Masquerada: Songs and Shadows – Nintendo Switch
Developed By: Witching Hour Studios
Published By: Ysbyrd Games
Release Date: May 9, 2019
Ysbyrd Games have been a solid supporter of quality titles on the Switch in 2019. First came YiiK: A Postmodern RPG, followed by the uniquely titled puzzler She Remembered Caterpillars and then most recently the excellent story based bartender simulator VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action which received top marks from us. Can Ysbyrd Games latest title Masquerada: Songs and Shadows continue the winning streak of quality titles so far in 2019?
Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is a story driven isometric 3D RPG from Singaporean developer Witching Hour Studios built using the Unity engine. It started development in 2014 and required a Kickstarter campaign to help fund completion of the game. It originally released on Steam in 2016 with PS4 and Xbox One versions in 2017, and now Nintendo Switch in 2019.
In Masquerada you play Cicero Gavar who returns from exile to investigate a kidnapping starting in Ombre, a city which is an important fishing port, and where he grew up. It is set in a fantasy world inspired by the Renaissance period. What this means is grand palaces and courtyards intertwined with old style towns and cities. Continuing the theme of a bygone era, olde-style language is used such as ‘citte’ and ‘inspettore’ (translates to ‘city’ and ‘inspector’) and swords and sorcery but no guns (sorry gun fans).
As is common with RPGs it starts off slow, with you initially navigating around Ombre to advance the story by moving through the environments from one beacon to the next. Throughout Masquerada, glowing beacons show you what you can interact with, with different colours signifying if it is mandatory to progress (move to the next area, trigger cutscene) or optional (piece of lore).
As you progress, you meet a number of characters who, over time, join your party. Battles in Masquerada are in real time: Cicero will attack automatically with his sword and you have a number of magic spells you can cast to deliver stronger attacks. Your companions in your party are AI controlled, but you can change their approach in the menus and by what Masquerada calls a ‘tactical pause’, which allows you to pause a battle and make tweaks to your AI companions next moves.
The structure is quite stripped in back in many respects, RPG tropes such as weapons, equipment or items are absent. But different masks (coined as ‘maskerines’) are available, and skill trees exist for each character in your party to upgrade your characters existing spells and add additional, more powerful spells.
Masquerada is a very linear experience with exploration actively discouraged. You can be in the middle of a bustling town square with one way in and another way out, but when you leave one area you usually can’t backtrack. The world is populated with NPCs going about their days, but you can only interact with NPCs unless they have a beacon next to them which is usually only a significant character, aside from walking past groups of NPCs and overhearing conversations. My muscle memory kicked in when I first started trying to explore, speak to locals and unearth hidden items. But there are no hidden items as such (there are beacons for lore and mask upgrades) and eventually I got used to always moving forwards between areas, going where I needed to go and speaking only to who I needed to, to progress the story.
From the outset Masquerada bombards you with a succession of characters and deep, deep lore. Frequently there are multiple pieces of lore to gather and add to your codex, providing you extensive detail on everything and everyone in the Masquerada world if you want to know more. The amount of detail Witching Hour Studios have gone into in creating their world is impressive, but can be overwhelming. The good news is the game can be enjoyed without pouring over the lore, but it’s there if you want it.
Load times are frequent and can be quite long when progressing to a new area. With the cutscene heavy structure of the game, the common gameplay loop is: arrive in new area, watch a cutscene, run for a bit, another cutscene, run some more with or without a short battle taking place, move to new area and game loads, rinse and repeat. It also doesn’t help that run speed is only one speed, which is more like a jog.
Moving from cutscene to cutscene, you progress through the game’s core: the story. This is convoluted and can be hard to follow. The fully voiced main characters stand around in multiple, often drawn out, cutscenes moving the plot forwards, with the battles interspersed in between. The story can be engaging when it’s not confusing you with it’s extravagant dialogue, and this is down to some solid voice acting from the likes of Matthew Mercer, Catherine Taber and Rick Wasserman who have previously voiced AAA games such as Fire Emblem: Awakening, Final Fantasy XII, and Diablo III. The quality of the voice acting also helps you engage with some of the characters. Main character Cicero is a little bland, but the emotion from characters such as Kalden Azrus are more memorable.
The cel shaded art style looks almost hand drawn, with black outlines around the characters (which reminds me of the excellent 2003 Gamecube FPS XIII from Ubisoft, which recently was announced to be returning to Nintendo Switch later this year). The visuals, while not AAA, are nice enough to look at. Cutscenes take place using the in-game engine or illustrated stills, which at times looks lo-fi when a series of still images is used to show something in motion.
The soundtrack is a bit of a mixed bag. The main theme has an operatic singer which may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Most of the music is forgettable but I did like the theme from The Sunken Star, this section in itself is a different turn of pace from the core battling gameplay which requires you to navigate through a maze.
It should be quite clear by now that Masquerada is not quite up there with Ysbyrd Games best of 2019. How much you enjoy Masquerada will be down to how much you enjoy sitting through the cutscenes and pouring over the lore. The gameplay is ultimately secondary to the story, which is the main event. However, during my 15+ hours of playtime I did quite enjoy it for what it is.