This Week in Games - Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception

by Dustin Bailey,
It's tough to pick out a game less anime than the recently rebooted Hitman, but I can't avoid taking a moment to lament the fate of IO Interactive under the Square Enix umbrella. That new Hitman was an utter delight, and the deck was stacked against its success from the very beginning. It was to be a retail game before switching to an episodic release, its always-online nature set the internet against it, and the failures of Absolution had everyone skeptical. Yet it ended up being one of the very best games of last year.

Unfortunately, it seems its quality didn't translate to enough financial success for Square's tastes. Square's looking to rid itself of IO, and the future of the Hitman franchise is now up in the air. We don't know whether Square or IO will retain the rights to Agent 47, or what this means for the future of the current Hitman game, which was scheduled for a second season this year.

Whatever the specifics, it doesn't sound great for Hitman's future, and that's a shame. Let's not kid ourselves here—I really liked Final Fantasy XV and Deus Ex is fine enough, but Hitman was by far the best game Square put out last year. Best of luck, 47.

First Impressions - Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception

Utawarerumono has followed a surprisingly well-trodden path to the state of fully-exploited anime media franchise, starting life as an adult visual novel before dropping its more salacious aspects in favor of slightly more mainstream sales potential and less sexy sequels. Mask of Deception is the second game in the series, and the first to see an official English translation, with the more recent third—and for now, final—game scheduled for Western release later this year.

Mask of Deception follows the same plot adapted into the 2015 anime series—typically translated as the False Faces, putting you in the role of amnesiac protagonist thrust into a fantasy world full of dangerous monsters and pretty female companions. You awake alone in a frozen forest and are set upon by a series of increasingly dangerous monsters before being rescued by the young lady Kuon. She's the first other character you meet, and like most to follow is equipped with animal ears, a tail, and seemingly superhuman strength.

If that setup sounds familiar—even without the context of the anime—that's because it is. Yet Mask of Deception's characters are vivacious enough that the familiar tropes don't become tiresome. The opening hours set a pace only slightly beyond the glacial, and it speaks to the strength of the cast that the lengthy time between significant plot points isn't completely insufferable.

Though it's billed as a hybrid of VN and strategy RPG, the game is far more of the former than the latter—if you're looking for a Fire Emblem or Disgaea focus on tactical gameplay, you will be disappointed. You're occasionally looking at hours of dialog between battle scenes, with minimal interactivity in between. In fact, that lack of interactivity has been the biggest problem I've had with Mask of Deception so far. The only choices I've had so far have been the order in which to visit various locations, and so far it doesn't seem that there's any branching to the story or even the eventual ending. You're not even looking at the illusory choice of occasional dialog options.

Though the vast majority of time is spent in the VN portion of the game, the battle system is surprisingly robust for its secondary nature. The basics of movement and attacks will be familiar to anyone who's played even a minute of another SRPG, but there are also active elements to the fights, requiring you to press buttons in time with combat animations to unleash critical strikes and more damaging combos, or even activate more powerful skills. There are elemental affinities, weather effects, and slowly charging hyper modes, and the varied options keep the battles interesting despite their relative ease. You're able to rewind up to 50 turns at any time, making each decision basically trivial—basically the only clue that the battles are just a small piece of interactivity in a largely linear visual novel.

The main concern I have regarding the rest of Mask of Deception is its slow pacing gradually draining away the patience to continue. The first several hours of the story have been entertaining, but lengthy stretches between new characters—never mind urgent turns in the plot—have already started to get tiresome barely a tenth of the way through the reportedly 50-hour story. There's also the problem of tonal whiplash, with the game making no effort to separate comedy and horrific violence. One bit has Kuon happily giggling at your misunderstood incompetence as a giant monster gobbles down the severed head of an unfortunate soldier. Either the adorable Kuon is a psychopath or the game isn't great at separating its comedy from its drama.

It's issues like that which will likely push me away from seeing the rest of Mask of Deception, but I'm honestly surprised at the degree to which I've enjoyed it so far. It's a familiar fantasy story with largely likeable characters, coupled with an occasional battle system that's far more robust and entertaining than it has any right to be. If the slow pace and lengthy story doesn't put you off, it's worth a look.

NEWS

PHANTOM DUST REMASTERED IS OUT, LIKE, NOW, FOR FREE

Phantom Dust is a bizarre piece of gaming history, a relic of the time when Microsoft was still trying to make the Xbox a thing in Japan, before it became clear that those gamers had little interest in an American console. Directed by Panzer Dragoon creator Yukio Futatsugi, it was an action-strategy game that failed to attain more than a cult following, and an unlikely remake was announced at E3 a few years before quietly vanishing.

Yet somehow, Phantom Dust is not dead! Instead of a full remake we're getting a remaster, and it's available as of this week on Xbox One and Windows 10 as a free-to-play title. The F2P moniker may set off some alarm bells, but it seems they're unwarranted. Microtransactions have been added, but it seems they're mostly in place to speed you along in online games, and it appears the entire core single-player mode is fully intact as part of the free download.

It's an action game where you collect skills and abilities to build a unique custom loadout. There's a heavy priority on animation, leaving you vulnerable for seconds at a time as you use a skill, giving the real-time action a nearly turn-based feeling. It's bizarre and kind of off-putting to look at (even with remastered visuals), but it remains unique and it's super weird and super cool to see this thing get a new, free life.

MUSIC GAME VETERANS ARE WORKING TOGETHER ON PROJECT RAP RABBIT

The recent rerelease of Parappa the Rapper was a major bummer. The goofy aesthetics still work and the soundtrack is endlessly catchy, but music games have come so far in the time since Parappa's release that it's tough going back to the stiff timing and inexplicable timing requirements for rappin' cool.

Luckily, Parappa creator Masaya Matsuura is back in the gaming game with a new project alongside producer alongside Gitaroo Man and Ouendan creator Keiichi Yano, tentatively called Project Rap Rabbit. The central hook is a blend of rhythm action and a rap battle system that uses a Mass Effect-style dialog wheel to let you choose your lyrics in real time and exploit enemy weaknesses. Matsuura hopes this will be the first “true rap game system,” which is a terrific turn of phrase.

Project Rap Rabbit is currently on Kickstarter sitting at a little over $100,000 of its $1.1 million goal, so apply all the usual caveats associated with crowdfunding before getting too excited. Here's hoping it's a little more Shovel Knight and a little less Mighty No. 9. The game's currently planned for PS4 and PC, but a Switch version is set as a stretch goal.

THERE'S A NEW, THROWBACK HARVEST MOON ON THE WAY TO PS4, SWITCH, AND PC

I miss Harvest Moon. Yeah, I know, it hasn't really gone anywhere since Harvest Moon 64 and Friends of Mineral Town, but I miss those games in particular, and even the renamed Story of Seasons have failed to do much for me. The games called Harvest Moon these days have no actual connection to the originals—the title has parted ways with the original creators—and the more recent HM games have ranged from mediocre to abysmal.

So why am I getting my hopes up for the latest game to bear that name? I don't know, but Harvest Moon: Light of Hope is at least making some interesting choices regarding its platforms and content. The game will abandon the 3DS in favor of PS4, Switch, and PC editions, and promises to be a throwback to the older games, specifically invoking the SNES original. It's seemed to me that both Harvest Moon and Story of Seasons have failed to find footing in recent years—particularly when contrasted against the excellence and monumental success of Stardew Valley—so I certainly hope there's something to this latest edition.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

DISGAEA 5 COMPLETE
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: May 23
MSRP: $59.99

I typically save talk of ports and rereleases for the “also available” section, but Disgaea 5 Complete is a little to relevant to this column to not give it some space. It's complete version of Disgaea 5—meaning it's a full package of the well-regarded strategy RPG and all its DLC—and it's available for Nintendo's new hotness. It's a great format for a 50-100 hour RPG, and it's a nice addition to fill out that slim Switch library. There's a demo on the eShop, if you're inclined to try before you buy.

FIRE EMBLEM ECHOES: SHADOWS OF VALENTIA
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: May 19
MSRP: $39.99

The latest in Nintendo's unexpectedly prolific SRPG series, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is a feature remake of the second game in the franchise, which was a late-era Famicom release from 1992. This version is a modern take, but don't expect every step of the series' evolution to be retraced here—there's none of that rock-paper-scissors weapon triangle this time around. Towns and dungeons offer a more rounded selection of exploration options.

SAMURAI WARRIORS SPIRIT OF SANADA
Developer: Omega Force
Publisher: KOEI Tecmo
Platform: PlayStation 4 / PC
Release Date: May 23
MSRP: $49.99

By now, the Warriors games have become much like the armies they depict—an overwhelming flood of rank-and-file, threatening to swallow you up in a sea of humanity. This one builds on the Samurai Warriors 4 engine, offering new, multi-stage battles and a handful of other new features to help you make you make your mark on the warring states.

UTAWARERUMONO: MASK OF DECEPTION
Developer: AQUAPLUS
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: PlayStation 4 / PlayStation Vita
Release Date: May 23
MSRP: $49.99 / $39.99

There's a much lengthier summary up above, but Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception is a VN-plus-sometimes-SRPG that marks the second entry in the franchise and the first to see an official English version. Despite some tangential ties to the original, this game stands on its own without prior knowledge of the franchise.

ALSO AVAILABLE:
Darksiders: Warmastered Edition is coming to Wii U this week. Yeah, for real. The unnecessary release of Darksiders II already felt like a joke at the system's launch, and I guess this is just the final punchline. But hey, Darksiders is good, so the more places to play it the better, I guess. More significantly, an updated Vanquish will be hitting PC this week, complete with a discount for those who bought into the excellent Bayonetta port a month ago.


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