Utawarerumono is one of those series that became a huge hit in Japan but never graced us with its presence in the west. For most, their exposure was through a fan translation of the visual novel or from checking out the anime adaptations. It’s a series I hold in high regard having played the original, appreciating how could blend different gameplay elements but never feeling like a mess.
Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception and Mask of Truth released in Japan a year apart from each other, acting as sequels to the original visual novel released back in 2002. I was excited when I heard Atlus announced they were localizing both entries for western audiences, marking the first time the series has ever been seen over here. I had heard great things about these games from those I knew who imported them, so I was more than ready to get my hands on it.
The story is set in a world ruled by the Yamato Empire. After a bizarre sequence of events, our protagonist Haku wakes up in a small hut remotely situated on the side of a snowy mountain.
He is at once greeted by his new caretaker – a girl known as Kuon, who sports animal ears and a tail. Having no recollection of the events leading up to him waking up in this new world, he must now figure out a way to grow accustomed to its rules and culture.
The cast of characters is a real highlight of the entire game. They’re all strong in their respects, presenting a well-rounded story that’s easy to get into and stay engaged for the entire ride – which is good since a lot of it is reading text. While the game only has Japanese audio, the voice cast is brilliant and helps carry the emotional rollercoaster the plot provides.
There are no weak links to speak of and they all fit naturally into their roles. It’s this alone that helped carry the narrative and kept me coming back for more. It also helps the localization is very strong (at least in my knowledge of the material), with plenty of charming and incredibly tense moments wrapped up in a downright gorgeous soundtrack.
Speaking of which, the look of the game sells it more than anything. All the character designs are pleasant for the eyes and make this an easy sell for any anime fan. It has a unique art style, blending high-quality 2D visual novel portraits with 3D isometric gameplay. Anyone who has played Tears to Tiara II may be familiar with this design.
Personally, I find it appealing, and it holds up well on the PS4. While it may not win any awards for the visuals, the emotive character models and the beautiful portraits were enough to draw me deep into the overall experience.
Another highlight is the fast-paced combat system. As a strategy RPG, it has all the important hallmarks of the genre. You start the battle by choosing which party members you would like to include and decide where they stand in the starting grid. You can take a look at their stats, make adjustments to their equipment (and costumes), and even see what the turn order would be in the first round. The last part is particularly helpful depending on the victory/defeat conditions of the encounter.
Otherwise, the flow of combat is as you’d expect. You move characters around a set grid that extend based on the stats of the party member. Each attack or skill comes with its own range of spaces needed to trigger the move. Once you’re immediately in range of an enemy, the game presents you with all the different abilities you can use. This helps speed up the flow of the encounter by not forcing you to stare at menus all day and makes for some exciting moments.
It also has a system like Lost Odyssey’s Aim Ring system called “action chains.” After starting your attack, a large circle appears around a much smaller one, compressing together as your character attacks. By timing the button press right when the two circles meet, you will deal critical damage.
As they grow in level, a party member will strengthen their action chain, letting them use more moves after successfully doing a critical hit. There are also different ring mechanics depending on the move used, from a ring growing bigger (rather than smaller) to following a line that travels clockwise around a circle’s perimeter.
If this all sounds confusing to you, the game has “Auto Action Chain” turned on by default so you can just let it decide what skills to use depending on the enemy. It can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be.
Another feature in combat is the Zeal gauge. Every time you do a critical attack, you’re granted a certain amount of zeal that’s consumed by certain action chains and skills. Once the gauge is full, the party member will enter an overzeal state, given that unit an additional turn. It also removes any status ailments they may have and allow them to perform the Final Strike skill.
You have to be mindful of a character’s elemental affinity. Kind of like in Persona, each person is bound to one of seven elements: Fire, Water, Wind, Earth, Light, Dark, and Neutral. Every individual has an element they’re strong against or one they’re weak against, so it’s important to consider these relationships during battle.
You’re also granted an opportunity to rewind time in case you made a miscalculation, a handy feature that removes some of the frustration. You can go back as far as 50 turns and preview the state of your party during each turn. The only downside is you’re unable to go back to the point you were at before rewinding, but that is the trade-off. Otherwise, you’re not penalized.
While I talk a lot about the combat, there isn’t a lot of it to speak of. In the first 5 hours of the story, you’ll only get into a battle once. Thankfully, as the game approaches its third act, you’ll be in far more encounters.
As the game was divided into two parts, with Mask of Truth being the second half, this entry puts far more emphasis on characters and relationships. Unfortunately, this also leaves a lot of unanswered questions when the ending credits roll. As long as you aren’t put off by this, you’ll be perfectly fine.
Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception was a pleasant ride from beginning to end. While the pacing can be off with how infrequent the combat is, the story more than makes up for it. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments intermingled with the dramatic punches found within. Combined with the excellent voice acting and the charming art design, and fans of this genre will discover a lot to fall in love with.