Sometimes stories don’t need complexity to make your way through a campaign. I don’t think I ever played Mario because I felt a driving force to save a princess and never felt pressed to catch ‘em all while playing a Pokémon game. This is largely due to the fact that actual gameplay, ideally, can and should outshine a game’s story deficiencies. It often does, and that’s just fine because, on the flip side, we’ve got games like Gone Home that are basically all story with barely any real gameplay mechanics to speak of.
Having too little of either gameplay or story cannot break a game for me, but sometimes – and only rarely – a game will have too much of something that becomes impossible to ignore. In the case of Masquerada: Songs and Shadows, originally released back in 2017 and now finding a new home on the Switch, there’s far too much story. Or too much bad story. Or too much story told badly. Take your pick.
The setup is simple enough: your character is tasked in searching for some missing people in a Venetian-inspired town called Ombre during a time of civil war. The city is filled with politics, factions and masks and a wide cast of characters and plot threads that are far more intricate than they need to be. You play as Cicero, a skilled fighter and Inspector for the city, who returns to Ombre after being exiled for some time. Throughout the story you’ll be introduced to more characters integral to the plots surrounding the disappearances through way of investigating and defeating enemies. There are plenty of factions, like the Maskrunners, who either add to the story or conflate it, depending on how much you actually get into the story.
Despite the above complaints, I can certainly see people getting fully into the complexity of the story beats. It’s something that will absolutely reward the reader for being thoroughly invested in every codex found. But to those who typically avoid such codexes when playing longer and more complex games, either commit to reading each one as they pop up, or just skip the game entirely.
This sounds harsh, but after a few minutes in the game I was already questioning the complexity, politics, world-building, characters, and just about everything else. I realized that I was only just watching the tutorial and introduction so I figured these early moments would make a lot more sense later on. While this eventually does happen, more or less, it’s not nearly as immediate as I would’ve liked and it made me increasingly less interested in the game’s overall beautiful aesthetic and design.
That isn’t to say the story isn’t unique and interesting as it is almost certainly both. The issue is that the narrative forces you to comprehend a set of very ingrained politics that continuously feel alien to the player. There are given codex entries (a lot of them) but those, too, are written with such a long-winded nature that reading through them feels like a chore. Masquerada plays a lot like Dragon Age, something we’ll get to later, but one of its biggest errors is also attempting to unload its mammoth story the same way.
Games like Dragon Age or RPG titles like The Witcher or Elder Scrolls all offer snippets of backstory and world-building through naturalistic storytelling, doling out their lore and histories via interesting presentations that feel integrated within the game itself. This allows you to get swept up in the larger plot, often with nothing more than a diary entry or misplaced note left for someone else. In Masquerada, unfortunately, you’re bombarded with what feels like a never-ending series of info dumps. As you might imagine, this feels about as personal (and fun) and reading an encyclopedia.
It’s possible the story itself just didn’t grab me the way it should have, but it did a good job of selling me on the actual premise, suggesting its faults lay in its heavy-handed presentation rather than the actual plot. It also doesn’t help having each of the areas in the game be open and lifeless. You’ll constantly find yourself in a large open spaces populated with ornate designs and beautiful styles, but NPCs are just there talking amongst themselves and you can’t hear or read any of it. Where other games might add contextual story beats this way, Masquerada chooses the more lifeless approach.
Perhaps in part to its bloated storyline, Masquerada’s combat doesn’t offer much innovation or variance in its gameplay, especially as it (again) seems more inspired by Dragon Age. You’re able to pause the combat and move around the map, which lets you seize control over situations to strategize and plot your battles effectively. This sounds fine in theory, actual combat itself can become a bit monotonous as it often involves little more than holding down the ZR button to auto-attack and every so often hitting another button to give you a stronger attack of buff.
As obtuse as it may be initially, the combat does take some time to become complex. You’ll start to notice some of your allies might drop faster than before and you’ll need to pay extra close attention to things more frequently. Hopping from paused combat might be your best option to take the best approach to situations, but more often than not you’ll find yourself spamming buttons until all your enemies are dead.
Also, the game feels designed with a mouse and keyboard in mind, not stock Joy-Con Switch controllers. However, games that seamlessly combine touchscreen and physical buttons should be noted; even if the touch doesn’t make up for the lack of a mouse.
One of the more interesting aspects of the game are the heavy inclusion of – surprise! – masks in the story, world and during combat. At the beginning you’ll choose between Earth, Water, Fire and Air, each mask acting like a different Pokémon, each with their own set of attributes and skill. The choice you make can affect early fights in interesting ways, but the lack of fidelity or excitement in any of the moves can feel disappointing.
While the overall presentation of Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is quite beautiful and something to be appreciated, the game itself suffers far too much in its writing and pacing to really get off the ground. There’s plenty of colors, decent voice-acting, and design choices that might have, if only they’d been assembled better, made this a cult-classic. Instead, we’re left with a lackluster adventure that feels overly weighed down in plot and a real chore to power through. Despite having a unique concept – something that should be applauded – your money and time might be better spent elsewhere.