In reality, mispronouncing the title as “Underwater Ray Romano” was a major joke of the mid-2000s for some segment of the otaku community, but it’s back now, with Utawarerumono: Mask of Deceit, this time marketed by Atlus to a gaming world that’s noticeably more welcoming than the gaming environment.
Indeed, the first thing to learn about Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception is that it is essentially the sequel to the original Utawarerumono which never made it into English-speaking territories outside of a fan translation patch and a licensed anime adaptation around 2006. It’s not just the sequel to a decade-old title, Mask of Deception has its own sequel, Utawarerumono: Mask of Reality, set to be published this year Utawarerumono Mask of Deception Trainer.
It matters, because while Mask of Deception does plenty in its main storyline to make sure it can act as a fresh start for people who have never seen or played the original story, it is not going to stand by itself. When Mask of Truth releases later this year, anyone interested enough to pick up this game should be ready to see the saga through.
That said, in Mask of Deceit, there are the makings of an vast, epic story, one that might just warrant a whole second game to be resolved in full. Players are put into the role of an amnesiac who wakes up in a world inhabited and run by men with animal ears and tails as apparently the only human being. But it isn’t just catgirls. Doggirls, birdgirls, guy versions of the above, winged angels, and things that can best be represented as some kind of fairy have created their own countries, empires, and civilizations in what might just be a post-human Earth.
The player is adopted and given a name, “Haku,” by Kuon, a playful, pretty, and monstrously strong traveler. For long, Haku and Kuon set out to explore Yamato’s great empire, participate in local troubles, and gather troops of companions and followers, such as the boisterous warrior Ukon, his bookish sister Nekone, the pompous dandy Maroro, and the princess Rulutieh, who rides a giant bird in combat Utawarerumono Mask of Deception cheats.
While the plot itself never develops out of its archetypal trappings, Mask of Deception makes the most of its running time to explain its characters vividly and create the atmosphere. They may be archetypes but the execution of the game makes all the difference between characters that feel well-formed and those that feel merely perfunctory, supported by a strong effort of translation from Atlus USA.
This is lucky, considering that this strength is probably the biggest thing Mask of Deception has done for it, particularly for players with no prior Utawarerumono experience as a whole. A large chunk of the game includes what amounts to a huge fan service for people who know and miss the original cast, and new players that feel an overwhelming sense of referencing things or evoking emotions that they simply aren’t private to. Being a true deal-breaker isn’t enough, but remaining fans will have the most to learn from the experience.
Looks are another significant attribute of Deception’s Mask. While its output would certainly not blow out of the water the likes of Final Fantasy XV or Persona 5, it is one of the most all-around, beautiful visual novels I’ve enjoyed. Painterly, rounded (and sometimes buxom) character designs are backed by lush ambient art, all unified around an aesthetic influenced by early Japanese history, visually recalling the cultures of the indigenous Ainu people of Japan as well as pre-medieval Yamato. Even the battle scenes of the game will suit the likes of Fire Emblem and other well-looking JRPGs, with stylish animations and plenty of colour.
And the fights themselves are little to write about at home. Good looks aside, there’s very little physically or tactically to differentiate them and they’re mostly included to break the momentum of the visual novel, and because the original game also had tactical battles. Players move their units on a regular grid-based map, take turns and control the different attack ranges of their units, batting enemies away before their health runs out. On normal difficulty, the fights are more a formality than a challenge, and in the way of choice, the progression system does not afford enough to really make strategic and tactical decisions more complex than to select one’s favorite group of characters and let them steamroll the AI.
The one argument for uniqueness of the combat system is in the execution of individual attacks and spells, by incorporating a simplistic mechanic “combo.” Players can press buttons at the right time to activate additional strikes in an attack or spell casting, adding additional effects, damage, or even altering the attack’s size or shape itself. Although this provides room for others to thrive and keeps players on their toes, having Utawarerumono capable of facing off against genuine tactical RPGs is much too tight. The game is a visual novel with battles tackled on, for better or worse, and players will see the fights as a change of pace rather than as an integral part of the gameplay.
Although Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception does not break new ground in terms of narrative creativity or tactical complexity, it remains an enticing, polished fantasy romp that delights fans familiar with the original story in particular. Nonetheless, everybody else will be prepared to pick up the sequel, so long as they do not leave the story halfway finished.