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Masquerada: Songs and Shadows Review – Venetian Voyeur

 

Love and passion are things that don’t come across as easy as you would think.

 

It’s easy to love a game, if you don’t think the faults matter. However, when you’re faced with marring issues that break flow and ruin immersion, but is so expertly made in a written way, what do you do? Fight through the mud to get to the golden meadows? I don’t know, but that is what Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is like. A testament to artistic competence and technical shortcomings.

 

This new release comes to us from Witching Hour Studios, a studio composed in Singapore, who must have some pretty varied workers as Masquerada charms at face value. Directed by Michael Csurics, the voice director behind Tacoma, Bioshock 2 and its expansion, the magnificent Minerva’s Den, the voice actors are also equally impressive. Boasting the talents of Matthew Mercer, Jennifer Hale, Dave Fennoy, Catherine Taber and Ashly Bur- Oh no.

 

 

Regardless, Masquerada has potential so lets begin. You play as Cicero Gavar, local womanizer and war criminal who returns to the land he fought in, as demanded by the local king or governor, I don’t think it’s explained, Avestus Aliarme. Cicero shows hate towards his “employers” as the war still rages on and this time, he now works for his former enemies.

 

For the most part, the war seems to focus on “Mascherines”, mystical masks that grant the wearer powers and abilities with their respective element, those being either Fire, Water, Earth or Wind. But for now, the elusive Maskrunners have been assassinating their strongest users, leading to a shortage of the Mascherines that sets tensions high for the cities highest figures.

 

Beyond that, there’s an entire conspiracy involving the politics of the guilds within this world. No one trusts anybody in this place, and shifty movements always illicit a response from somebody. From the beginning, you don’t know who to trust, and who to help, and that’s without Ciceros’ past coming back to haunt him. Instantly, it gives off vibes of Oblivion without the hill textures popping in.

 

 

You’d think with a sub-title like Songs and Shadows, music would be the gimmick to this Venetian pipe dream, and you’d be right. The areas and fights are uplifted with intense and/or sombre music that sets the tone for the game to come, and the world weaves music into its history, be it through the instrumental weapons the Masquerada boast, or the life that music gives. It’s all beautifully told but bloated in its delivery.

 

There is more to the story, but it’s hidden beneath hundreds, maybe thousands of dense logs and chronicles, all written in the eyes of Cicero. Backgrounds on characters, the world, towns, the mythical objects that lie herein, all of it is given lengthy essays on what they are and what they do. It’s admirable of Witching Hour to put this much pain-staking effort into creating the world, but this feels more like Witching Hour covering their tracks, in order to avoid no context.

 

Characters in the game will do this often, they’ll mention political figures and future gameplay elements that won’t be explained unless you find the correct conversation to trigger, or just wait until about 8 hours in when you’ll be given the opportunity. It’s expected for an RPG to do this, but for all this encouragement, the actual game of Masquerada is extremely linear, which is incredibly disappointing.

 

 

Witching Hour imply freedom, but that means they don’t tug on the chains for a while. Sidequests and other such nonsense, which is commonplace in nature, feel like they’ll be introduced but are tacked on into the story. Really, I think calling this a “tactical RPG” is stretching the definition of what an RPG is, with its only evidence existing in the mechanics that are simplified to such an insulting extent.

 

After a while, Cicero will be joined by companions, various element holders and lethal soldiers, who have to be managed in the most linear ways possible. They have 4-6 skills and you assign them those skills. That’s it. You can also manage how they behave in battles, from when they activate these skills, to who to activate them on. Again, it’s encouraging freedom of choice but it’s worthless in its endeavour.

 

Battles are automatically triggered whenever you meet enemies, and in order to fight, you hold the Right Trigger. I tell no lie, just hold it for a bit and you’re fine. You COULD use your skills in order to make it a tactical victory, but the controls are quite sticky and you don’t exactly know if you activated it or not, leading to an incredibly messy and unsatisfying win.

 

 

Masquerada boasts the “tactical pause”, which I demand be renamed to “The Standstill of Stupidity”. In the heat of the battle, you can command your companions to attack certain enemies, with Witching Hour assuming that you will be beaten by your foes due to an overflow of opponents, which happened twice on my Normal difficulty playthrough. I get WHERE the idea comes from but it simply doesn’t work that well, especially when the partner AI is competent and smart.

 

Cicero and enemies seem to take stabs and injuries like a champ; however, whereas everyone else on your adventure fall down within seconds, facing the same odds that you do. Meaning you have to kite your opponents to get a window of opportunity to revive them. It’s like a football match between a weightlifter and 10 Osteoporosis patients versus eleven weightlifters.

 

The progression of battle is just so confusing. I kept seeing a sublime RPG trying to escape the clutches of a stupid one, but it could never get out of it. After about 10 hours, the game does kick into a sense of rhythm and structure, but by then, the story is two-thirds over, it’s like an 400 metre sprint fused with a 100 metre hurdle. So, no, gameplay isn’t exactly Masqueradas strong point. Where its strength lies is in the world they have crafted through determination and skill, which Witching Hour have learnt in its employees prolific history.

 

 

The beauty and scope of the world of Masquerada, and what lies herein, is immense. Everyone is incredibly fleshed out, with no single character seeming two-dimensional, and that helps when you have voice actor talent behind it. Even Ashly Burch tries a different accent for once, and that’s incredible to see. There’s little glimpses of genius all throughout the narrative and it just gets better and better.

 

Ciceros’ interaction with his comrades is believable, their chemistry superb, and one of many high points is one of the characters revealed to be in a same-sex relationship. But it’s not a token moment put in there for some sort of political correctness. It’s merely stated and it’s a touching moment for them. A small scene that may go nowhere for the general plot, but it shows emotion and feeling in an otherwise dark game. And I commend Witching Hour infinitely for their decision.

 

The only small complaint, aside from the massive rage-inducing end which we’ll get to, that I have with the overall story is the amount of backlogs Witching Hour throw at you. Beyond the fact that there’s hundreds of pages of text and the characters and the universe, this all seems like a sequel to a game we never saw exist. It’s baffling and weird, especially since the dialogue assumes that even further, mentioning characters that get a quick point of reference and they’re never bought up again, like they were in a battle before.

 

 

Aside from that, It’s mostly great, with every interaction and debate is emotion and weight. From seething anger to setting remorse, it all ends in a flurry of feelings, and by the end, you want these people to stick together. Through thick and thin, Cicero and his ragtag group of fighters make this game a riveting experience. It’s just a pity that everything else in the game is at odds with one another, including the ending.

 

I won’t spoil it because I’m no sinner, but it’s an incredibly frustrating Deus Ex Machina pulled out of Witching Hours’ ass which was done because they wanted to keep the star power of the voice actors. I get that, but why? Other events in the game flat-out tell you that there WILL be a sequel and it sets up multiple possible protagonists, so why in Gods name couldn’t we have some sort of heroic sacrifice for a character we care about, more than a guy with a powerful voice but no realistic presence?

 

 

For a while, I thought this was going to be the Game of The Year for me. So, it’s strange, and ultimately depressing, for Masquerada to end like this, when it comes so close to utter brilliance. And in the end, I don’t know how to feel about it, despite its magnificence in areas. The world-building, life and style of the world is brilliant, lush and stunning in scale, but the gameplay, while serviceable, is consistently lifeless and inconsequential.

 

There is such an exceptional journey hidden underneath the mucky parts of the gameplay, one with fury, twists, turns and emotion. But as it stands, it’s like I’m trying to convince people that the ending of Mass Effect 3 didn’t need editing in any way. Masquerada is good but not great. Serviceable but not flawless. And that breaks my black heart.

 

Personally, I think it would’ve worked better in an interactive novel sort of game, like the Telltale games or something in that vein. The Wolf Among Us showed us how it has to be done, and Witching Hour merely had to trace the blueprint. Maybe for another time, another game. Masquerada is a good prototype, and if my theory of a series is correct, we could see a brilliant sequel in the future, one that stands with the greats.

 

 

 

Passionate despiser of Ubisoft, owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.
  Love and passion are things that don't come across as easy as you would think.   It's easy to love a game, if you don't think the faults matter. However, when you're faced with marring issues that break flow and ruin immersion, but is so expertly made in a written way, what do you do? Fight through the mud to get to the golden meadows? I don't know, but that is what Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is like. A testament to artistic competence and technical shortcomings.   This new release comes to us from Witching Hour Studios, a studio composed…

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Summary

A beautiful adventure with fleshed-out characters and stakes. It's a shame that the gameplay is inconsequential.

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