With the indie scene arguably stronger than ever, certainly in terms of the sheer number of games released every month, standing out from the crowd has never been more difficult. First impressions for Masquerada: Songs and Shadows then, are extremely important.
The investigation generally involves going to an area and exhausting the button prompts, rather than any elementary deduction or substantial puzzles, but the commentary between characters as you journey around locales is what keeps you engaged.
These interactions aren’t mere splashes of text plastered on the screen (though NPCs do get that treatment), rather the main cast are gifted full, and convincing, voiceover alongside cheerful animations that bring the characters to life. The narrative is put across in a stylised way, conversations continuing over loading screens without the transition feeling jarring, and key frames punctuating action scenes to reveal more about our heroes.
The story hits familiar notes in family and redemption, but manages to tackle them in a way which grips you more and more as you delve deeper and get to know the cast more, rather than feeling cliché.
The narrative is put across in a stylised way, conversations continuing over loading screens without the transition feeling jarring.
Progression is a little less elegant. Though your opening gambit with Cyrus is straightforward, as soon as you’re thrown into battle as Cicero for the first time it’s entirely possible you’ll have forgotten everything due to the gap in action (hopefully you have a good memory).
Regardless, you’ll soon pick up the titular Masquerada, an ornately decorated mask - think Phantom of the Opera and you’re part way there - which bestows its user with elemental powers of either wind, fire, water or earth, but mysteriously disintegrates when its user dies, providing some further intrigue as you slowly discover more about the mysterious facade.
It seems slightly unfair to tar indie titles with the same generic, low-fi expectations when it comes to presentation, but the quality of craftsmanship on display here far outstrips the game’s humble origins to provide quality on par with Torment: Tides of Numenera, only without the density which could be a headache for some.
The one complaint we have on that front is that the game’s linear design teases us with rich locales to explore and interact with as we pass through to serve the story, but doesn’t give us the freedom to properly roam or get deep into the culture of the society we’re investigating, throwing up invisible walls to keep us on track.
Enemies have some interesting designs, but knowing the best ways to combat them can be more of a tale of trial and error than a natural learning curve. On the other hand, those at home in the genre should take to it easily and may even beg for more AI and character customisation options to allow for further engagement.
In the end, Masquerada is simply very good, and a game with a different feel to a lot of releases that are currently vying for your attention. That lack of bright light and attention-grabbing sound only serves to undersell what a high-quality experience the folks at Witching Hour Studios have produced, but don’t let that put you off.