I can think of few genres as idiosyncratic yet instantly recognizable as the isometric computer role-playing game. Typified by 1990s Infinity Engine games like BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate and Black Isle’s Planescape: Torment, the genre’s seen a comeback in the last few years thanks to high-profile crowdfunded titles like Pillars of Eternity and Torment: Tides of Numenera, and we’re seeing it filter through smaller independent productions now as well.
One of those smaller indie titles is Witching Hour Studios’ Masquerada: Songs and Shadows, recently released on Steam for Windows PC and Mac. Taking the Italian Renaissance and the art of Jean “Moebius” Girard as its aesthetic launching-off point, Masquerada tells a tale of dense political intrigue, social upheaval, and a good old-fashioned murder mystery. It’s designed to provide a familiar Infinity Engine-styled experience without a lot of the inventory management and stat screens usually considered hallmarks of the genre; a Baldur’s Gate for the busy, if you will.
“It took quite a bit for me to convince the team to go along with such a streamlined implementation of a game,” Witching Hour creative director Ian Gregory tells me. “I saw this as a game for working adults, tight on time. Kids, work and all that. If they’re gonna play Masquerada, I wanted them to [be] constantly moving forward, plot and all. Every session dense with progress.”
Movement in Masquerada is accomplished through either WASD keys or point-and-click, whichever the user finds easier. Combat is handled through the same action-pause system familiar to players of old Infinity Engine games, but with far fewer ability slots, closer to an action RPG. Magic attacks are determined through a character’s elemental affinity, chosen early on, and facilitated through the enchanted masks alluded to in the title. There’s no looting of defeated enemy corpses and — most controversially — townsfolk usually keep their homes locked to wayward adventurers, so there’s rarely any reason to go wandering.
Sound disappointing? Perhaps. I love the exploratory and item management parts of RPGs, personally, but there’s no denying these diversions often become a huge time suck. So it’s refreshing to see a game pare itself down to just the essentials needed to propel the story, with fast combat and fully-voiced dialogue.
Masquerada boasts a hell of a voice cast as well, including Matt Mercer (Chrom from Fire Emblem: Awakening; Jesse McCree from Overwatch), Dave Fennoy (Lee from The Walking Dead; narrator from Read Only Memories), Felicia Day (Tallis from Dragon Age; Veronica from Fallout: New Vegas), Yuri Lowenthal (Yosuke from Persona 4), and Jennifer Hale — who should need no introduction at this point.
“I remember at the first session of recording, I turned to Nicholas Chan, the writer, and said, ‘Right, I think we need to up our standards of what we’re making to do these guys justice,'” Gregory recalls.
Its professional-grade voice talent is undoubtedly where Masquerada shines brightest. The script comes out swinging right from the opening tutorial, full of name drops and allusions to events you won’t understand the significance of until much later, and in less capable hands it could easily have fallen flat — but it doesn’t.
“What heartens [me] most is that they genuinely believed in the project, which really drove the team to aim for higher,” Gregory says, of the voice talent.
Masquerada‘s setting and story draw upon a Dungeons & Dragons scenario Gregory headed up with friends several years ago. Gregory, who is based in Singapore, says the game’s undercurrent of class tension is very close to home.
“The divide of rich and poor is becoming more and more apparent every day here in Singapore,” says Gregory. “There are articles about how we’ve become a playground for the rich. You’d be hard pressed to go a day around the island without seeing a few supercars drive by. The disparity is painful.”
When we meet our hero Cicero Guvar (Mercer), he’s returning to a sovereign city-state after a years-long exile, having refused to back either side in a since-quashed civil war. His brother had fought, unsuccessfully, for the emancipation of the city’s underclass — and it’s clear that this time, Cicero will end up having to stand with someone. In other words, Masquerada is a timely tale for 2016, especially on the eve of next month’s U.S. elections.
“There’s a certain god-like quality to the view” of overhead isometric games, says Gregory. “It was an absolute honor to work with such a prolific cast. […] Credit really goes to [lead writer Nicholas Chan] — he layered on so much depth to what I had started with, from things like songs serving as eulogies to the lands that surround our mysterious city.”