Most fans and critics seem to agree that, in media like films and games, it’s a positive quality if a sequel can stand on its own. This can be done by giving the viewer/player a rundown of everything that’s come before, or just making knowledge of the previous entries unnecessary. But either way, it’s largely preferable to stumbling one’s way through a narrative that makes little or no effort (or just a terrible effort) to clue you in to what’s going on. You may have figured out that I’m talking about Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth, which is the third game in the tongue-twisting-to-pronounce visual novel series that began with a Japan-only eroge (read: pornographic video game) called Utawarerumono, developed by a company called Leaf, back in 2002 on Windows. Aquaplus later removed the adult scenes and published versions of the game on PS2 and PSP, which in turn served as the basis for Aquaplus to develop their own sequel duology to the original in the form of Mask of Deception and now Mask of Truth.
A little historical context is important here, because as you might have guessed, I have not played either the Japanese-exclusive original nor the first part of the duology. I was, therefore, completely at a loss to understand what on Earth was going on with most of the many, many, many characters in Utawarerumono’s universe for the majority of my time playing it. There is some attempt to explain things through repeated flashbacks, but the way it’s done is so frustratingly jumbled that I often lost track of whether I was in the present or the past. And, to be honest, I didn’t find most of the story I could understand worth engaging with. This is fairly typical Japanese “fantasy epic” fare with all the tropes and archetypes you’d expect, including the fact that a huge portion of the cast should have serious backaches from their massive, heaving breasts. It’s the sort of thing I’d expect would appear in what I consider “neverending” shonen anime: one of those 500+ episode series that is inexplicably popular despite the vast majority of the episodes being unremarkable filler.
The One Being Bored
Unfortunately, reading text is the vast majority of what makes up Utawarerumono’s 80-plus hours of content. It is, after all, primarily a visual novel. I have no doubt that some people will be taken in by the story, and that’s no shot against those folks; this series didn’t earn a pair of sequels without considerable charm and humor in its telling of a standard genre narrative. For those of us who don’t necessarily want to read thousands of words of predictable fiction written mostly for the enjoyment of straight guys, though, it’s a lot harder to recommend despite the strategy RPG portion of the proceedings being a lot more enjoyable. Suffice it to say, my description should be more than enough to sort out those who know they’ll enjoy the story (who I heartily recommend begin instead with Mask of Deception) and those who know they won’t.
For those folks in the former category, the great fun of the strategy RPG sections will be an added bonus; for those in the latter, it will really determine whether Mask of Truth is worth the time and money. To be sure, if you’ve ever played a tactics-driven game before, this one might come off as a bit simple by comparison. There aren’t any innovative mechanics, and the game mostly sticks to the essentials of the genre, but I actually think it’s that simplicity—combined with the variety in the characters on both sides of the battlefield—that makes it an addictive little proposition. Plus, the two difficulty settings offered (Normal and Hard) are perfectly tuned, making these sections accessible to both casual and hardcore players.
A Simple, Fun Take on Strategy
As I said, the strength of Utawarerumono’s combat lies in the varied abilities of its characters, both enemy and ally. Without any sort of items or extraneous systems to gum up the learning curve, the focus is purely on knowing one’s enemies and using the abilities of one’s party to counter them. Each player-controlled character has only a few moves, but there are little wrinkles of complexity to them that are worth knowing to make a winning strategy. The archer Kiuru, for example, can swap out his fairly standard long-range attack for a devastatingly powerful one if he doesn’t move at the beginning of his turn, making it well worth it to set up his position a turn in advance.
Merely taking the right position and choosing the right moves isn’t enough, however; there’s also an added element of timing button presses to each attack that allows you to land a critical. Getting these right can add effects to your attacks, such as poisoning the enemy or reducing their stats, so knowing the “rhythm” of each character’s attacks is important as well. (It’s also worth mentioning that it provides feedback in the most satisfying audiovisual way, to the point where executing non-critical attacks starts to feel wrong and weak!) Ultimately, the way combat comes together is satisfying because players of any skill level can just hop right in and start experiencing a challenge on their chosen difficulty without having to sift through lengthy tutorials. That’s something most games in the genre just can’t offer, making the sacrifice of complexity seem a lot less painful.
A Mixed Experience
Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth is an interesting hybrid of visual novel and strategy RPG that tilts, unfortunately for me, toward the former. As someone who didn’t much understand the story thanks to its awkward retelling of the events of the previous two games (and who didn’t enjoy the parts I did understand), I found the 1 to 2 hours of reading in between battles to be nearly unbearable. With that said, the battles are a lot of fun in the way they simplify and diversify the typical SRPG experience; if you do like the narrative or can see fit to skip it, I think you’ll have a much better time than I did.
Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth review code provided by publisher. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.