October 4, 2016 5:03 AM | Thomas Faust
The RPG genre, often dragged down by the weight of its accumulated tropes and its lack of ambition when it comes to telling compelling new stories, is in need of some change now and again. Questing around in faux-medieval settings is perfectly fine, but the feeling of "been there, done that" sets in all too often long before your noble quest is over. If you feel the same way, Masquerada: Songs And Shadows, developed by Singaporean developer Witching Hour Studios, might come as a pleasant surprise indeed.
Masquerada takes place in the turmoil-ridden city of Ombre, where different factions compete for power using Mascherines - masks that grant their wielders the power to channel the elements and cast destructive magic. Not only is the city caught up in a class war between the mask-wielders and the lower classes, a bunch of renegades have gotten ahold of masks and are causing mischief. Ombre is one giant powder keg, and too many people are playing with matches.
And then there is also the mystery of the Mascherines themselves - where do they come from, and why is their supply dwindling? You play as Cicero Gavar, one of the finest investigators the city has in its ranks, returning from exile to solve the mysterious kidnapping of a friend. Of course there is a whole web of lies, treachery, and deceit waiting for you.
In terms of storytelling, Masquerada is a strange beast. It has some of the fullest, richest lore around, introducing its own terminology and expecting you to read up on it if you want to have any chance of following the plot. It is truly engaging and well-written, so I didn't particularly mind, but be aware that you'll spend quite some time staring at long log entries, which rip you right out of the action. Still, when the city's outlandish, vaguely Venetian charms shimmer through, you can see that a whole lot of care went into the world building.
On the other hand, the game almost completely cuts out the regular RPG fluff. I'm not sure if this is due to budget constraints or if it's a conscious design decision, but there is little small talk with NPCs, no inventory, no hotspots. Not including these elements makes the story feel ever more important, more epic, but painting in such broad strokes also risks underdeveloped characters. Thankfully, Masquerada masterfully avoids these narrative pitfalls. The game's cast consists of well-rounded characters and the story is fantastic. It might feel like a deviation from the genre norm at first, but you'll get used to the way Masquerada tells its story in no time.
The game is quite linear. Do not expect branching paths or any form of freedom in your actions. You closely follow the plot and fight whenever the game tells you to. Speaking of which: battles are fast and furious affairs, even though you can pause them at any time and give orders to your party members. If you don't pay attention, half of your party might end up on the floor unconscious before you know it. The fighting is fun, but it often feels chaotic beyond your control and there is an awful lot of micromanagement. However, if you just want to enjoy the story, there's an easier difficulty just for you.
Josh Whelchel's amazing soundtrack deserves special mention. It's lovely, with choirs and woodwinds, and all sorts of good things. I caught myself running the game in the background, just listening to the music. It's that good. This is complemented by great voice acting. Witching Hour Studios brought some voice acting heavyweights onboard, and it shows.
Anyway, what I'm trying to say here is: Masquerada is amazing. It conjures up a highly detailed new world to lose yourself in, introduces a great cast of characters, and wins you over with some astonishing production values. I first played a demo version more than a year ago, and the wait was absolutely worth it. The game is a triumph, both for Witching Hour Studios and their publisher. With this being Ysbryd Games' second release this year, I can hardly wait what they come up with next.