The Utawarerumono franchise has had an interesting history. It began as a PC game in 2002 in Japan that was eventually ported to PSP and PS2. This even had an anime. Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception is actually the second game in the franchise. It has been mentioned multiple times in discussions of games and visual novels that are worth playing and I’m glad Atlus USA released it in the West. I didn’t much care for Tears to Tiara II from the same developer, but I had a lot of fun here.
While the opening felt slow, I’ve come away very pleased with my time in Mask of Deception. Before going further, while there are some strategy RPG battles here, a majority of this experience is a pure visual novel. Don’t come into it expecting a tactical RPG with visual novel story segments. The battles make up a very small percentage of content here and are basically a small part of the overall experience.
You play as an amnesiac protagonist who wakes up only to be near the jaws of death. You eventually get rescued by a girl called Kuon who names you Haku. You have no idea where you are or what your name is and thus begins your tale in Utawarerumono. The world seems different. Kuon has cat ears and a tail and that is just the start of the things that will feel new to you. While the initial few hours are spent solely on Kuon and you travelling and learning about each other, you meet more people and finally see some action later on. While Haku as a character isn’t too interesting initially, the remainder of the cast really grew on me and the localization really made me like a few characters a lot. Even some of the minor NPCs that don’t survive more than a single battle are memorable.
The slow burn of the opening reminded me of Steins; Gate in many ways because that started off super slowly as well. The only difference is the plot here plays out with a lot of slice of life elements as opposed to any other genre. Of course things change towards the end but since there is a direct sequel, a lot of time here is spent building characters and the narrative up to another game that releases in a few months.
Gameplay is mostly reading through text with a few choices. This isn’t like a visual novel that has multiple endings though. Mask of Deception is mostly linear. The times you do get presented with options, you need to get through all of them for story reasons to progress. One complaint I have about the visual novel section is the inability to use the touch screen on the Vita to progress dialogue. I do this all the time while reading dialogue in a visual novel but can’t over here. You will be presented with battles, but they are few and far between. The opening few hours will see you read through tons of text with almost no battles.
Battles play out in a fairly simple manner. There’s an objective for victory and conditions for defeat. The tutorial for combat is added to glossary and not actually shown to you directly. It did feel a bit odd being notified about a combat tutorial being added to glossary for battles instead of the tutorial being shown to you. Battles on the normal difficulty are mostly simple and straightforward. You can even go back multiple turns if you feel like things are taking a turn for the worst. Grid based movement leads to turn based battles that involve a particular QTE depending on the attack. This makes things a bit more involved which is a welcome addition. There’s also a Zeal Gage that builds up and gives you another turn immediately when it is full. You gain XP per attack and can allocate points into stats after the complete battle is over before progressing with the game.
The story is always king, but having impressive visuals and making do with the format while still delivering memorable scenes makes a visual novel stand out. Utawarerumono’s character art is fantastic. The details on the main characters’ eyes and their attire is commendable. The interface itself could have been better but the actual dialogue boxes and environments all look very nice. Subtle changes to character portraits during certain dialogues make the overall experience feel more polished with the detailing. The only downside in the visual side of things here is battles look dated. On the Vita they look particularly bad with jagged edges all over the place.
The great music and voice acting made a huge difference to my overall experience. Everything from the opening track to the random village music and more are memorable. Just picturing the character art makes the music play in my head right now. This is of course complemented by the voice acting. There is only the original Japanese dub available but the performances are great almost across the board. Even Cocopo the bird sounds great. One nice option here is the ability to mute the protagonist voice while leaving everything else on. I found the experience more immersive with this option turned on.
If you are wondering which version to get, it all depends on what platform you prefer gaming on. Both platforms have a flaw. While everything looks better on the PS4, it isn’t portable and I don’t really enjoy visual novels or long stretches of reading on the big screen. The Vita lacks the convenience of tapping to progress which annoyed me, and the battle visuals look pretty bad in comparison to PS4.
If you’re OK with powering through some really slow progression story wise just for some great character development in the opening, the entirety of Mask of Deception and its characters will be worth experiencing. There are a lot of genuinely funny moments here. I quite liked the battle sections thrown into the mix when I didn’t really expect them. Given that this game is the build up to Mask of Truth that concludes the tale, I want Mask of Truth right now.
Excellent voice acting
SRPG sections were nice
Very slow burn initially
Some visual issues