There’s no denying that the written word is no longer the most popular avenue of narrative ingestion. Compared to its flashier audio and visual counterparts, textual storytelling demands a higher degree of concentration from its audience. It’s easier to simply put on a movie and engage passively. Yet there’s something about reading that activates a different part of the brain, where imagination turns the gaps between words into idiosyncratic fantasy. I say this not with the intention of declaring one medium superior to the other, but to illustrate a difference—one that I hoped Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception would leverage. And it does, to a degree, but only when it’s not mired in the muck of needless eroticism.
I think it’s important that I preface this critique by making it clear that eroticism is by no means a bad thing in and of itself, regardless of whether or not any particular content is agreeable to my tastes. The issue here, I contend, is one of framing. If Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception was simply an eroge—“erotic game,” a Japanese term coined to describe games whose sole purpose is to titillate—perhaps its insistence upon making every situation sexual would make more sense. And indeed, the series actually got its start within that realm over a decade ago in Japan.
But Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception, despite being a follow-up to the first Utawarerumono, is deceivingly marketed as a straightforward fantasy visual novel. The political tale at its center is actually quite fascinating, drawing upon Ainu culture to create a richly detailed world that teems with vitality. Its depiction of war is brutal and heart pounding in its best moments, and the tapestry of people, places, and belief systems it weaves together is deliciously complex. The localization here is a top-tier effort, and one that elevates the game’s writing above that of its peers.
Unfortunately, for every lavish description of food or touching character interaction, there are three instances where buxom beauties find their clothes slipping off for whatever inane reason the situation demands—oops, silly girls! Or maybe they’re spanked, or find their breasts gripped by a floating jellyfish monster. A particularly troubling moment comes when a pair of obviously underage twins offers the main character explicit sexual service after being given to him as spoils of war. I suppose I have to give the writers points for checking off so many boxes at once. The trouble is that these frequent sexual detours clash with the legitimately interesting story at the game’s core, impeding its flow such that hours can pass with absolutely no meaningful plot development.
Adding to Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception‘s volume are strategic battles in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics. Even though the game is weighted far more heavily towards being a visual novel, these skirmishes are enjoyable enough for me to overlook their infrequency. By timing button presses with their attacks, the player can unleash bonus damage on unwitting foes, and every character has a completely unique suite of abilities. They even gain access to some delightfully flashy special moves in the game’s later stages, which synergize well with the game’s generally pleasant art style. If nothing else, Mask of Deception impresses from a visual standpoint.
Playing Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception is a bit like reading Playboy for the articles; there’s little point in making the effort if the surrounding content is not in line with your tastes. Even if it is, the game could do with some fine-tuning in terms of pacing, because it hides all of its best writing behind an avalanche of sexy slapstick. The unfortunate reality is that there are both better strategy RPGs available and better avenues for titillation than wading through Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception‘s sluggish tale.