Monday, October 17, 2016

Masquerada: Songs and Shadows Review!

                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.)

+ Well written story
+ Loveable characters
+ Art style
+ Interesting yet confusing lore
+ Good voice acting
+ The soundtrack

- Linear
- Average graphics
- Undeveloped combat system
- Simplistic character progression
- Annoying party AI
- The checkpoints system
- Bugs


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