Man...This is anime as hell.

And not only that, but it's uncharted territory for me, not only as a reviewer but as a consumer. Let's roll back, and also count the ways. So, Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth is the big final entry in the Utawarerumono visual novel franchise.

Have you ever heard that phrase, visual novel? It's almost exactly what it sounds like. Reams and reams of text, voice acted in Japanese, over largely static scenes and character shots. If you've ever played a game that had a side cutscene that was handled like this, instead of full animated like the big ones, it's basically that.

As most of the experience.

Now, there are points where you get to make decisions, and there's an entire SRPG battle system you can get into once things get rolling, but this is not a game where you will be changing fates and altering bunches of things by your hand. This is mostly a game where the pieces have been laid out.

Of course, that's not a bad thing necessarily. You just need to know what you're getting into.

And speaking of knowing what you're getting into...You should be aware that the Utawarerumono series started as adult visual novels. That is, there were sex scenes and stuff. Now a lot of that's since been toned down for these console releases in the series(to say nothing of various adaptations and the like), but if you're gonna get all super into this, I don't wanna be responsible for you getting blindsided by that stuff.

Now, gameplay wise, you do have some stuff. The battles take place in an SRPG form, and are fairly simple, straightforward and familiar. You move on a grid, you've got multiple skills once things pick up, and a light combo mechanic built off of the ever-classic timed hits system. It's by no means bad, but it does feel somewhat like the secondary focus, the sort of thing you'd put in a game that was more about something else...Which, I suppose, is exactly the case.

I'm not going to lie, I'm kind of struggling a bit to talk about this game. It's not so much that it's bad, or that it does anything wrong...But its very nature means almost all the metrics of typical game reviews, especially here in the West, don't really apply.

Do you like to judge graphics? Well 90% of the time you're not looking at anything the console rendered, you're looking at artwork and light animation. The only real 3D graphics, or other things where the console is lifting the load, is in the combat sections, a secondary focus.

How about gameplay? I mean, there's some gameplay there in those combat sections. But as we covered, most of the time you're hitting X to push dialogue forward, dialogue that serves as the main point of the game. So there's not a lot there, either.

So perhaps we could judge the writing and the story...But then, to be honest, I hit my personal shortcomings. With limited exposure to the franchise before this point, it's a bit like if my first time watching a Star Wars film was Episode V.

One thing I can say with certainty, is that there is far more to the character beats here than many games bother with. Depth is, at times, a bit hit or miss, with some characters certainly being more archetypal and less complex. But Mask of Truth has a dense cast that it's willing to get into the heads of, showing concerns and woes that do feel rather unlike the sorts of stories I'm used to seeing in videogames.

Though that said, I'm rather more used to seeing these kinds of stories in more serious anime and manga.

So we could judge it on those merits, instead. It's a visual novel, after all, so how does it fare compared to other written works, at least of the same sort of focus and angle? What if, instead of asking whether you should buy this or another SRPG, we ask if you should buy it or, say, a manga collection? I mean, hell, when you boot the game up after the prologue, it doesn't start with the typical logos, but an animated OP like you just started an episode of anime.


Now that's a bit of a more interesting question. It's also, naturally, somewhat outside of the typical wheelhouse here at Gamesxtreme, but what have I ever been if not willing to dive into the weird and oft-unloved games?

Keeping in mind that I do not have the full story here (literally), Mask of Truth sits as something rather more interesting when we compare it simply as a work of fiction. It's not going to beat any capital-L Literature, that's for sure, but in terms of writing, it compares rather well to a lot of manga or light novels. (Light novels are, for the unaware, books of short to medium length, often aimed at teens, with splashes of anime-style artwork in them. They're quite popular in Japan, with their closest Western equivalent being the Young Adult novella)

So as a story, what have you got to work with? A lot of interesting pieces, actually. Two lands on the brink of war, one trying to prepare to strike out during the chaos that the other is embroiled in after the events of previous games. Characters on all sides who are, ultimately, thrust into situations they never asked for or wanted, and are forced into new roles to try and cobble together what they can. And through it all, the yearning, wailing hope of trying to put all the pieces back together, and fix the whole mess of a situation.

It's not the most original tale in the world, sure. And it is, I'm not going to lie, anime as hell. About the second scene in the entire game, right after the viewpoint character for the chapter wakes up, is an all-girls bath scene with breast-size comparison jokes. There are tons of characters who, for very valid story reasons I'm sure, just happen to be busty young women with animal ears, or bird wings, or other features to exoticize them to the (presumably human) player's eye.

But if we compare it against other anime and manga, or even for that matter more locally-produced genre fiction...It's got a lot of the pieces one would want. A lot of good characterization. Solid voice acting. Good-looking art, though the visual novel format does weaken this somewhat. Good music beats.

And at various points in the story, you even get to play an SRPG for a little bit and help shape the battles these characters find themselves in.

Looked at that way... Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth sure ain't bad. Of course, the flipside to that is the central question. Should you buy it, especially given this is a 50 dollar game, not an 8 dollar light novel?

That's a more complicated question...Especially when you're dealing with this big sequel. A sequel to, in part, a game that came out earlier this year here in the West, and thus is also still at that near-full 50 dollar price point itself.

It's...Difficult.

But here's the thing. You're either gonna like this genre, or you're not. And if you don't like visual novels, you're not gonna be into the idea of chewing through true masses of text just to get a few bites of decent quality SRPG gameplay. Meanwhile, if you do like visual novels, you're probably not going to want to try this one until you've played the game that came before it, and have at least a portion of the ultimate story.

So I'm not putting a full Avoid on this one, because if you meet the criteria (like visual novels, have played the previous game and want more) it's totally a solid example of what it is. But unless you fully meet that criteria, it's just not the place to come in.

If you're not sure whether you like visual novels or not, go dabble in a cheaper one first. And if you need to know what you think of the Utawarerumono series, go check out Mask of Deception so you're not coming into the story on the big climax where all the pieces come together. Then, and only then, will you be in the position to come back to this.