A story where the rich aren’t having so much fun wearing masks.
With real life issues becoming more and more polarized by the day, there’s something cathartic about experiencing a story colored in shades of grey. Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is an isometric tactical-RPG with a delightfully layered story about the fight for the soul of a city state where the actions and motivations for the heroes are not so black and white. With some of the best writing and voice acting in recent memory, the curiosity of what happens next outweighed my irritation at the far too frequent loading screens.
Lore has become something of a buzzword, but when you have writing this good you can’t help but lose yourself in Masquerada’s world of Ombre. The story takes place during a time of revolution, very reminiscent of the late medieval period in Europe. A large city state run by an aristocracy whose power comes from the Mascherines, ancient masks that provide the wearer magical abilities, is trying to crush a rebellion orchestrated by a group called the Maskrunners. Using stolen Mascherines and an assortment of the disgruntled ruling class, the Maskrunners’ main goal is the downfall of the government and an end to the ruling class system.
The main protagonist is Cicero, a man who grew up in the lowest class of the city but whose station was elevated when he became an investigator for the government. Masquerada begins with Cicero’s return from exile years after being banished for failing to prevent his own brother from beginning the revolution. His acceptance back into the city is contingent upon his return to the role of Inspector in order to find a missing ruling elite who may hold the key to the end of the rebellion.
The story is presented in a couple of ways. The first is through dialogue between the characters, which is presented in the form of a visual novel. When a character speaks they are portrayed on screen and animated along with vocals. The voice acting is nothing short of outstanding; every bit of emotion is felt through the dialogue and not once did I feel compelled to skip any scenes. The second way to become completely immersed in the lore of Ombre is through the very many tomes that are found throughout your travels. These tomes contain written explanations of countless items, such as guilds and factions found throughout Ombre, as well as its history and mythology. They are a terrific reference to provide backstory and context to the very complex and interesting world.
In between the story beats, and loading screens that are numerous enough to be a nuisance, is a battle system brimming with variation. Along his journey, Cicero picks up a number of allies each with their own Mascherines that come with their own skills and abilities. The battles play out in real time on an isometric map with each character using an auto-attack and a number of selected skills. The option to pause combat and issue commands to your partners is available, but I spent the majority of the time fighting with a single character while my AI partners took care of business. The usual class types are present: attackers, healers, tanks, etc., so whatever combination of three-member party you tend to stick with will be available. Combat isn’t overly difficult, so if you’re looking for a challenge then hard mode is what you’re after. Thankfully, the option to change the difficulty is available on the fly if you encounter any particular battles that become a little too hairy. Masquerada’s strength certainly doesn’t rest on its combat, but the sequences are short enough that they don’t detract from the story beats.
The level of production found in Masquerada is above and beyond what I would have expected from a small team of 15 artists, programmers, and designers. From the impeccable writing to the beautiful music, everything about this game feels polished. Each and every character you meet is interesting and well developed, and the adventure is perfectly paced. Anyone with a passing fancy for RPGs and who loves a well thought out and engaging story would do well to give this title a look.