Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is a fully voiced, story-driven, tactical role-playing game set in a flamboyant fantasy land that takes inspiration from various European cultures. It's an interesting and colourful adventure that can be completed in around ten hours or so, and its brisk pacing is enough to keep you playing. However, those looking for the kind of depth that's usually associated with the genre may come away disappointed.
You play as Cicero Gavar, a suave and well-voiced inspector who returns to the magical city of Ombre to try and solve a case of missing persons. Ombre's full of political plots, hidden agendas, and strange happenings. Naturally, it isn't long before Cicero and his steady stream of allies are sucked into an expansive web of secrets, and this leads to an engaging plot that's happy to hand out twists on a regular basis.
For the most part, Masquerada's story is well paced, and the main cast of characters are developed quite nicely as the narrative ticks along. Cicero himself is the standout here: he starts off rather abrasive, but his enthusiasm for detective work and the subtitles of his personality come to light as he gradually becomes better acquainted with the rest of the party.
However, it's worth mentioning that there's no implementation of player choice. You can't mould Cicero through dialogue options or anything like that, and truth be told, it seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. Masquerada is a very linear RPG -- one that sees you move from objective marker to objective marker through environments that offer next to no exploration.
There are no non-playable characters to stand and chat to, no optional paths to follow, and no treasure chests to discover. The game's incredibly straight forward structure does preserve the aforementioned pacing of the plot, but it comes at the cost of having a tangible world. As such, even a hint of player choice would have gone a long way in letting you leave your mark on the city of Ombre. Instead, it feels like you're merely watching through a window as events unfold.
That's not to say thought and effort hasn't gone into building Masquerada's world. Clearly developer Witching Hour Studios has invested a lot of time in fleshing out its fantasy realm, but the problem is that all of the details are stuffed into the game's unashamedly huge codex. Characters will often spew overwritten words and phrases that'll mean very little to you unless you've at least been browsing the in-game encyclopedia, and at times, this does hamper the otherwise enjoyable story. Stop paying attention for a moment and you run the risk of being thrown off the current scenario completely.
Aside from trotting between objective markers, the only gameplay present in Masquerada comes in the form of its tactical combat. At its core, this is real-time strategy with the ability to pause the action and issue commands to your allies or survey the battlefield. Think Dragon Age and you're on the right track. Movement is free and you're able to switch between playable characters, each of them boasting their own set of magical abilities.
It's pretty standard stuff, but it's reasonably well executed, and once you have a few allies by your side, it feels like there's just enough depth to keep you entertained. That said, your computer controlled companions aren't overly reliable. You can customise their behaviour to a degree by telling them when and how they should be using certain skills, but their inability to properly navigate the battlefield is the real issue. Big red circles on the ground indicate where an opponent's attack is going to hit, and your buddies will do nothing to protect themselves unless you assume direct control and have them scamper to safety.
It goes without saying that this leads to some frustrating moments later in the game when more challenging foes start to pop up. Fortunately, if you're just here for the story, then there is an easier difficulty setting that keeps combat more than manageable.
Masquerada: Songs and Shadows sacrifices depth to tell an intriguing story. Its incredibly linear design keeps things moving, but between unremarkable combat and an over-reliance on exposition through a bloated codex, it's never able to fully capture your imagination. Masquerada is a stunted RPG that's entertaining enough while it lasts, but you probably won't be coming back to Ombre once it's over.