It’s not often I come across a game that leaves such a strong, lasting impression. A love letter to the Italian Renaissance, Masquerada: Songs and Shadows examines our need for social dissembling through a world plagued by an endless masquerade. Quite fitting, don’t you think? Keeping consistent with its Venetian motif, Masquerada is the first of its kind to present its tale as an imitative opera (albeit an unconventional one), and Josh Whelchel’s operatic arrangements are nothing short of sublime… for the most part.
Let me start this review with the soundtrack’s pièce de résistance — the Old Dimenticate lyrics. For those unaware, Whelchel constructed this language specifically for Masquerada to further characterize its universe, and the linguist in me is overwhelmingly intrigued by it. It’s designed with a vowel-dominant phonology to produce rich, melodic resonances that not only echo the voices of a lost civilization but maintain the operatic feel in each of the Old Dimenticate vocal excerpts. For those curious about the meaning behind the Old Dimenticate words, Whelchel provides a small libretto on his site which contains rough translations of several of the vocal passages, and I highly recommend taking a look at them. The translations themselves are pure poetry.
Of the vocal themes on the soundtrack, my two favorites are “the Eighth Canticle” and “Ouij’tre [the Singing Tree Remembers].” As the game’s overture, “the Eighth Canticle” prepares the audience for what is to come. Its mystifying blend of woodwinds and strings sets the tone for the opera while the Old Dimenticate vocals are replete with lyrical references to the game’s plot. But without a doubt, what makes this piece transcendent is Danielle Messina’s voice. Her bel canto lends an air of ethereality to the song and beautifully showcases the Old Dimenticate phonology. Needless to say, it’s aurally spellbinding. Thus, I’m a bit disappointed that Whelchel instead chose “Kak’yo [the Eternal Breath of Light]” as the soundtrack’s opener. Don’t get me wrong: this soothing duet between Ryan Connelly and Danielle Messina is every bit atmospheric — an ebb and flow of feelings and emotions. However, its crescendo-diminuendo phrasing isn’t nearly as impactful as the more constant vocal dynamics found in “the Eighth Canticle.”
“Ouij’tre [the Singing Tree Remembers],” on the other hand, is a solemn chorale with melodies and harmonies of haunting splendor. This piece embodies the cries of the forgotten and the unfulfilled wishes of the deceased. At first, each vocal type is vying to be heard, each singing distinct lyrics and drawing the listeners to them whenever they sing. After the soloist performs, however, they all sing in unison, amplifying the echoes of their cries and turning their wishes into one — a wish to be remembered. Add to this the fact that the word “dimenticate” in Italian translates to “you (all) forget,” and the feelings imparted by this track take on a more profound meaning. Major kudos to Isaac Selya and the Masquerada choir for delivering such a powerful and expressive performance.
Despite my awe for Whelchel’s neologistic skills, the real capstones of the soundtrack for me are the orchestral battle themes. They are all phenomenal, each one perfectly pulse-pounding. “Relentless” is one track that lives up to its name. As a boss theme, it wastes no time in expressing the urgency of the situation by blasting percussion strings in fortissimo the very moment you press play. The horns and woodwinds enter shortly after, and the whole piece immediately erupts into one melodious frenzy. “Mars de la Fey” is incredibly addictive and my personal standout track. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve replayed this piece while writing this review. Whelchel signals the start of the encounter with heavy percussion. The woodwinds in the foreground proceed with caution while the strings in the background are intentionally provoking. Once the refrain arrives, it’s an all-out clash between the woodwinds and strings — a fervent war dance with ferocious inevitability.
And then, of course, there are the English vocal tracks. Whereas the Old Dimenticate passages are immersive and instrumental to worldbuilding, the English tracks are disenchanting and ruin the immersion; hence, I consider them to be the lows of the album. Thankfully, there are only a few in the entire soundtrack, and they are used sparingly in the game. To be fair, as a stand-alone piece, “Broken Clay” is a lovely acoustic ballad written and composed by iNCH that ostensibly draws inspiration from folk music. iNCH’s silvery voice — which gives off strong Lucy Rose vibes — and the song’s plaintive instrumentals are extremely emotive, each note undeniably tugging at your heartstrings. Yet unfortunately, this song strikes a jarring note (pun intended) amidst an album filled with esoteric compositions. “Timeless Pursuit,” the other English track, is what truly mars the album for me. Simply put, I can’t stand it. It comes at you with pronounced gritty synths accompanied by a discordant vocal melody that both feel completely incongruous in a teeming musical cauldron of thrills and mystique. Oh, did I mention that this is the English counterpart of “the Eighth Canticle?” In all honesty, Amanda Appiarius’ hauntingly delicate voice is this piece’s only saving grace. Her voice rises above this industrial mixture and serves as an eerie counterpart to Danielle Messina’s euphonious singing.
Opera — an ensemble of revelations. Underneath its ostentatious facade lies an art form with a strong desire to emotionally express. And this is exactly what Whelchel’s arrangements do. This soundtrack proves that he is a fantastic musical landscaper. Each composition paints a revealing “soulscape,” a musical glimpse into the shadows concealed within. If Witching Hour Studios does intend to make a sequel to Masquerada: Songs and Shadows, I sincerely hope they bring Whelchel back as its composer. His music is the antithesis to this societal masquerade after all.