By Alexander O. Cuaycong
and Anthony L. Cuaycong
VISUAL NOVELS (VNs) are niche games not often seen in western markets, and for good reason. Most VNs are characterized by their manga/anime art style, a design choice that may well appear childish and cartoony to those otherwise predisposed to realism. Add this to often-cheesy stories from unimaginative VNs, and it’s easy to see why the genre hasn’t taken off as well as initially thought.
Which is not to say all VNs are overlooked and fated to land in the dustbins of mediocrity. In fact, quite a few VNs are received well, both in Japan and abroad. Such notable series as Phoenix Wright, Zero Escape, and Danganronpa distinguish themselves from competitors by injecting interesting gameplay elements alongside rich storylines. From logic-heavy puzzles to action-oriented brawls, these VNs are not only interesting to read, but also to play. Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception (MoD) takes these examples and goes a step further, moving to combine a turn-based strategy system alongside a deliberately textured narrative.
Featuring battle mechanics that feels rhythmic by nature, Utawarerumono: MoD desperately aims to grip players through both its story and its gameplay, and, creditably, tries very hard to do so. Character sprites are done well, though they do tend to overly cater to fan service. Voices are performed admirably, and the story is written and told in such a way that even if the premise of an amnesiac protagonist seems shopworn and generic, it’s still enjoyable to read through. The timing mini-game within battles also captures interest and rewards players for proper inputs during combat by bestowing extra effects on their attacks such as additional damage or status debuffs on enemies.
Needless to say, Utawarerumono: MoD leans heavily on its story to keep players hooked. It starts with an utter absence of information: The lead character does not know who he is and why he is exposed to harsh weather and elements. He then strives to decipher his life with the help of kind-hearted characters (among them Kuon, who names him Haku and takes him in her care) who all have animal ears and tails and who are all much stronger than he is (thus underscoring his fish-out-of-water situation). How he adapts to his surroundings and subsequently becomes familiar with it form the crux of the game. As he travels around Yamato, he gets to interact with locals and enriches himself in the process, enough to care about collective interests and invest in the progress of the vast nation he gets to call home.
To be sure, Utawarerumono: MoD is an acquired taste. Those not normally imbibed with patience will rue the lack of proper pacing; battles occur at seemingly random moments during the story, serving to interrupt the flow of the plot as much as to provide welcome changes. Fights seem to come and go when the story dictates it, and while they do require some strategy, they’re fairly easy to get through — which may or may not be a plus depending on preferences.
For the uninitiated, however, Utawarerumono: MoD’s biggest sin is its lack of choice. Most VNs emphasize the importance of players’ choices and decisions during the game; actions are weighted heavily and impact the story and how it proceeds. But because Utawarerumono: MoD is the type of VN that moves a specific narrative, choices are ultimately meaningless. Player interaction takes a backseat to the epic tale it wants to tell, so when the story gets to its plodding moments, and when battles feel ultimately meaningless, questions are inevitably asked as to the purpose of using an interactive medium to embrace a fixed journey.
Admittedly, Utawarerumono: MoD is a polished work. There’s a definite spark of brilliance shining in the game, seen specifically in its wonderful artistic and stylistic choices. Its characters and settings hold interest and its ideas have merit, especially in the context of the world the game tries to craft. That said, it opens itself to criticism by making choices irrelevant to the denouement. It runs well, plays smoothly, and offers a captivating tale. On the flipside, it takes away the one thing players most like to wield: The power to craft their own destiny.
Video Game Review
Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception
• Excellent art and character designs
• Compelling narrative, boasting of an outstanding backstory and setting
• Unique mechanics for fight sequences
• Iffy transition between tactical battles and story segments
• Fights can be easy and uninteresting, serving to interrupt the story flow
• No player inputs
• Uneven pacing