In the turmoil-ridden Citte Della Ombre, religion holds no sway. Only the songs sung of one’s deeds will carry an Ombrian’s legacy beyond death. Those who hold even the smallest morsel of power will make every effort to ensure their songs live on. Enter the Mascherines – masks from an ancient time that allow its wielders to channel the elements into destructive magic.
Welcome to the world of Masquerada: Songs and Shadows, a pause for tactical RPG that has been developed by Witching Hour Studios who worked on titles such as Ravenmark: Scourge of Estellion.
What makes Masquerada unique?
To a lot of other games on the market is that it started life as a Kickstarter project which at the time of writing this review has been backed by 2,112 backers, who raised a total of £60,162 ( which is £15,00 over the projects goal) to help bring the game to life. With this support, Witching Hour Studios were able to meet their goals of creating more content for Maquerada as well as adding a New Game + mode once the story had been completed.
Masquerada features stunning, colourful scenery which is based on Venetian textures and styles. This level of detail really shows how much time has gone into developing the world of Citte della Ombre.
The art style of Masquerada reminded me of the Banner Saga games which also has a unique hand drawn art style that has been rarely seen during this current console generation. When looking at the art style of the game overall, the well-designed scenery along with the characters also creates experiences that make everything feel unique.
The character design within the game has been tied very closely to the art direction, the games protagonist, Cicero Gavar, fits the outcast styling that the game depicts him to have. Other companions within the game compliment their backstories through character art design as well, most breaking the chains of typical class based character designs in RPG and JRPG titles. Each character is equipped with their own masks which are based on Venetian styled masks; these in turn are unique between the characters and are of different designs to each other.
This brings me on to the story of Masquerada. As a narrative Masquerada is wonderful its lore filled world really does make you want to dig deep and invest in what there is to offer. The main narrative is as follows: The Masquerada the citte’s aristocrats have harnessed and horded the magic power of the ancient Macherines to oppress the Contadani, the ones who have nothing. Those Contadani who wish for more have decided to fight back against the Masquerada by stealing the Macherines for their own fight and to aid their rebel movement that are known to the Masquerada as Maskrunners. With the civil war raging Citte della Ombre finds it’s self divided by songs and shadows.
Masquerada features a prologue story which also serves as the games tutorial. Without going into spoilers this introduces the player to the opening act of the war and shows the ideas that fuel those who fight. Once this has been completed, players will find themselves in the boots of Cicero Gavar, an expert investigator who had previously been labelled an outcast for crimes against Citte della Ombre. Cicero is summoned back to Ombre to solve the kidnapping of the diplomat Razitof Azrus, whose wake has left a trail of death throughout Ombre. As other members of the Masquerda join Cicero each brings their own level of mistrust in intrigue into the happenings of the culture of mistrust that is the world that they inhabit with the deeper conspiracy looming over the world.
The story is told through gorgeous looking cut scenes which feature a comic book style cell scene (which really show of just how good the art work is) as well as in game dialogue between the characters. Each character is fully voiced and Masquerada features the vocal talents of: Matthew Mercer, Jennifer Hale, Ashley Burch and Felicia Day. Having a full vocal cast really works wonders with moving the story along and really gives the characters their own personalities as well as breathing life into the already vivid world.
Players navigate the games many maps via waypoints. These waypoints will always show where the player’s destination is whether this being an NPC, interactive object or the maps exit point. The only downside to the world map that I found is that with the transition to a new area the game has to load, granted this only takes about six seconds, it’s an inconvenience that could turn some gamers away. The maps themselves are not that big and Players are unable to interact with a lot of the townsfolk. For example, at the start of the game I found myself in a busy port filled with shops and stalls, it would of been nice to explore more and enter some of the buildings. This is probably Masquerada’s big difference over other RPGs, there is no loot to collect or side quests to complete, however with Masquerada already being very story driven, then including these style of side quests could of diverted players from their goal and to loose sight of the overall narrative. Players are however encouraged to explore via unlockable content which is in the form of backstory to the world. These unlockables will then be viewable as in game journals so players will always have access to this information.
The control scheme is very basic with attacks and abilities mapped to the ABXY buttons as well as RT which is used for an auto attack. Players also get full control over their party members during fights. This is where the pause option comes into play. Players are able to pause and manipulate the camera during combat to assign targets or other commands to their party members. Although the AI does very well on its own it is nice to be able to quickly change tactics and move the battle in a different direction. Cicero and his party have quite a lot of skills at their disposal with their powers taking the form of the elements, Earth, Fire, Water and Life. Although each party member has their chosen element, players are able to tailor Cicero to their own needs, weather this being a DPS fire role or a more control role using Water or Earth.
As players fight they unlock skill points which are used to unlock new abilities for their party members as I mentioned earlier the player has full control over what abilities to unlock and their is no auto upgrade for this process. These skill modifiers enable more variations on the battlefield infusing an ability with the selected skill modifier. I was able to change abilities effects so when I used it Cicero would teleport to a new location and then freeze the enemies close to his original location.
Players are also able to dictate how and when a party member will use their abilities so for people like myself who like to control one character are able to set the team behaviour up before the combat starts. For example I had one party member using their water abilities to slow down the enemy with the most health whilst another would target enemies with low health whilst I went gunho on everyone. It really boils down to what works for you and how you want to play the game. This is what Masquerada does well, It let’s you decide how tactically you want to perform in every fight and gives you the tools to achieve this. Cicero is also able to change his combat stance on the fly which although party members are locking to a pre determined stance, the player themselves are able to adapt if a particular way is not going to well.
Players are also able to take advantage of synergies between the characters magic via an Elemental Tag System. This is achieved by casting particular elements in succession, players can leverage element based effects for crowd control such as blinding smog or debilitating steam. Going further what this means is an enemy tagged with an earth element can also be attacked with a water spell to ensnare them in a debilitating mud slide.
Positioning on the battlefield also has great importance as every character have armour (physical or magic) which must be dealt with before you can start to damage health. With flank attacks armour is only able to withstand half the damage dealt to the target and attacking the rear does full damage. With tougher enemies positioning yourself well will really give you the advantage; however this also works both ways so bad positioning could also see your target get the advantage.
On summing up my experiences with Masquerada: Songs and Shadows, I found the game to be a highly enjoyable RPG. Although relatively short on running time compared to other RPG s on the market (20 hours), there is a lot packed into this short time. With an in depth world filled with gorgeous visuals and fully fleshed out characters it’s a welcome distraction to the linear gameplay that makes up Masquerada. If you are a fan of games such as The Witcher or Elder Scrolls series then you won’t find any new ground broken here. However if you like your games with a good story, in depth characters and a beautiful artwork then Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is a game for you.
What do you think? Are RPGs now putting too much focus on open world or are the linear role playing games of old due a renaissance?