Masquerada’s opening kept me playing, and it will help me return to the replay the chapters and acts of this criminally undercooked RPG.

Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is described as “…a tactical action RPG set in a lush 2.5D world…” – by Witching Hour Studios, developer, and Ysbryd Games, publisher. Before I jumped into Masquerada, I tussled with the thoughts of if I had enough time to sink into an RPG at the moment – yes, as a contributor to TiX, it is my duty, yet I know how hard I can fall for an RPG! – with my 20/20 hindsight, I should never have wrestled with such grand of a notion.

The gameplay of Masquerada is rather simple, maybe a little too simple for a PC and console release. I often felt that I would be more comfortable navigating the rather linear scenes of Witching Hour Studios’ RPG via the tap of a phone screen, or maybe the Nintendo Switch than I was with a dedicated controller and large display. Or better yet, having no control over the direction the characters took until combat started.

Speaking of combat; Masquerada’s combat feels as if it is on the edge of greatness. A simple action bar, that can be customised via the character panel, presents your characters abilities for combat – though I found that setting the AI ‘either/or’ settings to use area of effect abilities – which were absolutely stunning to behold; little embers dancing around my fire avatars, water droplets splashing around the combat field from my healing orbs – then selecting and sitting on my healer-type character and keeping RT pressed got me through most combat situations.

The character development of the game hinted at much more than I discovered. Sparse talent-lines with the occasional second prong option to select from, most being either: Generate addition threat, or gain an additional avatar/orb/other, or gain a free use of the ability within Y amount of seconds. With the ability to redistribute your points coming fairly early in the game, I never felt like I could go wrong. A certain character, say your healer, locked out of the party due to story reasons? Change your talents to be more defensive on other characters. Now, typing this out makes it feel like the game allows you to be very adaptive to your situation, yet honestly….it really isn’t.

There are some pretty cool systems that are introduced a little further into Masquerada, and both of these absolutely to be expanded upon in any future installments. One is the Ink and Rune system, where you mix them together and gain a passive stat and action buff, and the other is Masks!

Masks allow you to alter your limit break-esque ability, some of which I found to be more useful than others, such as providing shields to my whole team. As with the most of the art in Masquerada, these animations are vibrant and crisp. Mask abilities are charged by performing certain types of actions in combat. These are mostly passive with all characters apart from your main, who has three stances. Each stance alters how you perform combat and gain energy to use for your Mask attack. Masks can be acquired from a small amount exploration of the scenes. I say small because it is as simple as checking a corner that is just out of view – something that would feel so much grander on a different format, handheld for example, but not so much as is.

The artistic style of Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is breathtaking in places, a lot of places. From the animations of the attacks during combat to the subtle flutter of the character frame during conversations. The conversations are fully voiced, these range from the silhouette journeys between home and each act, the little world building chatter from the denizens of the rich Citte and its locals to the emotionally driven performances during the twists and turns of Masquerada’s excellently paced narrative.

There are some heavyweight voice actors behind the vocal punches of the cast of characters that litter the landscape Masquerada. Matt Mercer, Catherine Taber and, oh yeah, Jennifer Hale are just three of the talented performers that lend their vocal variety to this Venetian-inspired epic. Woah, that was a lot of V!

V leads nicely onto the score of Masquerada. The music oft over empowers the scenes, but after reducing the volume in the options by 30% it settled down and I could enjoy it as part of the overall machine, instead of that one overbearing cog. So, the V? Violins are the V. Violins and plenty of other string instruments lead the score of Masquerada. V also stands for the majestic choir that sits just above the instruments, and at brief points hit the heights of the Marty O’Donnell’s work in Halo. Arm hair standing and the rest!

I labeled the gameplay as core-play, but the story would be better labeled as core-everything. Without the fantastic writing, expert delivery and absolutely insane Codex system – think Mass Effect + a number of layers in the Soulsborne series, and you’ll get an idea of the amount of written content in Masquerada. Everything from character motivations, Guild conflicts through to the different type of politics that flesh out the world at large are stuffed within the Codices. Most of these are automatically filled during natural gameplay, some require repeated conversation during different points in the game, and others are just off the edge of the display like those Masks.

From the prologue, which has to be replayed upon completion of the game, through to the stunning reveals, twists, and politicking that happens so subtly, the narration of Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is like that tattered book you pick up from the bargain bin; shouldn’t keep you up until the bats come out, but it does. You need to know the drive of the supporting characters just as much as the main characters, even if some are underutilised early on. And when the pieces do fall together, even more so via the Codices, you will forget about the undercooked gameplay, the talent lines that often have little meaning and the absolutely unfair treatment of the man in Blue!

Masquerada: Songs and Shadows has the making of a something special, truly it does. The story and art are top-tier, with the gameplay feeling like it came out of a game-jam. As harsh as that reads, I feel no pang of doubt typing or saying it. Masquerada is saved by someone figuring out the water puzzle from Diehard 3, and I am thankful for that. I look forward to seeing what Witching Hour Studios produces next. More Masquerada, please?

Thanks to Xbox and Witching Hour for supporting TiX