Even from sitting at the menu screen of Masquerada: Song and Shadow, you know you’re in for a rich experience. The operatic chanting beautifully accents the detailed hand drawn background. The level of artistic presentation continues throughout the 10-12 hour journey Masquerada takes you on, and is the highlight of the game. Witching Hour Studios, the developers, have crafted a consistent and detailed world brimming with lore and backstories. It can be disorienting at first, but through the course of the game you’ll grasp the depth and significance of events or characters. Gamers that want to go deeper can read up on the game’s extensive lore entries. The world building is pretty impressive and gives the player the impression that the world of Masquerada has existed long before the players was introduced to it. All the characters within the game are fully voiced with professional voice actors which definitely enhances the game as well.
The setting of Masquerada is described as Venetian which I would describe as a renaissance-esque Italy. Within Masquerada, magic is a normal everyday part of life. Individuals are able to wield magical powers due to masquerines they wear upon their faces. Despite masquerines being an important aspect of life, little is actually know about them. The privilege of having a masquerine is reserved for a the upper class. The upperclass, know as the Masquerada, hold positions of powers, which causes strife among the population that do no have masquerines. This rift has caused factions of the population to attempt to overthrow the ruling masquerada to give more freedoms to all. In addition to this, the masquerada are divided themselves, being composed of several different factions or “colors” that all seem to hate or distrust each other. This background of politics although complicated ties directly into many of the events throughout the story of Masquerada.
The main character is Cicero, who has a sordid history. Playing through the tutorial, you’ll discover his brother attempted to overthrow the masquerada, but failed, leading to his demise. Due to his brother’s involvement in rebellion, Cicero was exiled. Understandably, he is surprised to be pardoned of his exile and asked to return to his homeland. Upon returning, he learns his invitation is conditional to helping with an investigation of missing city official. The story of the games, is richly crafted and is full of twists and turns along the way. At times the journey feels like a slow burn, but I found the culmination of everything within the final chapter to be worth it. Similar to a good book, I couldn’t put Masquerada down as I neared the end.
I’ve spent a lot of time detailing the story and presentation of the game, but what about the gameplay? Oddly enough, I felt like the gameplay was the weakest aspect of Masquerada. The combat mechanics play similarly to Dragon Age: Origins. Players can pause and order members of their party around and then unpause to watch the fury. If players want to be more passive, they can assign AI behaviors to party members, and let them do their thing. However, combat quickly turns into micromanagement as your party members frequently do silly things once they finish your initial orders. There is no queuing of powers or actions other than the initial command. Micromanagement is complicated when combat becomes frenzied and foes and friends clump together. I found myself not able to tell members to attack, because a friendly covered the enemy resulting in me selecting the friendly unit. Other times, when telling a member to attack from behind, which grants significant attack bonuses, they would run to the side or even front of an enemy to start attacking. Difficult spikes and a poor checkpoint system can make combat frustrating. I fought most of the way through Act 1 before relinquishing and jumping down a difficulty to “story mode”. I found the game to be much more enjoyable once I did.
The split between story and gameplay is approximately 80/20. You’ll spend large chunks of times just watching events play out and listening to dialogue. Some chapters involved just walking around and talking to people. The game is also presented in a linear format, as well. Masquerada is not going to be for everyone. I admittedly, was disappointed with the gameplay, but found the story interesting enough to make it worth my time. It’s rare to see such production values in an indie title, and I applaud Witching Hour Studios for their attention to detail regarding the story and world building. Giving combat and gameplay the same level of detail could have made Masquerada something truly special. If you don’t mind micromanaging combat and love a good story, this is the game for you!
Masquerada: Songs and Shadow is available now on Steam