressive move, your companions will stand in the middle of it without a care in the world – unless you want to switch over and micromanage them.
While Masquerada lives up to the tactical part in “tactical RPG” I find myself humming and hawing over if I consider it an RPG. The gameplay for Masquerada is painfully linear, as is the level design. There are no side quests, no exploration, no inventory, and no dialogue options. It leaves you feeling not only like there is a lack of depth, but that it's missing various features.
Dialogue options or not, Masquerada still offers one of the most unique stories I’ve seen in recent years. Firstly, the world is wonderfully made. Much of the lore is hidden away in codex and journal entries. If you want to learn everything about Masquerada, you’ll need to read. A lot. It’s filtered through Cicero’s view point too, which leaves you with entries full of personality and humour.
If you don’t want to read, that’s fine too, as quite a lot of the world is revealed though gameplay. Just expect to get confused with some of the terminology at the beginning. Much of the story is told through comic panel cutscenes. Like Borderlands or Don’t Starve, Masquerada has an art style that is different enough to stand out and really grab you. It’s a combination of hand drawn and digital art, embedded in a fantasy world.
The story is amazing. While you’ll mostly be running from point A to point B and fighting the odd baddie in-between, you’ll be hooked in a heartbeat – and for good reason. Death, betrayal, and courtly intrigue all leave you wondering how Cicero is meant to find a missing person. There are horrifying realisations and jaw-dropping plot twists that leave you on the edge of your seat. I’m not kidding about the jaw dropping either. It’s not often I’m genuinely surprised by a plot twist, but Masquerada has the characters to make it work.
The game is fully voice acted, though that was a surprise upon booting it up. There’s something about indie RPGs that make you feel like you’re going to be reading all the dialogue. Instead you have talent like Courtenay Taylor (Fallout 4), Matthew Mercer (Overwatch) and Jennifer Hale (pretty much every game ever). Not only are we given talented voice actors, but all recordings were done as an end-to-end ensemble project. No idea what that means? Well, neither did I! It’s awesome though. Instead of being locked in a lonely sound booth, all of the voice actors in a scene are in the room reading their lines together. It’s a massive undertaking, but it does mean that much of the dialogue comes across as more genuine and life like.
Fantastic voice acting is one of the many ways to create a great character. You play through the game as Cicero Gavar. He wasn’t my favourite, but he did grow on me with a combination of dry wit, and realistic character development. Cicero starts the game out brash and rather uncaring, trying to convince you that he’s only working for money. You quickly learn more about him, and his rather sympathetic story. Most of your party is the same, and watching them slowly start to trust Cicero is amazing to watch.
Masquerada has decent combat, painfully linear level design, and an amazing story with equally amazing characters. Come for the colourful art style, stay for the fantastic world building and plot twists.
Bronwyn received a digital copy of Masquerada: Songs and Shadows from the publisher for review.