The first thing you should know about Masques and Murder!, the newest release by designer James Patton, is that it is a challenging game. I found the difficulty of the mechanics to be a fairly accurate representation of the subject, which is surviving as an upper class woman, Justitia, in Italy during the Renaissance.
The ultimate goal is to murder all three of your suitors before you’re forced to marry them so that they have access to the fortune built by your father and brother—and also your body. It should be mentioned that sexual assault is a strong theme when it comes to the two characters who are women in Masques. There is nothing graphically displayed, but if you fail the game (by not murdering all three suitors in a certain number of days), there is a grossly described scene with your soon-to-be father-in-law.
An interesting feature of the game is that this kind of abuse can be toggled off. In fact, the very first screen upon starting up the game informs the player that sexual abuse is included in the game, and instructs them on how to turn off those elements. This game is more than a rape/revenge story.
The three suitors, along with their father, are bad dudes. This is apparent in the suitors as soon as you meet them. They each harbor their own version of more than a little unhealthy Renaissance misogyny, and immediately direct it toward you. The father’s more shifty; truly, few in this story are to be trusted. I won’t get into too many specifics regarding the storyline because, at its core, Masques has a very simple story of revenge set against a timer. You’ll just have to experience it for yourself.
It plays very much like an interactive novel where you work for the ending you desire. This is a text-heavy adventure: characters enter and speak in scenes as pop-ups from famous Renaissance era paintings. This approach makes the game a beautiful one. The period music and rich storytelling pair nicely with the painted backdrops. I may be a little biased, since my favorite Renaissance subject is featured on the first screen: Judith beheading Holofernes.
The tutorial runs you through the entire storyline leading up to the game itself, and after completing it once, you do not have to go through all that dialogue again! There is a lot of dialogue. The game’s graphics are limited to two-dimensional still shots that change as a conversation progresses, interaction menus, and the “closet,” which acts as the leveling screen. This last part is really just pressing buttons and closing flavor text dialogue boxes as they pop up. It is also where most of your game time will be spent.
The race against time becomes intense as you work to balance the level of suspicion of each suitor with completing required social engagements. There are several possible strategies, and all of them involve some chance.
The game allows you to level up three times a day in ten different skills and knowledge bases that could have been held by the upper class in Italy. Each suitor has three favorite skills, which can be used to get closer to them and work your way up to murder. However, as you train those skills, they also become suspicious of you.
Seduction is the tenth skill. Training in this will alleviate some suspicion on behalf of all three suitors. You can also gain more trust from them by seducing them. “It never fails,” the game helpfully reminds you. It also does not get you as far along as flattering their vanity through the other skills you have garnered. Of course, the higher the possible reward, the more risk involved. Failing an attempt at flattery results in more suspicion and lowered trust.
You can also impress them by successfully completing social engagements. Some of these are mandatory, but many are optional. Each engagement requires certain skills, and your level, along with a little chance, determines if you fail or succeed. Doing neither is also possible, though this means you have wasted time you could have spent training a valuable skill. Each week, there will also be a skill that is considered fashionable, just as would have been the case in Renaissance society. Training in this skill lowers all suitors’ suspicion.
The dialogue screen and leveling mechanics are well-suited to this game’s goals. It’s a pretty cut and dry system, with plenty of flavor text to spice up an otherwise repetitive leveling system. Also, the murder scenes were fun. There is something very satisfying about having to rely solely on your wits to outsmart scheming men.
There were a few strange details: your family is clearly very progressive, but I don’t see any upper class women during the Renaissance having the ability to mount her horse “in a single leap.” I don’t think a man could have, either. The clothing, if nothing else, would have made that impossible.
Yet it is otherwise a richly researched game. Each skill has its own set of conversations to unlock, and I could go on for hours about the historical details of each conversation. On the other hand, setting up the player character as a strong independent woman sometimes comes off heavy-handed. Just like many characters who we are supposed to root for, Justitia is good at everything, yet she somehow does not lack depth as a character. This is due, at least partially, to the only other lady character in the game: the hugely abused Princess. She becomes a foil to Justitia, and somewhat of a foreshadowing of our protagonist’s fate. Still, if the game is played well, she finds her voice, so to speak, and the two triumph with each other’s help.
In the end, Masques and Murder! is a uniquely imagined, satisfying game with a strong survivor’s story, and a good setup for at least a few replays. However, gamers who suffer dialogue fatigue will find it gets repetitive. Masques and Murder! is a pay what you wish game with versions for Linux, Mac, and PC platforms.
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