In a city struggling with the ever increasing gap between aristocracy and the proletariat, a hero rises using the power of the Mascherines, powerful Masque relics that hold immense power and fetch a high price on the market. As sword strikes sword in this Venetian fantasy world, Cicero Gavar will unravel the conspiracies that flow like water through the city of Ombre. This is the rich world of Masquerada: Songs and Shadows (developed by Witching Hour Studios and published by Ysbryd Games) and I had the pleasure of sitting down with one of the creative director, Ian Gregory.
Truly, Masquerada‘s world and presentation steal the show for this title. Immediately the hand-drawn backgrounds provide stunning detail and a perfect backdrop to the sort of cell-shaded characters at play. An epic score rings in the background, hitting the emotions of each scene perfectly. Characters speak naturally, showing off the talents of Felicia Day, Matt Mercer, Jennifer Hale, Dave Fennoy, and Ashly Burch, who is from Ysbryd Games and Witching Hour Studios. Yes, fans of tabletop gaming, and those associated with the hobby, will feel perfectly at home on the streets of Ombre, as it feels like its style sprung to life from the pages of the Player’s Handbook.
Voice acting in Masquerada is probably worth exploring all on its own. Most importantly, the game’s script was recorded in a group, so that the voice actors could play off of each other. This creates a more natural flow to the conversations that translates well in the game. I could tell just what the characters were feeling by the tone of their voice, all while the scripted flowed flawlessly. As someone who enjoys and creates fantasy writing myself, I can honestly say that the script is a highlight and could easily be turned into a solid novel. Sure, there are some new nouns to learn about, but this fantasy tale seems to focus more on the interactions between the characters, which is a more relatable approach for many players.
Another interesting feature about Masquerada‘s world is that it began as a homebrew Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Gregory actually put his players through many adventures in his world, slowly refining the details and features. At one point, I pointed out some of the finer details in a scene, like the glowing plants that clung to the side of the buildings. He then told me how Ombre is kept lit through these glowing plants, diving deeper into the whys and hows. This little aside was something I wasn’t expecting out of such a small thought of mine. It was astounding to see so much care put into the world building and it shows in the game.
Players will take control of their team of unlikely and flawed heroes, being able to pause at any point to issue orders during combat encounters. It feels like an easier to understand Dragon Age, as each character can be played as and directed. Selecting attacks with the face button and executing with the triggers feels like a modern approach, while ignoring the pause feature makes the game more akin to the action driven Diablo or calculated Baldur’s Gate, completely at the player’s leisure. There is also an elemental table at work, providing different effects on targets depending on the element of the attack and the element of the target. This allows one to do more than just extra damage, such as slowing the unit down to make them easier to manage.
Throughout my demo, I played around with using the pause feature and just going all in without it. Between the two, I prefer a mix, using the pause to take out targets that I knew I couldn’t easily dispatch or larger groups of foes. Controlling these actions felt natural on the PS4, so those worried about controls have nothing to fear if they’re looking to pick up the game on console.
I will admit that the build of the game I was playing had some pretty long load times that will hopefully be ironed out, something Gregory was well aware of and told me they were looking to fix soon. This load issue is not present on the PC version though, which is already available on Steam. The developer also told me that this is a shorter game than most, with most players being able to complete in under twenty hours. However, Gregory stressed that they aimed to make a well-balanced, more focused experience, rather than make it longer than it needed to be. Points that aren’t a problem for me, but other players may want to keep in mind. This isn’t the hundreds of hours from a huge RPG like Final Fantasy, no this is more condensed.
Considering all the playable characters, it seems like Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is worth a few playthroughs. When it comes to these story driven RPGs, I have a tendency to revisit them periodically to trek down my favorite moments or dig a little deeper for new items or to dissect the script. I do this constantly with the PSOne-era RPGs like Legend of Dragoon, Final Fantasy IX, or Final Fantasy Tactics. Sometimes the experience becomes timeless and I’m hoping that Masquerada will be one of those games. Gregory certainly hopes he has done just that, as he and his team have strived to make it applicable for years to come.
All in all, Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is a must play for RPG fans looking for a unique world with a clever battle system, stellar voice acting, and a story of intrigue and mystery. Those who play tabletop RPGs will want to check it out as well, mostly due to the game’s origins as a homebrew world. Personally, I hope to dive in to the full game soon; the demo left me wanting to play more.