Masquerada is an indie Baldur’s Gate-style CRPG that is memorable and engaging. It evokes a larger world that is interesting and complex with characters that feel real. There is a distinctive art style and the music and sound design rival larger, more expensive games. However, the combat and leveling system is not initially intuitive.
I am probably a slow learner, but, it took about 3 hours to make sense of the combat. At first, the frantic fights while not overwhelming are almost obtuse. I didn’t always have a very good idea about why I won or lost a particular fight. One wonders if this is really a function of the tactical real-time combat that was pioneered in Baldur’s Gate and succeeded by Icewind Dale, Neverwinter Nights, Planescape: Torment, Dragon Age, Pillars of Eternity, etc. If I was really honest, maybe I’ve outgrown this sort of combat in the same way I’ve felt that I’ve outgrown JRPGs. Maybe “outgrown” is the wrong word. Maybe my tastes have just changed over time and I like different things now, right? It seems weird to continually only enjoy one kind of thing for almost two decades with no real change. Perhaps while being a fan of the genre, I’ve never been exactly comfortable with the combat mechanics expected in a game like this. It always seems like two steps behind a strategy game like XCOM or Fire Emblem but rigid enough to not be an ARPG. I look at the history of the CRPG with rose colored glasses and it pains me to see the seams.
Thankfully, Masquerada, while being a descendant of the same combat style that I loved so much in my freshman year dorm room, keeps this aspect of the game light and simple for old veterans like me. With practice, the combat hits its stride and I’ve started to look forward to every encounter. There were some problems with being able to click on certain enemies, and sometimes abilities didn’t activate. However, despite a few technical glitches, Masquerada’s combat gets better with time. The frantic nature evolves into a wild experience that while not exemplary is nonetheless fun and interesting.
The art is absolutely exquisite with clean lines, small details, and a style that looks like something from Moebius, Frank Quitely, or even Dave Gibbons. The backgrounds evoke realistic and grounded feeling, not unlike the characterization, but there is a added panache of fantastical surrealism. The color and vividness makes the mature content feel vibrant and alive.
The costumes for each character big or small is another highlight. Bridging the gap between practical and ostentatious, Masquerada’s design is imaginative while being logical.
A special mention must be made for the soundtrack. Haunting and classical, Masquerada’s score fits the setting so well. Ouij’tre sounds like something out of a classical opera or a Renaissance-era choir. It is moody, mysterious, and deceptively sinister not unlike the setting of the game. Listen to Destiny in the Hall of Songs and F’yoso Aj’o back to back and experience something tense, evocative, and simply wonderful. Bravo.
While being a very linear game, the story is allowed to be concise and not diluted by a multitude of choice. In a genre where a character is considered morally gray if they simply feel “bad” for their terrible actions, Masquerada’s characters feel like they have different motivations, personalities, and emotions while still maintaining consistency. There is a reason that the spear carrying archaeologist is uneasy around the main character. Likewise, there are real reasons characters become upset or distrustful.
Tiziana, a member of the Golden Guild, is the requisite “lawful good paladin”. Straightforward with a definite moral compass, her actions might seem to be stereotypically in line with the naive “good” character. However, her motivations feel realistic and well thought out.
Masquerada does a tremendous job building characters into living people despite being set in a stylized Venetian-like fantasy world complete with magic, monsters, and archaic capitalized words. What is more remarkable is that unlike other games, TV shows, or movies, “realistic” doesn’t mean the story is grim dark or traumatic. There are dark themes to be sure, but each person, especially the main cast, feels grounded and mature in a serious, adult fashion without the pitfalls of juvenile hyper-violence or overt sexualization.
Masquerada has a lot to unpack, and you will instantly understand that this original setting feels "lived in" with a thought-out history. There is a line someone utters in reference to the upper class elite: “Why do they have so much energy for the dead, when the living still suffer?” I was struck by this notion because it encapsulated the numerous, complicated forces pushing and pulling the emotional core. It asks the question: what happens to the living left behind after a tragedy, after a war, after the death of a loved one? How do the living deal?
I am transfixed with how well the game evokes a stratified society with its masks. Masks are the source of magic and power in Masquerada, and their wielders, the Masquerada, are the rich and the powerful. At one point the main protagonist, Cicero Gavar, opines that a member of the lower class without a mask doesn’t have much hope for a future. Sure, the talented might be able to squeeze out a reasonable enough living, but they are at a disadvantage from birth.
A remarkable aspect of the setting is that there is no real context of who is a Masquerada or not. You are either born into it or not. It isn’t some natural ability that only some people can do. In fact, the main thrust of the story is that the aforementioned Cicero Gavar’s brother breaks into the vault holding all the masks and distributes them among the poor and disenfranchised. This sparks a revolution disrupting the social order in the most serious ways.
It is a simple hop, skip, and jump to allude to economic redistribution, practiced segregation amongst social constructions, and inequality. Perhaps it is a fair leap, but like all good fantasy or fiction the allegory is simple and a appropriate stand-in for deeper, more complex real world issues. I am really enjoying this stuff tremendously. It feels akin to the Dalish Elf storylines in the Dragon Age games. I love how the masks can represent voting rights, class-ism, wealth inequality, and that Cicero’s family is one of the few that transcended their social class and actually become part of the Masquerada.
You can sense the unease that Cicero has for his new station in life. He tries to keep his humble garments when returning home from exile. However, his face and name are instantly recognizable, and he can’t help but be swallowed up by how society thinks he should look or act. Even with a brother that started a bloody revolt, Cicero’s station is enviable.
Growing up between the United States and the Philippines as a two-culture kid , I understand this feeling of duality all too well. Sometimes, I wasn’t Filipino enough in Manila and in the US I wouldn’t be American enough. I’d be teased for not knowing how to speak Tagalog or Bisayan or I’d get quizzical looks when I’d reference something outside of an American perspective. There is a lot of code-switching that happens, and while not overt, this side of Cicero is also present in some of the other characters. Perhaps the masks we wear are deeper and hidden.
The Maskrunners revolt is another interesting piece of the Masquerada story. While born of the idea of redistributing the wealth and power of society to the masses, the revolt soon turns sour. Their charismatic leader is killed early on and the resulting war turns bloody and awful. I love how grounded this idea is while still leaving room for the fantastical.