Action roleplaying games often fall into two camps: those with a firm focus on gameplay and those which seek to immerse you in a rich narrative setting. Of course, the best RPGs fall somewhere in the middle of this Venn diagram, though many struggle to strike the correct balance. Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is one such game. Although there’s an evident passion here and some interesting ideas, it’s assembled in a way that feels oddly disjointed.
The one thing that surprises me about Masquerada was just how dense its lore is. From the word go, players are bombarded with the names of factions, locations, characters, and concepts, as if they have some pre-existing knowledge. On one hand, it’s refreshing to not have a game’s story feel patronising though many will find themselves caught in a tangle as Masquerada begins to unspool its narrative.
While there are certainly traditional fantasy elements at play, Witching Hour Studios has created its own unique setting with an enchanting Venetian twist. Much of it centres around an ongoing class war in which the elite control powerful artefacts known as the Mascherines. Amidst the unrest, you play Cicero Garvar, one of The Citte’s high-ranking Inspettore who is tasked with investigating a kidnapping. Of course, there’s much more to this mystery than meets the eye as you set off to uncover a conspiracy with your group of companions.
To call the story a slow burner is a vast understatement. Masquerada never misses an opportunity to sit the player down and tell them about its backstory, constantly nudging them towards its ever-growing compendium of lore entries. It would be unbearable if not for the fully voiced dialogue and the quality of its writing. That said, it creates something of a speedbump with some story-driven sections outstaying their welcome.
In comparison, the game’s combat sections are a frenzied, fast-paced affair. Inspired by heavy hitters such as Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Dragon Age, it’s all in real time with the added ability to stop time and assign commands to your party members. How you outfit each of your three active characters determines their role in battle, whether that be a sturdy tank, disabler, or long ranged attacker. As with Masquerada’s story, there’s a surprising amount of depth here with chunky skill trees and options to tweak friendly AI behaviour.
It’s a functional approach to battle systems and once that invites a fair amount of creativity thanks to elemental combos. It can prove a tad too hectic at times, however, especially when coming up against elite mobs and bosses. Whether it’s high damage or low health counts, battles can be over in a matter of seconds and before you can feel properly stuck in.
The strangest part of Masquerada is how it strings together these two halves. Where role playing games often lean on massive landscapes packed with side quests, random battles, and other activities, there’s none of that here. Instead, players follow a single linear path with no deviation whatsoever. Player progress is directly tied into the story as well, which means there’s no traditional levels or experience points. While this negates the need for grinding, RPG fans will no doubt lament the lack of freedom.
If there’s one area where Masquerada excels it’s in creating a unique setting. The art direction here is fantastic from the various landmarks and Ventian-inspired sprawls to the various factions, characters, and Mascherines themselves. Thanks to Borderlands and Telltale’s run of adventure games, the cel shaded look is fairly worn nowadays, though still manages to pop when playing Masquerada.
While there’s nothing particularly poor about Songs and Shadows’ story or battle system, the way they come together leaves an unwelcome void in between. When playing, it’s hard not to compare it to bigger, better games like Baldur’s Gate or more recent RPGs like Pillars of Eternity and Divinity. Masquerada just doesn’t have the same level of rewarding complexity or seamlessness, bogged down by constant stopping and starting.
Version tested: PlayStation 4 Pro