"Underneath its guise of political machinations, Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is a mirror depicting the ever-present shadows in society while also reflecting the societal masquerade that humanity subconsciously participates in."
Who doesn't love a good superhero story? For most, it's a source of hope and strength — even a beacon of salvation. In many ways, Masquerada: Songs and Shadows (MSS) is similar to the comics we've come to cherish throughout the years. It has its heroes seeking the truth and its martyrs being blinded by it. It's a place where ideas clash and swords slash. But, in other ways, it's also something much more. MSS is a world where art is the wellspring of magic. It's where dancing spews forth the elements and where music summons nature's aid, where paintings provide additional strength and where songs preserve our legacies. Yet, what undoubtedly makes MSS outstanding is its ability to weave a fantasy that extends its borders into the realm of reality.
Five years prior to the game's beginning, a civil war occurred in Ombre, a Venetian-inspired nation teeming with crime, corruption, and conspiracies. The catalyst causing it was the Mascherines — mysterious masks that bestow incredible power to the wearer. Those who possessed them (known as the Masquerada) unequivocally rose as Ombre's elite class while those who didn't (known as the Contadani) were left at the bottom of the barrel. Now, with the war down to its last embers, you follow the life of Cicero Gavar, a former Inspettore who's brought back from exile. Shortly after his return, he is tasked with investigating the disappearance of Razitof Azrus, a diplomat researching the origins of the Mascherines. As his investigation deepens, Cicero discovers that there is a new faction lurking in the shadows hoping to ignite the flames of a new war fueled by fanaticism.
One factor that makes MSS's plot remarkably gripping is how it sprinkles in underlying societal issues that are painstakingly parallel to our own modern society. While you navigate within Ombre's oppressive walls and meet its denizens, you'll observe firsthand the widening gap between the Masquerada and the Contadani. Another instance is the concept of the talios — individuals attracted to the same gender. As you may have surmised, these people are severely reprimanded and are forced to conceal this part of themselves or risk tarnishing the legacies left behind by their ancestors. Nuances like these, combined with a well-written, properly paced narrative that made it extremely difficult to put the game down, are why I still think about it days after completing it.
Even though Ombre is a representation of modern society, the writers also wanted to ensure that this game contained its own unique world. To accomplish this, they provide a codex that expands on MSS's lore. Although world building through written passages is common in video games, I will say this is one of the few games I've played that utilizes it effectively. This is because the entire codex is written from Cicero's perspective. So instead of hard facts, Cicero provides detailed accounts and vivid recollections that give a personal depth to the world and his character.
Unfortunately, the codex also exposes one of the game's biggest shortcomings — its extreme linearity. Throughout the entire game, you are forced to travel on a specific path. Exploration is confined to your current location, and once you move on to the next area, you are prohibited from going back. This was disappointing because I wanted to visit all of the places mentioned in the codex, especially when Cicero teases you with such enticing descriptions of them.
What more than compensates for this, however, is the organic relationship between the protagonists. All too often in video games, the main characters seem to become friends almost immediately. This is certainly not the case with MSS's colorful cast of characters. At the beginning, each of them is very distrusting toward one another with the conversations being short, awkward, and often strained. It isn't until revelations about their personal lives are revealed that their friendship finally begins to take form. This bona fide portrayal enhances the emotions during the sentimental moments and keeps the linear plot intriguing.
Besides this, I was also captivated at the characters' likeness to everyday human beings. When they are first introduced, each of the five protagonists are harboring secrets and struggling with some form of acceptance. Their thoughts, emotions, and conflicts were all things I found incredibly relatable — antagonist included. Speaking of antagonists, MSS characterizes the villain exceptionally well by allowing you to connect with the essence of their being. The antagonist is initially veiled to prevent you from having preconceived notions regarding their character. In doing so, you gain a better understanding of their actions. It also illustrates how the concept of good versus evil is far from being black and white.
MSS's skill system is surprisingly straightforward. Instead of leveling up, MSS utilizes a skill tree where you can allocate your acquired skill points to unlock certain skill sets. I will say that gathering skill points is both frustrating and tedious since they are awarded after specific battles, not every battle. After unlocking a skill, you can assign it to one of the four action buttons to use during battle. For the more experimental players, MSS also allows you to reset your skill point allocation at specified locations so you can try different skills (and see their wonderful animation sequences).
For those of you who value gameplay over exposition, this isn't the game for you. The combat system in MSS is simply a device that provides an intermission from its elaborate narrative. Most, if not all, of the battles in MSS are mandatory. Actual combat takes place on a set grid where free movement is allowed within the space. Pressing R2 allows you to set up an auto-attack function that automatically deals damage during set intervals. To make things a little more interactive, you can cast one of your elemental skills using its corresponding action button. In order to prevent button-mashing your way through each battle, each skill has its own specific cooldown time. Overall, I have mixed feelings regarding MSS's gameplay mechanics. I'm grateful that it wasn't overly complicated, but there were some instances where I felt that it was a bit pointless, especially when there were no spoils at the end.
Now comes my favorite part: the artwork. As mentioned earlier, art plays an important role in MSS's world, and it shows. The developers clearly wanted to emphasize this by providing such breathtaking hand-drawn environments and character models. I was also completely astounded by the artwork that's shown immediately after starting up the game, to the point where I forgave its rather long loading time. Nice call, Witching Hour Studios. The comic book style is also very fitting for the game's superhero-esque narrative. It ties everything together neatly and artistically.
The voice acting in MSS is of the highest caliber. However, with an all-star cast, this was to be expected. All of the voice actors' performances were nothing short of spectacular. They were not only able to perfectly capture the inner turmoil and personal growth of their respective characters, but also impart a feeling of authenticity behind each of them. Musically, Josh Whelchel's compositions complement the mystifying atmosphere in MSS. Several tracks like "A'syuri J'ayei" and "in the Cleaver" are mesmerizingly eerie, while other tracks like "a new Home" and "to Further Stillness" are more hopeful in nature. What's even more fascinating is how the lyrics in some of the songs come from a language specifically created for the game. Furthermore, to typify Ombre's Venetian roots, all the vocals are sung in an operatic manner, making it feel like MSS itself is one magnificent opera.
"Masquerada." A play-on-word for "mascherata" — the Italian word for masquerade. When we hear the word "masquerade," we usually think of a social gathering where people wear masks and other fancy attire. But this word is much more than a mere event. As a noun, a masquerade can also signify a false pretense or show. And as a verb, a person who masquerades is a person who pretends to be something they are not. With definitions like these, "masquerada" is a truly fitting title for this game. Underneath its guise of political machinations, Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is a mirror depicting the ever-present shadows in society while also reflecting the societal masquerade that humanity subconsciously participates in.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.