Review: Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception takes a novel approach to telling its tail tale

Have you read any good games lately? Visual novels are nothing new, but their presence on consoles is often paired with something more closely following the traditional definition of gameplay. Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception is no different, augmenting a dozens-of-hours-long story with strategy-RPG skirmishes. Still, the game’s primary motivation shines through: to tell a very specific story and have you follow along.

Okay, so just what is this game, anyway? Let’s try to answer that. Utawarerumono is a cross-media series from Aquaplus with a fantasy theme and various animal-like people. It started as a visual novel in the early 2000s, and has branched out into anime, manga and other properties, some of which were localized, but the original game remains officially unreleased outside of Japan. Mask of Deception is a sequel to that title, and its direct follow-up — Mask of Truth — will follow later this year. As with most of Aquaplus’ work, Utawarerumono has adult game roots, and it still shows those influences in console releases like this one.

As with most of Aquaplus’ work, Utawarerumono has adult game roots, and it still shows those influences in console releases like this one.

At first glance, Mask of Deception‘s blend of visual novel and tactical combat could draw comparisons to Sakura Wars, but two things separate the series. The first: when we say visual novel, we mean it, as there’s no story interaction to be found. Sometimes there is the illusion of choice, as you can view scenes in an order of your choosing, but this doesn’t make a noticeable difference in the scenes themselves. Second, and fairly obvious given that first point, is that the two halves aren’t strategically connected. You’ll read text for… well, a very long time, and then you’ll get a break occasionally for a grid-based battle.

If you’re looking at those battles for a reason to play, though, don’t. It’s a decent enough storytelling conceit if you’re invested in the story being told, but this makes up maybe five percent of the game, and there’s nothing happening in these battles that isn’t done better by Final Fantasy Tactics, or Jeanne d’Arc, or, heck, Aquaplus’ own Tears to Tiara II. The Normal difficulty makes these battles entirely trivial and harder difficulties don’t make them more tactically interesting so much as they make them take slightly longer. It’s unfortunate, since we’ve seen well-blended play work to great effect.

That combat is supposed to land harder on players through its use of “action chains,” which are button-timing bonuses, and various special abilities and elemental affinities. The idea of adding activity and engagement here is a good one, as visual novels often have players leaning back and losing focus from time to time and something more physically engaging offers a change of pace. As it is, battles are a breeze even ignoring all of these things, so there’s not much of an incentive to explore them. There’s a degree to which self-imposed challenge could make these more interesting — like arbitrarily fielding fewer units or something — but resorting to tactics like that shouldn’t be necessary.

Oh, and about that story! It didn’t really land as particularly compelling for us, but there are fans of the manga and anime series in the West, and those who’ve actually played the first game through various translation efforts could be invested in this release’s references to that original work. There are still too many connections to the franchise’s eroge past to take things too seriously; arbitrary fanservice scenes are frequent and unavoidable, making the heavier moments of large-scale conflict and portents of dark things to come land awkwardly atop this foundation. It’s also totally the first part of a two-act tale; you’re not going to want to just read this and not see it through with Mask of Truth, so the result is a game that asks a lot in terms of time and money investment.

Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception is a game that asks a lot in terms of time and money investment.

Utawarerumono is a nice-looking game, never pushing technical boundaries but sticking with a time-tested visual style that makes sense from a studio that’s long relied on its hand-drawn, manga-adjacent aesthetics. It revisits a lot of locations, so you’ll see the same stuff over and over, but it’s not as annoying as many games have been that employ such cost-saving tactics. The sound work is pleasant and unobtrusive, and the technical issues that plague many PS4-Vita releases are not prominently found here.

The appeal of Utawarerumono lies almost entirely in the tale it tells. Do you want to read this fanservice-heavy story of slightly-animal-like people and their fantasy world? Because there really isn’t much else that’s here, despite some efforts to implement more through its combat segments. The tale itself is plodding, meandering and hard to follow, making it difficult to enjoy by those not dedicated from the start to seeing it through.

Score: 6/10
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: May 23, 2017
Developer: Aquaplus
Platform(s): PS4, Vita
Questions? Check out our review guide.
A review copy was provided by the publisher or developer for this review.

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