I've always been a fan of tactical games, but when one comes along that also promises a story with deceptions, plot twists and political intrigue, I am ready to go all in. That's exactly what you get with Masquerada: Songs and Shadows. The only question is: Are you going to like what you find under the mask?
Masquerada's story primarily focuses on the nation of Ombre and the source of their power: Magical Masks that grant their wearer magical powers. These masks are controlled by the government as they are ancient and no one knows how to create more. The number of masks is actually dwindling in fact. If you die in battle while wearing a mask, the mask disappears. As you can imagine, in this world, this has lead to a "class divide" between the people (and groups) that have masks and those that don't.
As you start the game, you have a choice to play through the game's tutorial system, which is also (cleverly) the game's "prologue". In it, you learn the game's basic controls while witnessing a man named Cyrus Gavar leading a coup. Thanks to his forces, Cyrus manages to break into the government armory and steal a number of masks, re-distributing them before the coup is (narrowly) put down and Cyrus is slain.
Fast-forward five years and our game's story will begin in earnest, with Cicero Gavar (Cyrus' younger brother) being recalled from exile by the government to investigate the disappearance of an old friend who was looking into the mystery behind the masks...
As you can tell, the story in Masquerada takes center stage throughout the entire game, as it rightfully should. The developers obviously took great pains here to not only craft a back story that the main character is tied to, but an entire world. Ancient civilizations, political dealings between the government and the city's various guilds, a detailed history of the country of Ombre... it's all here in spades. The main story itself focuses on Cicero's investigations and the motley crew you'll eventually surround yourself with, but the game is FULL of "Codex Entries" that greatly expand the world presented in Masquerada. There are dozens of these codex entries, and they are all generally well-written and fun to read... but boy is it a lot of reading!
However, my favorite part of the story by far (and maybe even the game...) was Cicero's interactions with his crew. Your investigation will be... hampered in the beginning by the various powers at work in the city, with teammates thrust upon you, which results in questionable loyalty. I liked seeing Cicero and his companions grow used to each other and develop as characters. Kalden's story arch in particular is noteworthy for handling subject matter not often seen in video games today.
Overall, the story in Masquerada is quite honestly its biggest draw in the end, with its rich lore, character development, and narrative hooks. The only downside to it is just how "true to character" the story is. Each group in this game (and there are quite a few) have some hard-to-pronounce names. "Dimenticate", "Contadani", "Cacciatore"... there's just WAY TOO MANY obscure names thrown at you with too little explanation along the way. I also found the interaction with the country's various guilds to be rather underwhelming. But overall, this is still a well-told story and the highlight of the game as a whole.
The game play in Masquerada is fairly reminiscent of the recent Dragon Age games: you can fight in real-time if you choose, but you can also pause combat at any time and direct your team to use certain skills. This allows you to try out various tactics and skill combinations during battle. After a few hours of doing that, I'm positive everyone will find a skill combination that works for them (I personally enjoyed using a whirlwind orb to draw in enemies while my teammates blasted the grouped-up targets).
The game also has some light RPG elements to it as you gain skill points at certain points throughout the game (usually after a tough boss battle) and can use them to learn and upgrade skills. Each character has 7-8 skills they can master, but one play-through will really only let you master 4-5 (although re-specializing your character can be done easily).
Cicero (and only Cicero) can also change between three fighting styles: offense, defense and ranged. Switching styles based on the fight at hand definitely increases your survivability while giving you "mask charge". When your mask gauge is filled up, each character also has a super move they can do (based on the mask they are wearing... finding a new mask changes the super move you can do). There are also weapon upgrade items you can find as well as a training ground you can use to test out new skills.
Overall, the game play here is solid, but somewhere near the middle of the game you'll have all the skills you'll want (essentially) and will have found 1-2 good combos that you'll likely just keep using until the end of the game. There just isn't much depth to the combat overall, leading to solid game play but nothing outstanding or noteworthy in the end.
Despite being an indie game, Masquerada has quite a bit of graphical polish. For the most part, the environments you'll explore throughout the game are varied, detailed and fun to explore (although there are some ruins and caves that can get rather bland). One thing that needs to be brought up is that this game is THOROUGHLY LINEAR, so while you may enjoy the environments, it is very likely that once you leave you'll never return. This can be very frustrating in certain areas, as the game often gives you some freedom to explore but if you choose the "plot progression" path you are permanently barred from any further exploration (which I just KNOW has made me miss more than one Codex Entry...).
The character designs and animations are all rather polished as well, with each of your teammates being immediately recognizable and distinctive (except perhaps the "Earth" magic user, as brown is just an ugly color for an outfit...). The enemies are fairly varied throughout the game as well, with creative designs ranging from various human foes to gigantic supernatural threats (some of the bosses are LARGE and just generally awesome looking!). The graphics as a whole aren't cutting edge by any means, but fit the game play and story perfectly all while giving you a great view.
One thing that SHOCKED me about Masquerada was that the ENTIRE game was fully voiced. You just don't see that out of indie studios, especially with a game that focuses on story as much as Masquerada does (there is a LOT of voice acting here). Even more surprising was the quality of the voice work here, with AAA talents Matthew Mercer and Jennifer Hale leading the way. Honestly, the voice acting is definitely one of the highlights of the game and goes a long way towards making the story and party interactions as good as they are.
The music is also well done, with string and wind instruments coming together to provide a great fantasy soundtrack. I was impressed with how busy the tracks were overall, as if the Composer was having a fun time making these tracks. The soundtrack also has a number of choral pieces, which adds a bit of "Epic" for when the story needs it. Interestingly enough, the lyrics in these choral pieces are all based on the "ancient civilization" from the game's story, which is impressive detail and just makes those tracks that much more mysterious.
Masquerada will likely take you 14-15 hours to beat, beginning to end. I should note that the game does have some "built in" replayability early on. During the game, you have to pick an elemental affinity, which determines what skills you can pick from (something you can't change, just so you know). The game also has a "New Game +" mode once you beat it, which I definitely plan to use at some point (maybe try and get all those codex entries I missed...) as well as a full trophy list (including a platinum) on PlayStation 4.
Overall, I really enjoyed my time with Masquerada: Songs and Shadows. Granted, it doesn't have the deepest combat system out there, and its isometric graphics aren't what anyone would call top-notch (although both those things are solid for an indie title). But what it does have is a lot of HEART. The story is intriguing and well told and the audio is just fantastic. If you're looking for a song to get lost in, Maquerada may be just what you're looking for.
It's good to meet you! I'm better known online as "Bkstunt_31" and have been writing Reviews and video game Strategy Guides/Walkthroughs for WAY too many years! Feel free to stop my my Facebook page and say hello! Have fun and keep playing!