Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth is the third entry and dramatic conclusion to a story that started back in 2002. Its deep lore is fascinating, even if you’ve never experienced the prior entries. Turn-based strategy battles connect the in-game wars and give the player much more than just a break from the lengthy narrative. It didn’t take long for me to realize this game was something special and become completely enthralled by it.
Anime of Thrones
First and foremost, Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth is a visual novel. The bulk of the game is spent watching mostly-static 2d sprites talk to one another. And since the dialogue is in Japanese, that means a lot of reading.
The story is complex and at times convoluted, but the summary roughly goes like this. Mask of Truth picks up shortly after the end of the previous game where the Mikado (emperor) of Yamato is killed and his daughter/successor is poisoned by an unknown party. Oshtor, the Imperial Guard of the Right, is falsely accused of this plot and captured. His friends, knowing his innocence and that something else is going on, rescue Oshtor and the successor, Anju, but are pursued by one of the Eight Pillar Generals of Yamato, Vurai.
They all escape the capital, but Vurai catches up to them, resulting in a violent clash. Oshtor dies in this battle but in his last breath, he entrusts his legacy to Haku, the main character. Haku assumes Oshtor’s identity and takes his magical super-ability granting mask, Akuruka. However, only Oshtor’s sister knows the truth that Haku is still alive and is impersonating her late brother. Everyone else is led to believe that Haku passed away in the battle with Vurai.
To complicate things further, someone in the capital has convinced the citizenry that a fake Anju is alive and well, and in charge of the nation. With the real Anju unable to speak from her poisoning, and few allies among the neighboring clans, Oshtor (Haku) gets to work, aiming to restore the princess to her rightful role as Mikado of Yamato. And that means war, but it’s not so simple (which should be obvious by now). The Eight Pillar Generals are not entirely convinced of the fake Anju that sits the throne, but are unable to openly do anything because of their stations. Others still, are the parents of prominent members of your party in the game, a fact that becomes more important as time goes on.
The cast itself is incredibly large; between party members, supporting cast, and enemies back in the capital, there are roughly 30 names and personalities to get acquainted with, making the very beginning of the game daunting. In fact, the first two hours for me were completely exhausting due to being completely unfamiliar with the setting or the characters. They are constantly introduced to the plot, complete with their backstories, family ties, and person histories with each other introduced and explained.
Yet after I got over the hump of learning who everyone was, I was on board. It may use a standard visual aesthetic that is years old and beyond stale at this point, a mix of cutesy anime cliches in a generic fantasy setting, but I quickly began to dig the story Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth was telling.
The impending wars in the game are slow to unfurl, so a lot of the time is spent preparing, healing up after battles, and getting to know the cast better in this new war-torn environment. The characters themselves are all very interesting and different with their own reasons for joining in the fighting. And the copious amount of political intrigue left me hooked and speculating right along with the protagonists.
The first major battle in the war is brutal. It’s obviously a stylized look at war with chibi characters, but visually it doesn’t have to be realistic. Burning people alive, watching them run away and catch others on fire, seeing a high-ranking enemy eaten by a captured beast, these moments proved Mask of Truth wasn’t going to shy away from some gruesome punches to the gut.
Even better, the pace of these scenes has, so far, been exquisite. There’s always some action going on and the dialogue is more than interesting enough to pull me through the scenes. But the big highlight is how unpredictable it can all be. A character will show up and that will, naturally, lead to me speculating about their motives and what it will mean to Oshtor and company. I might get a few things correct, but I often found the game zigging and zagging around the expected. The end might be close to what I thought, but the route through it all was anything but.
A War With Many Rules
While most of Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth is spent enjoying the story as it unfolds, there are also many turn-based strategy battles along the way. The combat isn’t broken up into opposing teams, but instead movement order is determined by a character’s speed stat. There’s no Fire Emblem style perma-death, and character HP is much higher leading to a longer trading of blows and riskier strategies. Also, a rewind function allows players to go back up to 50 moves or restart the battle entirely.
The skirmishes all take place on a grid. Certain skills can only be used if performed before moving, and that’s in addition to the attack range restrictions it might have. Everything is broken up into controlling the enemy through proper character placement and attack usage. Furthermore, all attacks have combo chains that change damage values, attack ranges, and status effects for that specific part of the chain. Leveling up grants new abilities but can also add new attacks onto a previously learned combo chain.
Every attack has a timing challenge associated with it that will either make it a critical hit or deliver a status effect. The main one involves timing the X button with the shrinking of a circle. The other wants players to hold X until a circular gauge fills up and then release it. These can also happen when defending, leading to reduced damage or avoiding the attack altogether. Certain equipment and skills grant these defensive abilities and their rank determines how many times they can be used per battle.
All of these elements come together to make a really fun strategic dance even if it can seem like a bit much at first. The game does limit the number of active characters for the first couple of battles, making things easier to pick up before things escalate to full-scale mayhem.
Unfortunately, these battles can happen several hours apart from each other. To counteract this, there are many opportunities in the middle of these extended story sequences to replay previous encounters, pit all characters against each other, and more. You gain experience and items for this, so it isn’t a waste of time, and it could also be used to level up if necessary. Or if you simply want and break from the lengthy storytelling, as good as it might be.
Master, Does this Feel Good?
There’s also a sexual innuendo angle to the game that should be brought up (after all, the collector’s edition comes with a body pillow). Two female twins exist as willing servants to the main character and will often make suggestive remarks to him or even aggressive grabs at him. Nothing explicit is shown that I’ve seen, and it is mostly all in the text anyway. There’s also a scene somewhat early on where a female character continues to bet in a hanafuda card game until she has nothing left to bet but her clothing. Her naked body is shown but anything ‘too hot for TV’ is covered by her arms.
I know stuff like this is somewhat commonplace in visual novels and certain anime. I’m not bothered by it, but it isn’t needed when the rest of the game is so compelling. At least these moments don’t overstay their welcome too much.
Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth is a long game, and I’m probably not even halfway through, but even after only five hours, I knew it was something special. More importantly, it hasn’t let me down in the many hours since; it’s only gotten better. While occasionally the time between battles is very long, or individual scenes drag a bit, I’m left completely engrossed in its tale of war.
While its appeal is decidedly niche, the game excels as something much more than a visual novel. Add in the slightly easy, but satisfying, turn-based battles and it’s a game that speaks directly to me and gets a high recommendation.