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We have rounded up some recent coverage of Masquerada: Songs and Shadows, Witching Hour Studios' recently-announced real-time with pause RPG meant for release on Mac, PC and consoles early next year, which is set in a Venice-like city and promises to offer a story filled with intrigue, albeit a linear one.
RPGWatch's Emma Yorke penned a preview:
Witching Hour Studios clearly drew heavily from Disney's Golden Age. Dialogue is heavily story-focused, fully voiced and with unique touches. When the characters engage in dialogue, a banner appears at the top of the screen as they speak their lines. These banners are frames, displaying fascinating characters rendered in sharp, top-notch animation in the best Disney tradition. Consider what would happen if Beauty and the Beast met Phantom of the Opera and saved us the cheesy music. Though while they've kept us from having to relive that third grade nightmare of sitting through singing dialogue, the love of music has clearly had a hand in the design of the game. The UI is cleverly designed and classy. Spells and special abilities along the bottom of the screen have been displayed in what looks like a sophisticated piece of sheet music. Animations of spells play out in a style almost reminiscent of Wind Waker, and combat animations flow nicely. The whole thing, for being so early in development, flows beautifully and has the feel of a game with a lot better budget. Someone loves their work and is determined to deliver a higher quality RPG. It's a pleasant surprise. I don't know what I was expecting. Obviously something not as well-made.
Lookswise, at least, this game is as sophisticated as the masques the mysterious, epee-wielding main character wears.
As did Destructoid:
The game takes place in a Venetian-inspired fantasy city called Ombre, and as it happens, is the only place in the game's world where magic exists. However, discovering and donning rare masks are the key to learning and harnessing that magical power. Gregory describes the mask's function in the game as that of "batteries," storing built-up magical energy to be released in the form of the different classes' skills and abilities.
Players follow the story of Inspettore Cicero Gavar as he returns from exile to solve a kidnapping that, as the game's description states, will "shake up the foundations of the city." Cicero, your starting character in the game, is a Maestro, a hybrid class that draws from the skills of all three main character classes.
The three main classes available in the game are the Sicario, who fills the role of an assassin; the Pavisierre, the tank in the group; and lastly, the Dirge, a bard-like character who can cast both summons and buffs. Each class will have access to eight to ten different abilities, all of which possess their own skill trees.
Indie Game Magazine brings us yet another preview:
As mentioned, Witching Hour Studios borrows quite a bit of the combat from classic BioWare franchises such as Balder's Gate and Dragon Age. The combat can be paused at any time, and commands can be issued to all party members (three are taken into battle at a time. Whether or not the party will get any larger is not yet known.) before resuming the action and watching the fight unfold. Players can also directly control any party member they choose, switching between them on the fly, and use real-time tactics without pausing. Each character has a number of skills that can be assigned to a taskbar, much like in an MMO or MOBA. Each ability has a cooldown meter as well, but there is also a basic attack that can be spammed. Characters can wear interchangeable masks that grant different abilities and buffs, and when a certain meter is full, players can trigger a more powerful attack for that character, with the effect being determined by the current mask worn. It all adds up to some exhilarating combat that is as fast and fluid as the player desires, achieving the ultimate goal of being satisfying.
In addition to combat reminiscent of BioWare games, Witching Hour is also borrowing another BioWare staple to add to Masquerada: Emphasis on three-dimensional characters that feel real in their emotional responses and reactions to the world around them. The team admires BioWare's ability to interweave a strong narrative into the gameplay mechanics, and that's something they hope to achieve with Masquerada. The one aspect unfortunately beyond Witching Hour's current grasp, due to the small team size, is a branching narrative with decisions that impact the course of the plot. But the team believes the flip-side to this is that it allows them to tell a more focused, cohesive story that they can more intimately craft.
I was reminded a few times that positioning and synergy were the main pillars of combat. The pause feature lets you take a step back and plan out your strategy while queuing up your party's abilities. As I got used to how the enemy NPCs moved and attacked, I was able to spend less time with the game paused, and more time swapping between party members in real time, firing off abilities as I went. The latter was fine for encounters with small packs of enemies in tight dungeon hallways, but I really appreciated the pause feature once I got mixed up in a boss fight.
Laughing was the natural reaction the first time I tried to run in gung-ho and wound up with all three party members stunned and losing health fast. Once I got my bearings, I was able to pause and use the variety of support and healing spells to get my team back in fighting shape.
The isometric gameplay refines the genre rather than expands it. The pause-for-tactics feature is certainly a major part of the gameplay, but it's impossible to abuse this feature too much. Pausing time is only as useful as the abilities that characters have to cast, and ability cool-down times can result in a saturation point if the player is not prudent, leaving them without any abilities to choose from during the planning stage. Thankfully, it is relatively easy to keep tabs on the action during real-time combat. Player character and enemy's health and shields are indicated by color coded rings at their feet. The shields' circles only cover the front half of a character's ring, and for good reason: blows to the back deal bonus damage. In order to successfully take down the demo's boss fight, I had to balance this aspect of the game with my party's abilities, all while carefully balancing skill cool-down times.
Engadget's write-up puts some emphasis on the game's treatment of gay characters:
"I'm tired that gay characters in games are portrayed [as] oversexualized," Gregory says. "While some have depth, they seem to be defined by their sexuality and not enough by their humanity. If we're gonna constantly harp on how different they are just by their bedroom habits, that's all society will latch on to. We'd like to show the perspective of a gay character whose choices and behaviors are profoundly affected by others' conflicting attitudes to their sexual orientation -- and to do so in a way where the conversation isn't about romance."
"We're going to explore fear, guilt, loss, redemption," he says. "A situation where a player would take on the role of a good friend instead of a lover. Perhaps something more familiar to those of us not of the orientation."
Finally, Siliconera has an interview with the game's creative director Ian Gregory:
What kind of world is it set in? I've seen mention of the city's politics being a part of the game care to explain?
Masquerada is set it in the coastal city of Ombre, the only place in the world where magic exists. Magic has shaped society in strange ways. From the way the city looks at death and religion to the distribution of power among its denizens.
Also unique to the city, of course, are the masks. Without which, the people can only summon a trickle of magic. These masks work as batteries to the will of their users and can roughly be translated as raw power to the various guilds of Ombre. Each of them vying for control and dominance. As a finite resource, you can imagine how vicious things can get.
Thankfully, they only work within the city and its surroundings, so the fight for control of them are quite insular. Cicero, the main character will have to swim through their politics and age old vendettas.