The basic structure of Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception will be familar to those who checked out the latest Aquaplus title brought over by Atlus, Tears to Tiara II: Hier of the Overlord. Another hybrid between tactical RPG and visual novel, Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception falls very much towards the visual novel end of the scale, at least in the early parts that I've been able to check out so far. Those who aren't prepared to sit through very lengthy text-based story scenes are going to be frustrated, but those who enjoy the visual novel storytelling style should find plenty to like.
Mask of Deception follows Haku, a young man apparently from the real world, who finds himself in a fantasy world somewhat similar to medieval Japan wearing a hospital gown and without any memories including his real name. Fortunately, he is found by a travelling girl named Kuon who, like the rest of the unfamiliar world's inhabitants, sports animal ears and a tail. After heading to the local village, Haku proves that he is completely unsuited for any kind of manual labour, but his apparently advanced mental capacity — at least for this age — could make him highly sought after in the capital, so the two join up with a passing mercenary group also heading that way, albeit after first dealing with some giant scorpions.
The early parts fall victim to some issues that many slow-burning visual novels share. There are a number of scenes where the game spends far too long lingering on irrelevant conversation and navel-gazing, and outside of Haku himself there isn't good a plot hook to start off. While admittedly the lengthy scenes do add depth to the cast, there have been at least a few examples of it reaching the point of diminishing return. Fanservice also seems like it may be pretty abundant in the game, perhaps a leftover relic from Aquaplus' previous focus on adult releases before moving on to more universal fare, with two separate bathing scenes coming within the first five hours. However, it's hard to say whether that trend will continue once the overall story fully gets going.
Despite those missteps, the cast is strong and there is very clearly a deep tale ready to be told. Lots of detail has been placed into the world, including its nobility structure and completely different set of fauna and flora (such as flightless birds taking the role of horses). It does mean there's a lot of proper nouns floating around, though their usage works within the context and doesn't feel shoehorned in. When he is not being dense for the sake of humour, Haku is a likable fish-out-of-water with an entertaining inner monologue that will echo many players' thoughts. The other main early characters — the supposedly simple traveller Kuon, the noble daughter Rulutieh, the mercenary Ukon, the prodigy Nekone, and even the comic-relief mage/scholar Maroro — have good depth from the outset and it promises to be interesting to see where their particular tales go.
It's difficult to say too much about the battle system at this stage due to the relatively small amount of time devoted to it. The first five hours are very much devoted to the visual novel portion of the game, maybe fitting around forty minutes of that time in combat and its menus. However, the presence of the Sting logo as a co-developer and the combat I have been able to sample are encouraging and indicate a solid tactical experience at minimum. The early tactical options are limited due to characters not having picked up many skills, but combat moves along at a decent clip with some quick-time inputs there to give characters the opportunity to land more critical hits or help them defend. There are various character-specific options, including a system of equipping extra passive bonuses to characters and a way to boost individual stats from bonus points earned in previous battles. A handy turn-rewind system is also present and appreciated, letting players undo mistakes with minimal fuss, as well as the option to undertake free battles in addition to those from the story.
Like the previous Aquaplus title to be released in the west, Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception will not sit well with players who want to get straight into the action. However, those who are patient and happy to sit back and enjoy the lengthy visual novel portions should be able to look forward to a tale full of depth that is combined with, at worst, solid tactical gameplay. The first part of a duology, Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception arrives in North America and Europe on May 23, 2017, with its follow-up Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth set for release on September 5, 2017.