I’d actually been eagerly anticipating Masquerada: Songs and Shadows for quite some time after trying it out at EGX back in 2015. Back then it was an incredibly stunning RPG that offered some enjoyable old-school action, but now that I’ve finally got to play the full release I’ve been left a little disappointed. Not because the game is bad, because it’s certainly not; it’s just a little underwhelming compared to the initial high opinion I had those two years ago.
Masquerada: Songs and Shadows tells the story of Cicero, a previously exiled man who returns to the city of Ombre to investigate the mysterious kidnapping of a diplomat. Of course it’s never that simple, and it’s not too long before Cicero finds himself embroiled in a war between classes, with the strange ‘Mascherines’ one of the causes behind it. Thus, you end up on a perilous adventure with a Venetian twist as you look to uncover the mysteries of Masquerada: Songs and Shadows’ masked world.
I’m probably selling the whole tale a little short there, but let me just say that I loved the game’s narrative. It felt incredibly unique and the use of masks was particularly intriguing – don’t get me wrong, it could be a little over convoluted at times, but it still entertained. Those who like thoroughness in their games’ stories will be in heaven though; Masquerada: Songs and Shadows goes into so much depth with its world and its history. You’ll spend a ton of your time reading, but you won’t be able to help but be impressed with the amount of depth that’s on offer.
One of the obvious things that you’ll appreciate about Masquerada: Songs and Shadows from the get go is its fantastic presentation. The visuals are simply stunning, with the colourful isometric world brought to life with some finely crafted environments and character design. There’s so much colour and personality on show that I couldn’t help but to be in awe of it all; I loved exploring every nook and cranny of the vibrant world and became even more impressed as I uncovered more of it.
The combat of Masquerada: Songs and Shadows plays in a similar vein to that found in Dragon Age, with a few elements of Baldurs Gate thrown in for those who are more familiar with an old school RPG adventure. It mixes up quick paced action with momentary tactical thought, with the player able to pause the game whenever they please to assign actions to both your main character and supporting team mates. It’s during these pause breaks that you’ve got the full freedom of every playable character on the battlefield, with the AI typically controlling them when battles are in free flow. You can set each character up to offer something different too; you could play them to their strengths or alternatively set them up for your play style.
Taking control of your team mates is actually vital, with the game’s AI proving to be a bit of a mixed bag. When in free combat you’ll only control the main character, meaning the actions of your team mates is out of your hands. Typically, they’ll provide decent support, though there were times when they could be a bit all over the place. They might be on the wrong end of the battlefield or alternatively leave themselves open to enemy attacks (the range of attacks are often clear to see, giving you the chance to avoid them). Other times they just won’t perform the actions you’d expect them to. You can customise them a little to try and configure a routine for them that suits you, but it’s imperfect. It’s not always a practical solution, but sometimes it’s just easier to pause the action and take control yourself.
The only problem is that it breaks the action up a lot. Titles like Dragon Age had AI allies that were competent enough that you only had to pause the action and utilise proper tactical thought during the more intense battles; Masquerada: Songs and Shadows on the other hand makes it a very common occurrence. It slows everything down, with battles that could focus on quick paced action being throttled with a slower, strategic approach. It just made some battles feel sluggish, which is a shame because when everything comes together properly they could make for some really entertaining action-packed affairs.
Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is also incredibly linear, which feels a little unconventional given its RPG status. There are no extra side endeavours to complete, hidden collectibles, or special quests – you simply follow a path from start to end and see everything the game has got to offer along the way. It’s an odd design choice for a game of this nature and I’m sure it’ll be polarising for players; on one hand it’s nice to have something straightforward where you can enjoy seeing the whole narrative unfold, whilst on the other there might not be enough diversity on offer to keep you hooked in until the very end. Either way, it’s a bold move, especially with so many huge fleshed out games readily available in the genre right now.
It could make combat feel a little shallow in some ways though, with almost no instances of battles in-game feeling optional. RPGs typically offer the freedom to explore and strengthen up your team, but in Masquerada: Songs and Shadows you’ll just come up against enemies that the game has set out for you at that particular time, meaning you’ll always have a balanced team that’s capable of beating your foe. Whilst later enemies do require a bit more attention, it never pushes you too much or demand you divert from your main task to bulk up your team.
That being said, there isn’t a whole lot for you to do as far as levelling up goes anyway, with each character armed with simple upgradable skill sets that’ll slowly improve as you work through the game anyway. You don’t really get to customise Cicero’s personality either, with almost no real choices to make as far as conversations go. You’re literally following a set path both in the narrative and within the gameplay. Maybe I’ve been a bit spoilt by the freedom offered by other RPGs, or maybe Masquerada: Songs and Shadows really is just severely lacking in depth.
Whilst Masquerada: Songs and Shadows deserves a lot of credit for its thorough narrative and fantastic aesthetic, its underwhelming gameplay leaves a lot to be desired. It’s lacking the depth that players have come to expect from RPGs, with the linear path of progression and lack of side objectives leaving the roughly twelve hour experience feeling a little dull. Don’t get me wrong, I was never particularly bored, but I was never thrilled either.
As a narrative experience alone Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is superb, but as an actual RPG it’s a little lacklustre compared to the other more superior titles available right now. It’s definitely an intriguing game and die hard RPG fans may find something they enjoy, but there are simply too many better options available to really recommend it.
Developer: Witching Hour Studios
Publisher: Ysbryd Games
Release Date: 08/08/2017
Format(s): Playstation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC, Mac