I’ve read criticisms of RPG combat that indict the genre as a whole, and sometimes it’s hard to argue with them. The only real “decision” you have to make in a standard turn-based system, when you boil everything down, is when to heal. If you’ve got enough healing, you’re going to win; if you don’t, you’re going to lose.
Many RPGs attempt to spice up the formula by adding in time-based elements, as in Final Fantasy, or by complicating the numeric aspects of the game as in NIS strategy-RPGs like Disgaea. Others decide not to fight that battle directly, focusing on story instead; this is certainly a workable strategy, since, as we see in games like Masquerada: Songs and Shadows, the story is the real strength of an RPG and you can get pretty far by focusing on your strengths.
The Citte of Ombre has fallen on hard times. An unsuccessful rebellion several years ago has led to discord throughout the Citte and constant raids; it’s not surprising that things ended up this way, since the Citte’s social stratification was bound to lead to a little tension. The big movers and shakers in Ombre are the Masquerada, nobility who wear enigmatic masks called Mascharines that give them the ability to wield elemental magic. They lord over the Contadani, the Maskless, who don’t possess Mascharines and are stuck doing the Citte’s menial labor.
We follow Cicero, a former Contadani turned Masquerada whose deceased brother Cyrus was behind the rebellion and who has spent several years away from Ombre. He’s called back into service as an Inspettore, a Mascharine-wielding detective, and tasked with discovering the secrets behind the masks. Murder, mystery and mayhem ensue as Cicero teams up with allies both likely and unlikely in pursuit of the truth.
Masquerada’s closest cousin is likely Baldur’s Gate; the action is viewed from a top-down isometric perspective as you control Cicero and his allies, while combat involves a similar real-time-with-pause system where you can take a time-out and assign orders to your party members. Your tactics in battle revolve largely around the use of cooldown-based elemental abilities that synergize with one another; Water Masquerada, for instance, might use a wave-dash ability to “tag” enemies with water damage, then detonate those tags with an ice sword attack. It’s a neat idea and characters can be customized via skilltrees and swappable Mascharines, though at no point does the game’s combat become especially difficult.
That’s probably intentional: while it’s certainly workable and enjoyable for what it is, combat is absolutely not the focus here. Instead, Masquerada is all about world-building and writing. The game’s extensive Mass Effect-esque Codex provides enormous amounts of flavor text to gobble down at your leisure, and indeed the majority of your time spent out of fighting and cutscenes is used finding and reading more Codex entries. The game is fairly linear – unlike Bioware’s classics you’re not going to be doing a lot of sidequesting, and the only things you’ll find off the beaten path are Codex information and the odd new Mascharine – but the tradeoff here is that you’ve got a much stronger and more cohesive central plot to follow along with.
Masquerada, then, is (appropriately) all about presenting itself well, and it’s a fantastic example of how to put a game world together. This might be the first RPG I’ve played that boasts such a strong Italian influence, which gives the game a very unique feel even beyond the masks and magic. I found myself pressing on in the plot to find out more about the world and everything in it, which is saying something since I typically consider stringent linearity a strike against a game.
Masquerada’s graphics help support the game’s unique feel, and I especially appreciated the intricate designs of the various Mascharines. As for longevity, you can expect around a 15-hour run time, with the recently-added option of playing again in New Game + with a few bonuses here and there.
RPG fans who value the genre for its focus on story are going to adore Masquerada: Songs and Shadows. It’s a tale on par with some of the best I’ve played through. More combat-focused gamers, meanwhile, might feel a little left out as battle tends to play second fiddle to the game’s many cutscenes and Codex entries. Despite this, Masquerada still manages to strike a (sometimes tenuous) balance that should appeal to RPG fans of all stripes on some level or another, so it’s an easy recommendation.