Masquerada: Songs and Shadows envisages the grand struggle of its protagonists and antagonists as if it were all unfolding against the backdrop of an ornate Venetian ball dance. Whisking players away to a fantastical vision of the Italian Renaissance where magic, societal strata and politics collide, Masquerada frequently seems as if it punches far above the modest weight its Kickstarter indie roots might suggest.
Centred on Mescherines, special masquerade masks which can grant the user extraordinary powers, Masquerada’s narrative is one with grand ambitions that is underpinned by an impressive roster of characters, as a range of different parties clash over the power to control these stupendously powerful artefacts. As it is, the titular Masquerada hold control over the majority of Mescherines; an aristocratic sect of enforcers who believe that the masks should be exclusively in their care as they attempt to keep all the scheming factions within the capital city of Ombre in line.
It’s from here that players take charge of detective Cicero Gavar who after a five year period of exile for being complicit in his brother’s crime to incite revolution, returns to solve the kidnapping of childhood friend Razitof Azrus. As the investigation becomes labyrinthine, members from all branches of the Masquerada become involved, each with their own political intentions, ambitions, motives and conspiratorial leanings. Clearly, if you were to make comparisons to Game of Thrones on the basis of the level of political intrigue alone, you wouldn’t be far off the mark.
A sumptuous audiovisual treat for the senses
Deftly complementing the grandstanding narrative and themes that are woven through Masquerada is the game’s frankly tremendous audiovisual presentation. To this end, surface comparisons to Stoic’s visually sumptuous The Banner Saga series of games are easily made, as Masquerada certainly shares some kinship with the Don Bleuth esque isometric art and cel-shaded characters seen in those games. Though frequently eye-strokingly beautiful to gaze upon, the visual fidelity of Masquerada’s hand crafted backdrops can unfortunately find itself compromised when the camera zooms in for a more intimate view of the action; the environments not upscaling well to such scrutiny and becoming a tad pixelated as a result.
If Masquerada’s visuals are of a high calibre then of equal note is the aural spectacle which accompanies them. Ostensibly, the first thing your ears notice is the music because threaded through the entire game is a rousingly impressive orchestral score and choir that manages to strike the perfect balance between the epic and the melancholy with delightful frequency.
Likewise, the voice acting is of a high quality too, as Masquerada draws on the talents of such notables as Felicia Day and Crispin Freeman (Alucard from the anime Hellsing) to name just a couple of the capable auteurs which flesh out its colourful cast of friends, allies, villains and more besides. In short, the obvious love and effort that has been lavished upon the presentation of Masquerada: Song and Shadow make it feel like a far higher budget proposition than it really is.
A linear though enjoyable adventure
Viewed from an isometric perspective, Masquerada has the player and their allies roaming around a vast number of different locations, as they engage in dialogue with other characters, fight with foes and occasionally scoop up the odd bit of lore. The thing is, as beautiful as the painterly environments are, there isn’t much exploring that you can actually do, since invisible walls abound almost everywhere and areas of interaction are both in short supply and clearly marked.
As you may have guessed, Masquerada is extremely linear. In fact, it’s so linear that it actually strips away some of the tenets of the RPG genre. Side quests for example, are completely non-existent while being able to grind weaker enemies to defeat more challenging foes also remains a pipe dream; so rigidly does Masquerada cling to its unshakeable, preordained trajectory. Luckily when it comes to failing in battle however, checkpoints are never usually very far behind at all.
This linearity also bleeds through into other aspects of Masquerada’s design. Dialogue, for example, is completely non-interactive as you simply just watch the various characters chatter away with each other without any input or way to steer the conversations to an alternate outcome. Again, this speaks to the duality of Masqueradas production values; the game does a grand job of looking and sounding like a big budget RPG extravaganza, but dig a little underneath and it’s clear that the developers are continually being hamstrung by the limits of their bank accounts.
Of worthy mention though, is the fact that the game is absolutely drowning in lore and though Masquerada can be finished at a fraction of the time of some of its genre contemporaries (perhaps rendering Masquerada a unique appeal for those who don’t have the constitution for 100 hour long RPGs right now), the fact remains that the extent of the world building is both deep and impressive, and again remains synonymous with a much more ambitious, more expensive effort.
Though both expansive and impressively detailed, the density of such world building can prove to be a little off-putting at times. Certainly, the proliferation of unfamiliar terms and walls of text can confuse early on (the liberal use of Italian colloquialisms doesn’t help to keep such things memorable) and even later during play the vast tapestry of histories, politics and factions that Masquerada weaves into its world can still end up feeling a touch impenetrable.
When it comes to act of scrapping, Masquerada employs a hybrid system of real-time and tactical combat wherein special attacks and abilities may be used whilst the action may be paused at any point to allow you to gain an understanding of how the battle is unfolding. Additionally, the player can effortlessly switch between all their heroes on the battlefield and this, combined with the pseudo real-time combat, makes Masqueradas battles feel pleasantly akin to those glimpsed in Dragon Age: Inquisition than anything else.
Sitting atop these combat mechanics are the powers of the Mescherines themselves. Specifically, players can use these magical masks to leverage one of a number of different elemental spells in order to hinder the enemy or support an ally depending on the element chosen by the player. During the game, players can also discover Meschrines and inscribe new abilities onto them later on, adding yet further player freedom in a game which typically restricts it otherwise. Speaking of which, the upgrade system also allows players to specialise in a number of different areas and so permits some bespoke character builds to be developed; a water affiliated user might for instance, would be able to choose developing a damage dealing build over a healing one or vice-versa, for example.
On the face of it, what the developer has crafted here is nothing short of remarkable. Envisioning a painterly world centred around a deeply fantastical take on the Italian Renaissance, which is in turn ably bolstered by an epic story, great writing, superb voice acting and enjoyable combat; the mind boggles when one stops to contemplate what the developer could have wrought with a much larger budget.
As it is, Masquerada, though not without its faults, remains a welcome surprise; a keenly polished RPG that conjures a world quite unlike any other and which invites players to get blissfully lost in its deep narratives and meaningful character relationships.
Just be aware that once you’ve seen the end credits roll once, there is little to compel you to return (outside of new game plus trophy hunting) to witness them a second time, but if that or the rigid linearity doesn’t bother you, feel free to put an extra point or half on top of the score below.