Utawarerumono is based in a universe that spans an anime series, a manga line, and a couple games on PS2 and PSP. While the game follows the basic storyline as the other content does, Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth takes a more sidelong approach to develop more of the characters and scenarios, adding to the lore of the universe further. This is a game described as a visual novel with strategy RPG elements, but does it measure up to such a tall order?
Much like how Mask of Deception began, the main character wakes up with no recollection of what took place after she returned home. You wake up completely unaware and with no memory, and you’re given hints along the way that elude to the events of the previous game, Mask of Deception. There is room to fix things, and your royal family and allies begin to plan out the best way to counteract what has happened. From there, the narrative, delivered in a visual novel style, takes you on a journey of redemption, a journey that I really can’t detail too much without going over.
As previously mentioned, Utawarerumono is mostly a visual novel with occasional grid-based strategy RPG combat sprinkled in here and there. If I were to put a rough ratio on combat to visual novel, it would be about 1:4, with combat being the lesser figure by a wide margin. In light of this, gameplay is light and approachable, small grids making up the field on which you navigate and combat enemies. Actual stat progression takes a long while, and the large gaps between fights accentuates this concept further, but it’s the second half of the game when combat pops up more often. There, you can apply skill points to stats and abilities to help you along the way. To spice things up, they added a manual critical hit, where if you hit Cross in time with the on-screen prompt, you’ll land a critical hit. Early on, this was the one thing that kept me going with combat, because it was the only thing I had to really interact with outside of grid movement. If you partook of the first game, then you can carry over all the progress into Mark of Truth. If not, don’t fret. The only real catching up you’ll have to worry about is within the narrative itself, which does a rather decent job of including most significant past events naturally.
I found myself, while on the Normal difficulty, simply choosing power abilities and stats and had very few problems down the stretch. In terms of gripping gameplay, there isn’t a great deal there, even if it is fun while it lasts. In terms of narrative, however, combat never gets in the way of it. Keep this in mind when considering Utawarerumono, because those who wish for a complicated RPG system with plenty of development will find something with a decent beginning but no engaging end. Customization and finishers are all there to be had, but the stronger and more intriguing ones appear in the waning moments of the game, disappearing almost as soon as they appeared. It’s here where the combat is flawed, because it takes far too long to statistically grow and develop your characters that it ends up being more of a path to the next story section.
The visual side of Utawarerumono is a mixed bag. The 2D narrative sections have tons of detail and personality, conveying exactly what the creators want the characters to deliver. Here, events are even acted out in the background by the character’s 3D avatars while the 2D ones evoke the emotion in the foreground. Considering that Mask of Deception was all 2D in this light, having some context built into some of these more complicated scenarios is a nice touch. However, the combat segments themselves lack a similar heart. Indeed, this game was initially developed with the Vita in mind, but there are plenty of games that harness more out of Sony’s handheld than this. Sprites and monsters are bland and rather rigid, lacking the same personality that comes across in the narrative, and since you’ll be with them for hours and hours, you’ll notice the difference. The maps themselves are flat and lack much personality. Occasionally, there will be obstacles that can be strategically utilized, but nothing gets too complicated. To make matters worse, some of the fights near the end of game drag on for nearly an hour, which puts a significant damper on narrative progress.
As I eluded to a bit earlier, combat isn’t necessarily challenging, so you won’t die very often. However, there is a nice feature put in place in the event of death that would benefit plenty of RPGs. Upon perishing, you’re given the option to either start halfway through the fight OR begin again with everything you earned from your previous attempt, including experience. This is a solid approach to a tactical combat system, because it allows an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and apply everything you’ve learned or you can reset some of the last half of the fight to counteract some possibly bad decisions.
Despite all of this, the narrative takes the cake, however. Through some clever, and sometimes touching, writing, Haku finds himself in rather precarious and abnormal circumstances revolving around decisions he makes that ultimately take him to the end of the game. There’s a lot of context to waid through, as the game touches on some rather intriguing and complicated main and subtopics. In spite of this, there is a LOT of filler, ranging from rather uncomfortable “fan service” to side character development that lingers longer than needed. Utawarerumono is not for everyone, because of the gameplay/video ratio as well as the long, long narrative sections. The entire game is subbed in English (another feature some might not like), but the voice actors are top notch. I can’t speak a lick of Japanese outside of “konichiwa” and “kawaii,” but their voices strike universal emotional cords that help perpetuate the significance of what’s going on at any give time. I can liken this to any excellent subbed anime I’ve watched in my lifetime. Certain, peculiar things don’t stick with me, because the high points of the narrative and voice acting outshine them all. Still, those aforementioned faults are all there, even if they begin to fade into memory.
Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth is a visual novel that takes roughly 50 hours to complete. It has some strong highs, some deep valleys, but it hits all the right tones at the end. For anyone willing to traverse some of its oddities and unbalanced pacing, the closure to the game, and the two-game storyline, will stick with you for a long time.