First Impressions: Masquerada

I’ve been playing Masquerada: Songs and Shadows, a tactical story-heavy RPG set in a Venetian city of politics, intrigue, and civil war. From the title screen on I was charmed: the music is intense, gorgeous, and matches the game’s aesthetics perfectly. Much of the game’s story is told through hand-drawn panels, stylish, minimalist and very elegant indeed. I’d say it reminds me the most of Transistor.

I found my favorite character pretty fast, right in the tutorial that drops us in media res into the last chapter of Cyrus Gavar’s life, a man bent on ridding the city of its oppressive system where the haves command the magical masks (Mascherines) and deny access to them to the have-nots. The city—the Citte—is quickly established as a place fraught with power struggles, and before long Cyrus is executed for his role in leading the insurrection. (My newly found favorite character, Lucia Shuria, is the lady up there and the one who kills him.)

We begin the game proper with Cicero Gavar, Cyrus’ brother, exiled for not turning against his brother and now recalled to the Citte to investigate a missing-person case, drawn back into the political intrigue he so badly wanted to escape.

The combat can get pretty hectic, and I do wish the zoom distance was a bit further away. It’s a bit MMO-esque in that there’s threat generation, so you can spec some of your party members as tanks, the others as damage-dealers. The AI isn’t that great and, left to their own devices, the party members will stand in enemy AOE (just like a real MMO!), and it’s best to turn the AI off and take manual control; being real-time with pause, this is more manageable than it sounds. Each character has skill trees that let them specialize in dealing damage, generating threat, reducing damage, stunning enemies; if you’ve played any MMO, you’ll be familiar. Having said that I do feel a lot of the active abilities can be hard to distinguish (i.e. there are multiple abilities per character that all do AOE a little differently). All the characters except Cicero come pre-specced, and you can only choose an element for him (fire, wind, water, earth). I get the impression that the element is mostly flavor; all elements have their own AOE, damage reduction, tanking trees etc.

It’s a very linear RPG, and there isn’t room for exploration. I do find it slightly tiring that you’re often running across a bunch of transition areas (the time running across is mostly so you can listen to the banter between Cicero and his companions). Having said that, the lore entries are unusually interesting and flesh the world out: like Witcher 3, character entries are updated as Cicero learn more about them (or have new opinions on them he’d like to express), and this contributes well to the sense of narrative and to Cicero’s own characterization.

It seems almost beside the point to say that the game’s full of characters of color, and extremely competent women: there’s my favorite Lucia Shuria, an efficient, elegant Inspettore; there’s the paladin-esque Tiziana, whom I’m totally speccing as a tank because she wears such big armor (and carries a huge sword), there’s spear-wielding Earthbrand Amadea (sort of a melee DPS). There are also queer characters, I understand, though I haven’t gotten to the part where that’s come up yet. This isn’t like a Bioware RPG in that there are no romances, as far as I can tell, and no real dialogue options, but you can do a lot with a linear story the way Bastion and Transistor have shown. I’m still early into the game, middle or late act one, and I’m very much looking forward to the rest.