For all the bellyaching you see fron certain fronts about the uptick in visual novel releases here in the West, the fact of the matter is that someone must be buying these things. That’s almost a cynical way of looking at it, since I love a good VN every now and again and I know plenty of others who do as well. If you don’t have the time to fully immerse yourself in the latest Witcher or Call of Duty or Persona or whatever, it’s nice to be able to chill out with something like Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception and have the game take care of the storytelling for you.
This one certainly hooks you right from the start: you wake up in a forested mountain blanketed in snow, wearing nothing but a hospital gown. The world around you is hostile, filled with bizarre monsters and a harsh environment, and you don’t even have any memories to speak of. Fortune smiles upon you when Kuon, a wandering girl with animal features and impressive physical strength, takes you under her wing and helps you learn about the mysterious land you’ve found yourself in. She dubs you “Haku,” since you can’t remember your real name, and you’ll journey with your benefactor to explore this new world and find your place in it.
This is a visual novel, straight up. I mean, there’s combat in Utawarerumono, but it’s really more of an afterthought compared to the visual novel segments. The gimmick here revolves around timed attacks, something like the classic Super Mario RPG or Legend of Dragoon, where you’re able to cause critical hits and special effects on command if you properly time a button press along with an attack’s animation.
It’s a cute idea, but it’s not enough to make the combat take center stage; Utawarerumono’s superb writing and fascinating storyline definitely overshadow the more “gamey” portions of this title. It certainly doesn’t help that not only is combat fairly sparse compared to reading, but it doesn’t offer much of a challenge; if you somehow manage to lose, you’re able to rewind to a more favorable point in the battle and do things differently. You’re able to play more difficult versions of battles as well as accessing additional optional fights later in the game, but the point remains that you shouldn’t buy this one for the game’s SRPG aspects.
So with that in mind, your focus should probably remain on Utawarerumono as a visual novel. The game excels in that capacity. As mentioned, the writing and localization are superb (by my non-obsessive standards, at least) and the plot is compelling enough to keep you going. The presence of a constantly-expanding glossary that serves a purpose akin to Mass Effect’s Codex when it comes to expanding upon the game world does a lot to give this one legs as well. It’s always great to page through the glossary and peruse unfamiliar terms after following the plot for a while.
The art on display here is fantastic as well, on par with any visual novel I’ve played. Given that this is an entry in what is essentially an eroge series, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s a fair amount of fanservice, but there’s no actual adult content here. The combat segments use super-deformed sprites that don’t really stand up to the art during the visual novel segments, but as mentioned those are more of a distraction than anything. For the most part, Utawarerumono is stunning and remains so throughout the game.
The bottom line is that, so long as you come in with the right expectations, Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception is a worthy purchase. It’s essentially a “premium” visual novel along the lines of the Grisaia games with some cute combat segments to break up the reading. If that’s what you’re after, you’d do well to give this one a shot. One last thing – it’s worth noting that while I played on PS4, I find visual novels to be particularly well-suited to the Vita and its portability, so you may prefer that platform given the choice.