(PlayStation Vita Review) Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception

Developer: Aquaplus / Sting Entertainment
Publisher: Atlus
Genre: Visual Novel / Strategy Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 7 = Good

Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception marks the long-running series’ official debut in North America. The visual-novel-style adventure was originally released overseas in 2002 for PC, and in subsequent years, the series expanded onto consoles as it blossomed into a multimedia hit with anime and manga adaptations. Given its long history of popular releases under its belt, why has it taken so long for the series to find its way to our shores? That could be down to timing, with the domestic market for visual novels being nearly nonexistent over a decade ago, but it could just as likely be due to the game’s ‘adult’ origins. Times change, however, with genres frequently finding welcomed homes with new audiences; still, some things stay the same, and unsurprisingly, the more provocative elements have been minimized for the series’ first stateside outing. Purists might scoff at the changes, but those willing to accept Atlus’ vision will get to enjoy a lighthearted and humorous adventure.

The story begins with the awakening of the groggy amnesiac Haku. Well, he’s not really Haku, but that’s the name given to him by Kuon, a passerby who comes to his aid. After saving him from the clutches of an aggressive insect-like creature, she offers the befuddled stranger a chance to tag along under her care as they make their way to safety. It doesn’t take long for the two to become fast friends, and their relationship becomes the core around which an expanding cast gravitates towards as the growing party of adventurers makes their way through a world teetering on the verge of war.

Bandits, princesses, guardsmen, and magicians all find their way into the sprawling caravan. Each in turn adds to the versatility of the player’s party and provides yet another foil to Haku’s current task. Despite the double-dealing, betrayal, and combat, the game strikes a decidedly humorous tone, as everything seems to confound or intrigue him. Whether it’s overhearing two women debating how to woo a crush, being drawn into a dangerous scheme, or, in keeping with the series’ origins, embarrassingly stumbling upon a scantily clad party-member while bathing, there’s no shortage of bizarre scenarios and funny observations. Underlying these encounters is a sense that Haku isn’t of that world, as its kingdoms, cultures, and even tail-sporting inhabitants consistently surprise him. It isn’t merely that he cannot remember clearly, but that everything is slightly skewed. His role quickly becomes that of the player’s surrogate, acting as their eyes and processing events as a foreigner to the lands through monologues. This is thanks to the game often avoiding the typical tropes of such a character by not having him be face-palmingly obtuse or downright idiotic. Instead, he’s a fairly sensible protagonist who reacts in a surprisingly grounded manner despite being occasionally, though understandably, overwhelmed by ongoing circumstances.

Given the game’s hefty character count, it’s downright impressive how many of the ancillary cast members also avoid falling into a similar trap. While most start out as an archetype, their personalities are gradually fleshed out in lengthy story sequences that require little of the player other than following along from one conversation to another. The visual novel format is definitely used to its strengths in this regard, as party members are given time to breathe and become developed, unique personalities. The success is down to what must have been a herculean localization effort on the part of Atlus, as the dialog is often crisp, smartly edited, and refreshingly natural. That isn’t to say that all of the characters stand out or that each scenario offers something new—I’ve lost count of how many times a protagonist has walked into a room without knocking while someone was bathing—but it definitely stands out for being able to deftly juggle so much material.

Of course, the downside to allowing so many characters time in the spotlight is that the pace suffers as a result. The overarching storyline often feels lost as players move from one character-specific sequence to another, making only incremental progress to the next major plot point. Just as the next pivotal moment in Haku’s storyline begins unfolding, something else comes up, and even though everything is pointing to an impending revelation about his past, it can…take…so…long to reach. His mysterious origins and presence are central to the political machinations of the realm, but they are frequently relegated to the back burner. As interesting as it might be to watch a weird plan play out between characters, those moments only further to lengthen the distance between not just the next beat but also combat encounters.

On the topic of combat, players who have been eying the game should know that it sits far more on the visual novel side of the spectrum. Despite the game being billed as a hybrid title that combines the storytelling of a visual novel with the engagement of a strategy role-playing game, it is far and away more heavily weighted towards the former. In fact, if text scrolling is left to auto, which goes at a comfortably steady pace, it can be several hours between encounters. Those expecting a rich turn-based system whenever a scuffle breaks out will find a simple if not underwhelming experience. The basics are all there, with characters aligned with elements that are weaker and stronger against others; practiced in certain skill sets and arts, from archery to magic; and limited to set attack patterns on the grid-based battlefields. Experience also nets points that can be allocated towards certain stats, such as health, attack, and defense. The system is definitely serviceable, but there’s very little else to it. The only standout feature is an active element that allows players to extend and enhance attacks or engage a stouter defense. These are triggered by timing button presses during key moments as rings expand, shrink, and fill, adding some excitement. For those who want to break up the seemingly endless story scenes, a Free Battle mode allows players to replay completed encounters to practice as well as gain additional experience. Refighting battles isn’t necessary to get the best of enemies, though, as story fights aren’t particularly difficult. Even when an enemy packs a particularly powerful wallop, the player’s party is generally so strong that victory is all but assured.

As much as the series has been remolded for North America, some of the fan-service elements remain throughout the story. How palatable players find these will be up to their taste, as the sudden appearance of a scantily clad female contorted on a recliner or in a bath won’t tick everyone’s boxes. Save for a few images that were a bit on the iffy side, they are pretty tame as far as these things go, with the always convenient stream of steam or robe sleeve covering up any naughty bits. It’s all tongue-in-cheek, but they can still make for an awkward transition with the adventure suddenly shifting from a bunch of cheesy jokes and sarcastic jibes between lively pals to one of them looking like a cartoon pin-up. The what’s-going-on embarrassment is in line with the humor, but the images make for such jarring visual tonal shifts that they come across as unnecessarily shoehorned in. They might’ve made more sense in the original run, but not so much in this version.

The story stood up well for more of the games, but I was left disappointed in the final act. It took me over 40 hours to complete the game, and while several of the twists were expected, the characters routinely displayed a level of cognition that is often lacking in party-based games. Refreshingly, for once, no one is a bumbling moron. Yet the final act completely betrays this with a sequence that had me shaking my head in disbelief. However, I’m refraining from being too disappointed because a sequel is coming out this summer, Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception: Mask of Truth, and I’m holding out hope that it explains how the crew suddenly became as dense as a pile of rocks. A post-credit sequence makes a better impression, though, so stick around for it.

Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception is a lengthy adventure that is a far more compelling visual novel than it is a strategy role-playing game. Its billing as a mixture of the two is technically correct, as there is a utilitarian turn-based combat system and Free Battle option, but it’s going to disappoint strategy fans expecting a lushly presented story with battles akin to such genre greats as Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea, and Tactics Ogre. It’s certainly serviceable, and in addition, players get a packed cast of likable if long-winded characters that are also funny and surprisingly realized; that said, the occasional attempts at tantalization won’t be for everyone.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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