Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception Review
Release Date: May 23rd, 2017
Platforms: PS Vita, PS4
Price: $39.99 (PlayStation Vita), $49.99 (PlayStation 4)
Imagine waking up one day in the middle of nowhere, where it's cold, snowing, the woods are endless, and you're surrounded by are the chirps of birds, the rustling of the trees and the sounds of your footsteps. You don't even know your own name or what to do in the situation except your basic human functions. Utawarerumono - which means The One Being Sung in Japanese - puts you in the shoes of an unnamed man in this exact position where he must find out why he woke up there, how he ended up in that position, and journey back into the discovery of who he is along the way.
Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception is mostly a Visual Novel, but does contain some gameplay elements in the form of a Strategy RPG. The game will have you venture through towns and lands as you come into a better understanding of who you are, and in doing so trying to fit back into society as a man that has nothing and knows nothing. When you wake and coming to terms with the unfortunate situation you're in, the unnamed man walks and walks until he hopes he can run into a village or some sort of civilization that can offer help in getting him back to where he was. Along the way, the unnamed man finds himself face to face with a gigantic ant looking creature. Cold, defenseless, and fatigued, the man does his best to run from his potential demise, and in doing so falls down a cliff and into a cave deep below. Adrenaline-fueled, he does his best to escape certain death by continuing to run down this cave until he feels he is safe. Seemingly free, he rests for a moment to regain his breath, only to find that a few blinks later he is confronted once again by the monstrosity he was faced with earlier. Now pinned against the wall, he has accepted his fate, but at the moment of certain death, an object shrouded by shadows in the distance makes its way towards the two and gobbles the creature whole. Though it wasn't an attempt to save the unnamed man and to simply protect its habitat, once the opportunity is seen, the man takes it and runs once again before he could become the next target. Fatigued, wounded, and delirious, the man collapses in his escape. As the unknown creature slowly approaches the man after devouring the initial creature, he's once again ready to accept fate, but as it draws closer, footsteps in the distance rapidly make its way closer and closer, until right before passing out again, he sees what looks like a fellow human scare the creature away and save the man before losing consciousness. It's after this heart-pounding opening where you'll meet a girl on her travels, Kuon, who you decide to go with as she traverses the land, hoping you'll find your answers along the way and with her help as you're brought back into fighting shape.
While Utawererumono: Mask of Deception has Strategy RPG elements, it's mainly a Visual Novel first and foremost, so don't go in expecting a balance of the two or a Strategy RPG that's heavily text-based like Fire Emblem or Disgaea. Those games waste no time getting you right into the action, delivering a story not only through cutscenes, but the battles themselves also defining the outcome and shape of the narrative. As a fan of Visual Novels, this does not bother me one bit, and I welcome a great story in a game where that's the focus, even if it's only through text. The added Strategy RPG elements are a bonus, making it a little more immersive and adding depth to the overall game. The issue with Visual Novels is, and while this is a personal ordeal, they shouldn't be on consoles at all. Utawererumono: Mask of Deception is on both the PlayStation 4 and the PlayStation Vita, and while the games are identical in every shape and form, this review was done with the PlayStation 4 version of the game, where despite the 1:1 parity, due to the game's genre and lack of upgrades done to the PlayStation 4 counterpart, it does it a disservice and makes it inferior, despite the clear power advantage the PS4 would obviously have over a handheld. To add to this, it's obvious right away when booting up that the game has been upscaled, presumably from the Vita version, and the only real reason why this is getting a PS4 release in the west is due to the larger install base it has versus Vita, where it's - if thinking globally - 6 to 1. There is no anti-aliasing either, which for a game like this is no excuse. Given it's a Visual Novel, the art, menus, text, and everything the game does should be rendered at a minimum and native 1080p, 60 fps. This is not a demanding game by any stretch of the imagination, and, once again, while it looks great and performs great on the Vita, the PS4 version should be spruced up given the obvious advantage of power. Ultimately, your PS4 becomes a larger PSTV, where the game would look and run the same with the Vita version.
Visual fidelity for the PS4 version aside, the game has some stunning art that complements the story and environment extremely well. Everyone has a distinct look and no one feels recycled like some games have a tendency to do to save time on less significant characters. The dialogue is well written and gives everyone a personality rather quickly, and on top of a well written script is some quality humor that you can't help but smile and laugh with. There are some immensely goofy moments, and this is welcoming in a story about a man that has nothing, knows nothing, and essentially is nothing. It gives a sense of hope and joy to your character, and the people around you that you interact with will help make the story feel more lively this way as well. It's a very natural going interaction with the encounters you have. You'll occasionally have choices throughout the story, and within these choices will periodically lie a battle waiting to happen for you to partake in. This is where the Strategy RPG portion of the game comes in, and it's pleasingly fun.
Those familiar with Strategy RPGs should find the battle portions of Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception easy to pick up, as it carries out your standard battle mechanics of moving within a gridlocked field, strategically placing and maneuvering your units through the board to best take out your enemies. It doesn't invent or bring anything new to the table, but it doesn't necessarily need to. The UI is clean on the battlefield, attacks are straightforward, and just like other RPGs, despite the Visual Novel approach, you will gain XP as you defeat your enemies. XP will cause your party members - typically you and those met through the course of the story - to level up, which will then give you an advantage in future battles and help gain useful items for various events. Those looking to grind are more than welcome to do so in certain hub-like locations as the story progresses to gain more XP and items at their leisure through Free Battle in the menus, though the stages available are those you've fought in previously, so don't expect many to be made available quickly, as the battles are typically at the end of chapters, some of which can be up to three hours long. Once again, this is a Visual Novel firstly, so not much emphasis is put into the SRPG segments - they are, however, a welcomed bonus.
Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception has a really great premise, and is surprisingly being released almost in a "double album" like fashion, with this game being released on May 23rd, followed by its sequel in September. They're not keeping folks waiting, and I personally think that's great as it makes it seem like an extravaganza event for the game, having a two-parter, though, technically, this would be the third in the series — the first title released way back in 2002 never saw a release outside of Japan! Thankfully, Mask of Deception and its follow up, Mask of Truth, don't require the knowledge of the first, even though Mask of Truth will be a serialized sequel to Mask of Deception. If players find themselves getting lost on understanding settings, story elements, anything of that nature, or simply want to dive deeper into the lore, Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception has a nice Glossary feature that gives you detailed information on all the characters you've run into so far, as well as any items or events you may have encountered and elaborate on anything the player may be interested in. It's a neat feature I found myself going back to frequently to get better insight on stuff, not because I didn't understand it, but because I wanted to learn more. The game and the story keeps you curious, so for those that really feel invested in it, they should have a good time with the Glossary.
Visual Novels aren't the most popular of genres, especially in the west, which is extremely unfortunate, but they are a gem that should be respected and appreciated, especially for those of us that love a good story. Sometimes that's all we want, and to be able to go through one that's solid is great. Visual Novels are exactly what they sound like: Novels that contain visuals. The illustrations, usually accompanied by voice acting and slight animations, give the story a vibrant new life that sometimes our imaginations may not have been able to do justice. However, as a novel usually is, it's typically read in your hands or on a tablet close to your face, not on a TV feet away. Visual Novels feel right at home on handhelds, and Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception is a great addition to those that own a Vita and love Visual Novels like Steins;Gate, XBLAZE, Code: Realize, and so many other great titles in that category, but in the console space it's just bizarre and uncomfortable. Personally, these games are best enjoyed on your downtime when lounging peacefully, or as you lay in bed before falling asleep like you would a normal book, but to put Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception on your TV when it's upscaled, unrefined, and untouched from the Vita version is just an unjust way of playing the title. For the PS4 version, I set the text to automatically go to the next page of dialogue whenever the voices were done, and while I put in well over 20+ hours into this great story, I probably touched my controller for a total of ten minutes throughout that entire play-session. I simply sat there in my chair reading text on a monitor that could have been doing so much more. The good news is is that Remote Play for this title is fantastic and makes it more comfortable when playing the PS4 version, but if you're just going to do that, there's a native Vita version ready to be played instead – and you save yourself $10 in the process.
- An indulging story that keeps you curious about the fate of your character and the origins of you and everyone around you
- Art that makes every character feel unique to each other in the world and not seem recycled with doppelgangers
- The SRPG gameplay elements work really well, and is a nice addition to the great, but admittedly (and typically) gameplay-less Visual Novel genre.
- Glossary is a big help in wanting to explore the lore deeper and get a better understanding on events, characters, items, and much more
- Visually, for PS4, it just seems like it is an upscaled port of the Vita version of the game. Nothing too demanding or different and doesn't take advantage of the technical prowess and advantage the console has over the handheld.
- I've felt this way for a very long time, but Visual Novels need to remain on handhelds and sometimes PC. With NOVELS you would typically read them holding the book in your hands, or digitally on a screen close to your face, on your bed, in a study, or outdoors in a lounge area. Having a visual novel on a console with the TV a good amount of feet away from you is inconvenient, doesn't look good, and with nothing flashy typically happening but text scrolling, I can't find any real reason why someone would rather read on a television. It becomes an at-home eye examination you're essentially doing, albeit a little more entertaining.
- PS4 version looks identical as the Vita version, and while the Vita version looks and performs great, not sprucing up the PS4 version visually makes it feel like a lazy port and will make consumers feel a bit gypped that opt for the console game, especially for $10 more than its handheld counterpart.
Thank you ATLUS for graciously sending us a copy for review!