Available On: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch (in development)
Many of my favorite games stick with me over the years not because of finely-honed combat systems or impressive visual effects. Often it’s the story and characters that remain the most memorable aspects of those cherished gaming experiences.
Masquerada: Songs and Shadows has one of the best stories I’ve experienced in years. It’s an epic tale about heroic sacrifice, forbidden love, political betrayal, and self discovery set within a richly realized world of urban renaissance and ancient mystery. Masquerada’s tactical combat is serviceable, but it’s the story and characters that demand you experience this unique RPG.
A Tale of One City
Masquerada takes place in and around the city of Ombre. It’s set within a unique fantasy world that draws from the Italian Renaissance. You play as Cicero Gavar, an Inspettore (government detective) whose brother lead a failed uprising several years ago, leaving you caught in the middle. The ongoing rebellion is between those in the ruling class who have access to magical masks that grant elemental powers, and the Maskrunners who stole them.
Cicero soon gets caught up in the war when investigating a missing person with ties to the Maskrunners. The story unfolds slowly at first. The world is meticulously detailed through an astonishing amount of lengthy codex entries you find scattered throughout your journey. Most contain half a dozen or more paragraphs of information. There’s an entire RPG sourcebook worth of background lore. The codices are also used as a reflective journal for Cicero, as he writes down his commentary on the people he meets.
The action picks up once you’ve gained all your well-written, excellently voice-acted party members. Matthew Mercer is particularly amazing as Cicero, and you’ll probably recognize the voice of Jennifer Hale as Lucia. The story tackles the dramatic war while also discovering the truth about the Mascherines, the mysterious Fey, and the ancient precursor civilization that enshrouds everything.
Although the story and tactical combat most closely resemble a BioWare RPG such as Dragon Age, you won’t find much exploration or any side quests. Masquerada is more linear than even most Japanese RPGs. There’s no leveling other than skill point rewards at certain milestones, and no loot aside from finding additional masks that change a character’s ultimate move.
Normally I would balk at such strict linearity and limited options in any RPG. But Masquerada’s best elements lie in its writing, characters, and story-telling, all of which are better served by smaller, more intimate level design and narrative structure. It’s like if you took all the best story beats and character development from Dragon Age 2 and distilled them into a 15 hour indie game.
With Our Powers Combined
The tactical combat is real time with pause, meaning at any time you can pause the action to maneuver your party, line up attacks, and fire off abilities. Each character has an elemental affinity, with Cicero’s element being one of the few choices you make in the game.
Several skill choices are available for each element, though you can only equip four. Most attacks have impressively flashy visual effects. Unleash a storm of whirling clouds to suck enemies in. Blast chunks of rock out of the ground to knock enemies around. Raise walls of ice, surge forward on a tidal wave, and expel a ring of fire bolts.
Battles often become a kaleidoscope of elemental explosions. Movement becomes important in the later stages to avoid enemy attacks, while you can win most early game fights by simply mashing buttons.
Each ability is on a simple cooldown system, letting you maximize all of your abilities in every battle. There’s a neat elemental tag system to deploy combos when combining different (or similar) elements on a foe for a variety of effects.
You can switch seamlessly between party members for full control, and set up the AI on when to use certain attacks. I was satisfied mostly sticking to my Cicero’s air attacks. I could slash through enemies with a spinning cyclone maneuver, summon a spiritual squirrel to harass foes at a distance, and unleash a stampede of lightning horses.
Despite a lot of tactical options I rarely needed to pause until much later in the game. Battles mostly boiled down to firing off attacks as quickly as I could. Thanks to the simple but effective button layout, combat felt more than satisfying with a controller.
Boss fights were a different matter, providing a welcome difficulty spike. I had to try a few boss battles several times. Without the ability to grind for level ups or acquire better gear it all boils down to which abilities you have and how and when to use them. A New Game Plus option adds some further depth and additional boss fights, but the combat is not why I would recommend Masquerada.
Masquerada: Songs and Shadows has been rated T for Teen. While the world is stylized to be a bit cartoony, it definitely features blood and violence. The story focuses on an unforgiving war and intense dramatic moments including death, disability, and mental and physical anguish.
If you prefer your RPGs challenge your worldviews, dive deep into exotic factions and ancient histories, and make you laugh, cry, and shout in triumph, Masquerada: Songs and Shadows might be your jam.
The tactical combat was disappointing compared to bigger RPGs like Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin. But I adored my time in Ombre. I cried with Kalden, reminisced with Vasco, debated with Tiziana, and watched Cicero grow into a leader. Masquerada should not be missed by anyone who appreciates memorable characters and a well-crafted story.