When I first saw Masquerada at PAX 2015, my curiosity was immediately piqued. As a former table top RPG player and game master, I could see the mind of one my own at work in the brief memo we played. But it was more than that that kept my interest. Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is an RPG with a combat system reminiscent to that of Baldur’s Gate. It has an art style that hearkens back to the French comics that are immensely popular in Latin America, and a setting based on Renaissance Italy, which is a fascinating time to set a game, and a time not usually explored by RPG’s. Thirteen months after we saw the preview build of the game, it has finally been released. I must confess it is not really what I expected, and not quite what is being sold. Never-the-less, it is still one of my favorite games of this year.
Masquerada puts you in the shoes of Cicero Gavar, a disgraced Inspecttore (a detective essentially) that has spent the last five years exiled from the city of Ombre. He has suddenly received a summons from the patriarch of the city, promising a large sum of money for coming back to the city and conducting an investigation on a disappeared scribe. Cicero is tasked with finding him, and also what he was looking into that caused his disappearance. Of course you don’t base your setting in the time and place where Nicolo Machiavelli and the Borgia family lived if you don’t want some diplomacy in your story. The plot is one of intrigue, betrayals, and uneasy alliances as the group tries to navigate its way through the politics of the city as they attempt to solve the crime. The plot is compelling, and has some serious consequences not only for those involved, but like a good RPG does, it will grow to encompass the whole city. This is supported by a great cast of characters who also have their own personal stories and hangups that are very well integrated into the story. These don’t feel like separate quests, but rather they come up due to the larger plot of the game and are resolved in the same way, often reincorporating into the stories in unexpected ways. It make the story flow better than the compartmentalized method employed by the quest systems in most RPG’s.
This all happens in a very well thought out and realized setting. Ombre is a city with a long and rich history. Of complicated factions and deep, social hierarchies, that are coming to a head as the game takes place. There is a civil war between the Masquerada, the ruling class that holds powers by using mascherines, masks that grant their wearers magical powers; and the Contadini, the people who do not have access to such power and live in poverty. But even between these factions there are divisions. The Masquerada are divided between a weak governing body and half a dozen guilds that mostly fight and argue with one another. The Contadini’s rebellion is pushed by the Maskrunners, illegal owners of Mascherines, who are in turn also divided in their own faction as of the death of their leader. There is a lot to unpack in the setting and these things weave in and out of the story in a way that truly feels as if you’ve stepped in the middle of ongoing processes in the game world, rather than a world that is standing still waiting for your actions.
The conflict at the center of Masquerada, the social stratification caused by the mascherines, serves also to set up the mechanics of the game. There are no real classes in the game. Rather all the power is derived from the mascherines, which are divided into the four elements: air, water, fire, and earth. Characters are divided into three general stances: Sicario, which is essentially a rogue; Pavisierre, the tank; and Dirge, which is a sort of fighter character used mostly for crowd control. Cicero, is a maestro, which means he can switch between the three stances. There is no equipment management and no levels, at least not in the traditional sense. You will get receive skill points that you can allocate to skills defined by what element the person wielding the mascherine controls. However you can only equip four skills for combat, and skill points are tightly controlled by the game’s pacing. It is in your best interest to focus on a narrow set of skills, and to bring those to the max, rather than to have a wide array. Luckily, the game does allow you to respec the characters, so if you do commit a mistake you will not need to restart the game.
There is no loot system and no currency in the game, so you will not need to spend five minutes after every encounter trying to decide what you are going to take in your inventory to sell later. Rather, you can find raw mascherines through the world, as well as ink and engravings to grant you additional bonuses. The raw mascherines won’t change the skills, rather they have powerful skills of their own that are activated as a meter fills. All this means that despite not really having the trappings of most RPG’s, there is still a reasonable degree of character customization in the game. This also is an incentive to explore the game world, which despite being relatively linear does have hidden crevices for those willing to look for them. Suffice to say that I did miss a couple of them during the game.
The combat itself will be familiar to anyone who played Black Isle’s RPG’s in the late 90’s, or even Pillars of Eternity. You have direct control over the three characters in your party. You pause the action with space, issue commands and un-pause it to see things play out. Masquerada’s default combat speed is fast, and things can get chaotic very fast. Since the game doles out skill points based on the plot, the developers had the opportunity to tightly control the challenge in the game, and it shows. Success in the battlefield depends on learning your skill, and carefully managing cool downs and positions. You will want to pause every few frames to make these changes, as getting cocky and trying to manage things real time is perhaps the most common way I died. Bosses can also be fairly creative, with some straight up fights against monsters, but also some of them which have very interesting mechanics. Without spoiling much, there are some bosses that require you to manage different things simultaneously, as well as bosses where you must also protect innocent bystanders. It is a great way to break the monotony of just fighting a big monster with lots of health and a hard punch, while making creative use of the creative combat system.
The game’s presentation is top notch. It uses this great art style that is reminiscent of French and Belgian comics, which are very popular in Europe, Latin America, and Asia, but didn’t really catch on in the United States. This makes for vibrant, and varied settings, and well animated characters. This includes monster designs, which draw from the elements of the environment in which the action is taking place. For example, an early dungeon of the game is a huge library, and so the monsters that you fight there are made up of books. That theme is kept through the game and it helps the setting feel real and grounded despite it being fantasy. The voice acting is top notch. Masquerada boasts a very talented cast with years of experience, and they have brought their best to the game, helping bring the excellent setting and story to life. It is this focus on great art direction and fantastic voice acting rather than fidelity and spectacle that will make Masquerada look just as good whether you play it tomorrow, or five years from the time this review was written.
Unfortunately this game did have some issues. Several times encountered voice lines that would not play, or play out of sync with the dialogue, which can be very jarring in a game with such a heavy focus on story. On other occasions I noticed that certain intended animations simply did not trigger. A moment loses gravitas when a character that is supposed to walk somewhere simply floats like a weird action figure being dragged by a toddler. Those are small nitpicks but I’ve unfortunately experienced some crashes as well. They only happened a handful of times in my 20 hours with the game, but they were always jarring and the game’s somewhat unforgiving checkpoint system meant significant loss of progress in some instances. The worst offense was a crash right after beating the last boss of the game. Few things can bring down the high of beating a truly challenging boss than having the game crash right after. None of these are deal breakers but their presence is a shame in such an otherwise highly polished title.
Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is a fantastic game for anyone looking for a great story, novel setting, and a challenging combat system. It took me just under twenty hours to beat, which at a price point of $25 is pretty good bang for your buck, especially considering these are twenty very high quality hours. All I would caution is that you don’t go in expecting choice and customization, because that is not what this game is about. I can understand why they would sell it that way. The word linear has a negative connotation these days, and its almost always used to highlight a negative in a game. But I think that when it is used correctly it can bring focus to a game’s narrative and pacing that you are just not able to produce in a more open game, and that is absolutely the case here. Do not let that stigmatized phrase dissuade you from purchasing Masquerada, though. It is a fantastic ride I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend.
This review was performed on code provided by the developer.