- Developer: Leaf
- Publisher: Nippon Ichi Software
- Genre: Visual Novel/SRPG
- Release Date: 20th May 2020
- Platforms:PlayStation 4/PlayStation Vita
- Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
The start of something great.
To start the saga of the Utawarerumono universe you have to go back to 2002 when this game was originally released on PC exclusively to a Japanese market. After Mask of Deception and Mask of Truth were localized to the PS4 recently, it was surely only a matter of time before the game that started the saga was released to a worldwide audience, and finally, a mere eighteen years later, it’s here!
At long last, fans of the Utawarerumono (pronounced, “ooh tah war ee ooh mono”) universe can complete the saga in order, but even though this game was the first in the series, they have used the gameplay elements from the later editions to bring this version bang up to date.
Reading with a difference
The game is predominantly a visual novel, but it has a sprinkling of grid and turn-based battles of the simplest form to negotiate in order to progress the game. The game is roughly split between 70% visual novel to 30% combat throughout its twenty to twenty-five hour playthrough.
What you get during that time, however, is excellent. The storytelling is of the highest order and captivates the player with a brilliantly structured narrative and interesting plot line. Although the game starts in almost exactly the same way as Mask of Deception (hero wakes up with amnesia; is rescued and taken to the local village of fox-like humans), it soon branches out into something very different and is very easy to get sucked into.
One of the reasons the story is so compelling is that the character-building is handled in such an excellently crafted way, that the audience soon wants to know what happens next to the characters at every juncture. This is because, not only is the writing on point in both the character development and narrative, but there are also genuine moments of humour too. This adds levity and humanness to make the characters much more rounded and add depth. Equally, the characters of the enemies are also just as roguish as you would require for a balanced story.
Its very pretty
Visual novel games can at times suffer from being boring to look at, as with so much of their time being spent looking at still backgrounds and text, they are often not known for being visually exciting. However, despite at least 70% of Utawarerumono being reading of text, the production levels of the game are excellent, as your eyes are treated to a visual splendour in each and every scene.
Each backdrop is like a hand painted masterpiece even for what might appear, at times, to be very mundane locations. For example, a barren and desolate expanse of a field of dry mud, or the interior of a wooden house. Add to this, the scenes change in backdrop and pace very quickly, so as to not bore the player with the same scene with the same backdrop for too long. When locations of the story are of a grander scale, the backdrop artwork really does excel and is sumptuous to gaze upon.
To complete the visual feast, the character models, although of a slightly different style to most anime drawn characters, have an enriching but simplistic style all of their own. Therefore, as the graphics are pleasing to the eye, and the dialogue skips along to a very decent beat, even sitting reading for long periods of play is not a chore at all.
To break things up
Even so, to break the monotony of the visual novel aspect of the game, at certain points the player has to negotiate a few combat situations, via a very tight, tactical, if simplistic, battle mechanic.
When a combat situation occurs, players are faced with a grid based battleground. Each player in a party can move certain distances on a grid, attack with either melee or ranged weapons/spells, then change their rotation, which helps in their defence. Facing an oncoming enemy increases the defence of a character. Being hit from behind lowers that number significantly. The enemy then takes their turn, and so on until victory or defeat.
To expand on this aspect, players can chain attacks via a bar called Zeal. Think of the Zeal bar as an attack boost. When this bar is full, players can unleash devastating attacks that use up most, if not all of the zeal bar.
To replenish the bar players have to receive damage, or when they use a normal attack, time the pressing of a button to coincide with a shrinking circle to gain more zeal points. It’s very tricky to time but adds another layer to the combat. Mastering these button presses in real time, to get as many zeal points as quick as possible, and indeed choosing when to use the chain attacks and Zeal points themselves, is a key tactical aspect for victory.
The beauty of this system here is that it does actually require, even on the most basic of settings, a lot of tactical thought to succeed in battles. Just like a game of chess, if the basic structure of the game is of sound design, it can be utterly compelling. Throw usable items into the mix, along with an elemental force that can add extra strengths or weaknesses to a character’s base attacks and health, and you then have the basis of a deep yet beautifully simple system that is a pleasure to solve during battle.
After completing a battle, players gain EXP in the form of Battle Points or BP. These points can be spent to increase the base of the character’s statistics in the form of extra health, defence, or magic defence.
Completed battles can also be replayed whenever the player may choose, and it is a great way to level up the party you have before the next battle sequence.
Wired for sound
The audio is also of excellent quality here in this beautiful sounding game. The rich contrast of the voice actors delivering their lines with authenticity and conviction carries the story superbly with them. You can quite clearly hear that they had a lot of fun playing the parts in the recording studios. The only downside for some will be, although the game has finally reached a Western audience, all of the voice audio is still in Japanese; only the written word is in English.
Combat noises are limited, though, with basic sounds of player movements, and slashing melee weapons and spells. However, this is made up for with the beautiful background music soundtracks that accompany the game. Having played many games that require a huge amount of text to read, with nothing else to do or see other than still visuals, the music plays a big part of the enjoyment of the game and is quite often centre stage for many hours, especially those of the visual novel genre. Thankfully, the music here in Utawarerumono is superb.
Pleasant, almost medieval soundtracks jauntily push the action along, but this is also accompanied by grand orchestral pieces for the dramatic moments in the story.
With great music and voice acting to listen to alongside a taut, and genuinely interesting storyline and character development, as a pure visual novel, this game is excellent. However, throw in a very good, albeit simple grid-based basic battle system to break the monotony of storytelling, and you end up with a very good overall gameplay experience.
As visual novels go, it is on the shorter side of what may be expected, but the journey you take will be a memorable one, and will encourage anyone interested in the Utawarerumono universe to then seek out the next two chapters of the story, Mask of Deception and Mask of Truth, and complete the trilogy.