Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is a story-driven role-playing game developed by Witching Hour Studios and published by Ysbryd Games. Previously released in 2016 for PC, Xbox One, and Play Station 4, the game is now coming to the Nintendo Switch, which is port that I got the chance to play, The world of Masquerada is a deep, fleshed-out setting full of political intrigue, magical abilities, and flawed three-dimensional characters that drive the player forward, even when faced by mediocre gameplay and an absurd plethora of load screens.
The journey through Masquerada begins with a tutorial which serves as both a well-executed device to introduce the player to the game’s controls, and as a delivery method for the pivotal backstory set several years before the rest of the game. From there, the player takes control of the lead protagonist Cicero Gavar, a man who has been brought back to “the citte” from exile to help discover the whereabouts of a government official gone missing.
From this simple beginning, the game’s mystery expands till you face off against enemies of all manners and scale from the magical to the mundane. I never grew tired of the story as it both intrigued me in its own right, and allowed me the chance to explore the only part of the game’s design that was on par with the story: the setting.
I never realized how compelling it would be to have a fantasy tale take place in a world heavily inspired by renaissance Italy, but having experienced it, I find myself perplexed at how this isn’t a more commonly used theme. From the costumes to the architecture, there is so much magic woven into the very look of this game. The various guilds of the city vying for control, while not a new theme, is enhanced by the setting and feels so perfect here.
The various city districts in Masquerada are all notable and become quickly recognizable as the player’s journey through the story sees them returning to noteworthy locales repeatedly. This is never done to a point where I tired of seeing these locations, as new locales are woven in with enough frequency that nothing comes to feel overused or repetitive.
I found myself always pleased when the story would take me back to the magnificent Hall of Songs. It was a gorgeously designed location and a wonderful source of world development. The depth of detail isn’t just limited to the design of the world, but it’s history as well. The world is littered with tomes one can read if they should wish that encompasses all manner of topics from the origins of the guild, to individual leaders, and magic.
As is usually the case, however, all the story and world-building in Masquerada come at the expense of time the player spends actively playing the game. Action sequences are far rarer than in many games and will instantly become boring for some players. I don’t think this is a problem for the game, just something to consider as this is a game for those who are truly more interested in story than action. In addition, the decision to focus on the story over gameplay further aids this game as the gameplay was the weakest part of the experience.
While it is all functional, and I never found myself suffering from cheap deaths or imbalanced encounters, I also never really found myself engaged by it. During combat the player control one of the three-party members directly. When near an enemy the player will auto-attack when not using a special ability. I liked this function as it kept me from having to needlessly pump a face button to do the basic attack. These basic attacks fill the time when one’s abilities are all on cool down.
You very quickly gain access to four special abilities mapped to the face buttons on the controller. The effects described in the abilities descriptions are various and there are several systems in play that the player gets explained to them in the tutorial. However, I found attention to such tricks was never needed to be paid really. I basically spammed my abilities as they came off cooldown, kept my character out of the damaged areas of opponents’ abilities, as such things are displayed with visual prompts, and for the most part never died. I did play on normal, but the lack of compulsion to learn the game’s combat systems feels like a flaw in the basic design.
Given that the fights were incredibly easy for vast majority of the time, and no fight took me more than two tries, I can only imagine the game would’ve been an even bigger breeze if I’d actually paid closer attention to implementing the various systems within combat. This ease of combat also quickly undermined the interest I took to the limited leveling system that is present in the game. As I quickly felt more and more that I didn’t need to worry about which abilities I purchased or leveled as fights all turned out the same anyway.
There is only one more problem area I feel must be addressed. Load screens. Masquerada: Songs and Shadows have more load screens than I’ve ever seen in a game before. While they are never longer than five to ten seconds each, there are numerous occasions where you will go through a load screen, spend maybe seven seconds running across an area, hit another load screen, rinse and repeat.
For the vast majority of the game there aren’t even multiple ways to exit any given area, so why the game couldn’t preload the next screen, given that the game itself isn’t visually demanding, seems like a serious flaw. I played this on the Nintendo Switch, so I don’t know if other versions of the game are so plagued, and it never took the appeal of the strong story and setting completely away from me, but it is a definite hurdle to enjoyment.
With all these points considered, I believe there are gamers out there who will find much to love in Masquerada: Songs and Shadows. A compelling story, placed in a fresh and fully realized fantasy world, without the concern of struggling with unforgiving combat is certainly a description I can see being in some people’s wheelhouse. Just so long as combat is a secondary concern and you possess the patience to see the word “loading” on the screen more than you might prefer there is much enjoyment to be had here.
Having released on PC, Xbox One, and Playstation 4 previously, Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is making its way to the Nintendo Switch on May 9th.
Masquerada: Songs and Shadows
I believe there are gamers out there who will find much to love in Masquerada. A compelling story, placed in a fresh and fully realized fantasy world, without the concern of struggling with unforgiving combat is certainly a description I can see being in some people’s wheelhouses.