Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception Review: A Slow Burn With A Big Payoff

7.5
2017-05-23
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Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception Atlus

Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception immerses players in a sweeping visual novel interspersed with SRPG combat elements. Fans of previous Utawarerumono manga, anime and games are undoubtedly a sizeable chunk of the target audience here, though the game’s story is engaging enough to lure in those unfamiliar with the series (like me) looking for a laid-back, immersive fantasy adventure. Though the adventure does get off to a slow start, its endearing characters, twisty-turny plot and generous sprinkling of anime-inspired humor left me eagerly awaiting the next installment.

Inspired by early Japanese history and the archipelago’s indigenous Ainu people, Mask of Deception brings players into the intricately detailed world of the Yamato Empire. As the game opens, the amnesiac protagonist, later known as Haku, wanders around a wintry mountain pass until being rescued by an adventurer called Kuon. She nurses Haku back to health and takes him on as a travelling companion. What starts off as a few odd jobs quickly leads Haku and Kuon to challenging a gang of bandits, getting embroiled in imperial politics and slowly discovering snippets of his lost past.

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A typical scene in 'Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception' Photo: Atlus

Mask of Deception is a visual novel, so much of the action consists of watching and reading about Haku and his companions. If you’re looking to scratch that Fire Emblem or Disgaea itch, you might be left frustrated by the long stretches between battles.

READ: 'Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows Of Valentia' Review: Blast From The Past Signals New Direction For Franchise

The game features Japanese audio with English text, so this is one for the “subs not dubs” folks. My Japanese language skills are unfortunately nonexistent, so I can’t speak to the precision of the translation, but Atlus USA’s localization feels natural, allowing each character in the large cast to exhibit a distinct voice and personality. I’m hard pressed to think of any instances where the game’s dialogue sounded clunky or oddly worded, though admittedly a fantasy/old-timey setting can hide a multitude of sins in that respect.

While I played Mask of Deception on my PS4, this could be an excellent portable title. The game moves at a leisurely pace, and there’s little chance of a momentary distraction leading to accidental death, even in later battles, due to the turn-based setup. This would be a great game to have for a long journey in a car or plane.

The combat in the first several hours of Mask of Deception is infrequent, simple and brief. At first I was disappointed by this, leading me to put the game aside for a few days. But I still wanted to see where the story went, and after I resumed, both the plot and the fighting became much more dynamic. I started seeing maps with unique terrain features and victory conditions, opened up more interesting attacks and buffs for my fighters, and faced off against more challenging enemies. What’s more, the game allows you to replay any previously cleared battle at any time (thus netting some bonus experience). There’s also 16 post-game bonus maps to test your mettle after completing the story content.

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Combat in 'Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception' Photo: Atlus

The combat system also offers several options to tweak the difficulty: you can count on your timing to trigger combos or set them to automatic, and a rewind function allows you to roll back the clock (in case you lead one of your units too far away from the pack and find yourself in an ambush). Characters can also equip skill scrolls earned after battles to enhance traits like movement, defense and elemental resistance, allowing for a bit of customization.

Given that Mask of Deception is first and foremost a visual novel, it lives and dies by its characters and story. Along the way, Haku and Kuon recruit princesses, scholars, warriors and thieves from a host of different nations to join their group.

At first glance, it seems like a cavalcade of well-worn anime tropes: there’s a lot (A LOT) of buxom women with tails and/or furry ears, sexy mishaps in the communal baths, some truly baffling outfits, multiple identities, a tsundere, and everyone is in love with the protagonist. In keeping with that, there's sexually suggestive humor sprinkled throughout, but nothing explicit or offensive. 

But watching the group grow closer, developing their own inside jokes and pet peeves, quickly draws you in. Even the non-playable characters, like the Mikado who reigns over Yamato with his eight trusted Pillar Generals, the staff at the inn where the group eventually makes their headquarters, and even the local food vendors and barkeeps weave together to give rise to a complex, fascinating world that I found myself eager to explore and learn more about.

READ: 'Utawarerumono' Trailer: Ukon's Crazy Eyebrows And A Topless Bandit

Like the combat, the story takes a few hours to establish itself as there’s dozens of characters to introduce and heaps of information to convey. That said, for a game that’s technically a sequel to another that’s more than a decade old, it does a remarkable job of giving players all the information they need. I’m sure there’s stuff I might have enjoyed more had I been more familiar with Utawarerumono in general, particularly in the early hours of the game, but that didn’t keep me from staying up too late to see what happened next. Though it spends an awful lot of time laying down foundations, all that setup really pays off. Mask of Deception offers up a couple massive plot twists that had me waggling my controller at the TV, slack-jawed.      

If you’re looking for deep, complex turn-based strategy and don’t like a lot of reading in your games, you likely won’t be satisfied with a game that’s more visual novel than SRPG. But if you’re an anime fan, or someone who enjoys Telltale’s serials or narratively-driven games like Life Is Strange, Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception is well worth a look. It’s also worth noting that Mask of Deception isn’t a standalone game, but the first installment in a two-parter: the sequel, Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth, comes to PS4 and Vita in the U.S. and Canada on Sept. 5.

Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception is available now for PS4 and Vita.

REVIEW SUMMARY
Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception
7.5
A Slow Burn With A Big Payoff
Endearing characters, twisty-turny plot and generous sprinkling of anime-inspired humor will leave you eagerly awaiting the next installment.
  • Engaging main characters and story
  • Great plot twists
  • Linear progression lets you sit back and enjoy the ride
  • Takes several hours to get off the ground
  • Expansive cast can be hard to keep track of
  • Early battles are too easy
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