Masquerada: Songs and Shadows Impressions—Almost Pitch Perfect
Story dense renaissance RPG that dances to the beat of its own drum.
Game: Masquerada: Songs and Shadows
Developer: Witching Hour Studios
Publisher: Ysbyrd Games
What sets Masquerada: Songs and Shadows apart from so many other games of its ilk is its complete embrace of Italian renaissance culture, art, and language. It’s an RPG, but it’s lore heavy and battle-lite. It ropes players in with tactical, elementally layered action, but sneaks in chorally dramatic verses, and its fully voiced, beautifully animated cartoon sequences demonstrate extraordinary levels of production and passion. A tale of three factions, Masquerada centres around the fictional country of Ombre (not the hairstyle) where magic, history and shadows colour everyday existence: the Contadani, Masquerada and anarchist Maskrunners comprise the different factions, the latter two being the only ones who possess ‘mascherines’—flowery, Venetian style masks that confer their user magical powers. If Shakespeare was still alive, he’d be thrilled.
You play as Cicero Gavar, a disgraced inspector who was exiled from his city (Corvo Attano vibes, anyone?) and is suddenly called upon to resolve the mysterious disappearance of academic Razitov Azrus. For those who are fond of history, well-written fantasy, or simply feel like they were born in the wrong century, Masquerada fits the bill. Difficulty levels aside, it’s less about ‘levelling’ and more about absorbing conversational nuances between characters, keeping up with journal entries on history, magic, and locations, and solving the case of the missing Razitov. Sometimes, despite the NPCs going about their daily routines, the environments feel feel constricted and empty; the story still has weight and intrigue, of course, but it takes a while to really kick in, and I feel like more peripheral narrative is needed to distract from the linearity.
As an artist myself, I’m quite fond of the visual style used in Masquerada, which readily emulates the feeling of walking through the Sistine Chapel. The beautiful renaissance paintings and frescoes that no doubt cling to the ceiling communicate the admiration Witching Hour Studios has for fine art, and this is evident in the character art and animation, too. On rare occasion, the visuals glitched out, so the backgrounds became fuzzy grey television static, but fortunately the game didn’t crash. The lovely symphonies and dark, pensive, expressive choir music create the illusion you’ve time-warped back to The Merchant of Venice, or perhaps a Greek drama, where oracles carved out your destiny, and it’s just so refreshingly different compared to the typical high fantasy RPG formula.
As for the action department, combat tends to be a slightly repetitive, colourful flurry of fast paced spells and sword-fighting. Nevertheless, it’s still fun. It’s mostly a fun click-fest, and sometimes the isometric angle causes confusion and blocks your ability to attack (as do other characters who obscure your vision) so you end up randomly dashing instead, but it’s not a pressing issue. The tutorial format is clear, precise, and explains the skill trees, which feature both standard passive attacks and signature moves. Naturally, these skills are unlocked with points you earn after defeating more demanding mini bosses.
There’s a diverse range of modifiers like boosting attack speed, shortening skill cooldown and reducing total damage, so the incentive to train and upgrade skills is strong, and not just for Cicero. Although Masquerada is a singleplayer venture, new characters (or allies) join your party and need to have their skill points properly distributed so they can aid you in subsequent battles. Interestingly, there’s an option to deactivate AI assistance if you’re after more hardcore RPG battles, but I found the difficulty was very evenly balanced on normal mode, and reviving fallen allies whilst dodging attacks from enemies (both human and beyond) was a good challenge. The only addition I’d make would be a dash button for speedier movement when traversing around the different locations; sometimes you get the urge to rush rather than pace slowly.
Masquerada’s tale of deceit and redemption begins slowly, drawing in players minimally through a grand, symphonic soundtrack and fluid cartoon animations, but escalates into more fascinating territory after the revelation of mascherines. Its singleplayer campaign might be combat lite, but is absolutely swimming in lore, rich character studies, and thankfully, stands out from the sea of RPGs by virtue of its strong Venetian influence. A definite recommendation for anyone who’s ever wondered what Shakespeare’s plays would look like if they became video games.
Interested players can pick up a copy of Masquerada: Songs and Shadows through Steam (Windows, Mac) today for $19.99 USD.
A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.