Subtly Subjective #03 – Utawarerumono Mask of Deception/Mask of Truth

(Featured image description: Image contains a masked white male looking into a mirror. The mirror is being held by two women with shoulder length hair. The woman on the left is white, the other a POC. Text on the bottom right says “UTAWARERUMONO MASK OF TRUTH (C) 2017 (C) AQUAPLUS (C) ATLUS (S) SEGA. All rights reserved.”)

(CN: Discussion of bullying, death, unnecessary sexualisation of characters)

Note: This is the first article in a series where I discuss my experiences with video games as an autistic person. You can find out more here.

Furthermore, this post discusses major plot spoilers.

Hi all,

In today’s Subtly Subjective I am going to talk about two games in one today. Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception and Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth released for PS4 and Vita last year in English and the latter is a continuation of the former. They are visual novel/strategy RPG hybrids that contain a lot of lore and world building. I found my time with both games to be very enthralling and moving – however it was only long after I had concluded Mask of Truth I realised key aspects of this duology’s story resembles masking.

Before I go into detail, I would first like to outline some backstory as this is important to understand some of my thoughts. The titles were developed by Aquaplus with assistance from Sting. Sting may be familiar to people whom have played strategy RPGs like Yggdra Union and Hexyz Force on PSP.

Aquaplus, on the other hand, are a considerably more obscure company. They are a visual novel producer whom develop bishoujo games (dating sims aimed at heterosexual men) including adult titles under their Leaf brand. Many of these games got anime adaptations that have been translated into English. In recent years Aquaplus became an almost console-exclusive developer producing games like Tears to Tiara II, Dungeon Travelers 2 as well as the Utawarerumono (referred to from now on as Uta) titles discussed here.

The first Uta game was released in 2002 under the Leaf brand. It got an enhanced console port to the PS2 in 2006. This version, subtitled Lullaby of the Fallen People, improved the gameplay mechanics, added voice acting and more. Aside from the anime, the first Uta game’s story never got an official localisation in any form. While it has since been remade for PS4/Vita, it is unknown if this version will get an English release.

utawarerumono-ps2-boxart
(Image description: Image is of the front cover of the PS2 version of Utawarerumono. A multitude of anime characters are on the cover. The background is orange at the bottom but fades to white at the top.)

The sequel, Mask of Deception was released in 2015 in Japan for PS4, PS3 and Vita. The third and final entry in the trilogy, Mask of Truth, was announced and released for the same platforms in Japan the following year. Atlus USA localised them in 2017. So, with this all said, now it’s time to talk about the games at hand.

I found myself enthralled in the story and world of Uta almost immediately. The protagonist is found alone in the mountains with no memory by the main heroine Kuon who agrees to take him in. What follows is a lengthy adventure that will ultimately lead to having to save the kingdom from a great catastrophe. It will a very long adventure with the average reader clocking in over 100 hours over the two games.

The artwork is beautiful and the music was orchestrated (very rare in visual novels) and would quickly become memorable for me. There were some 3D action scenes as well but as I was playing on the Vita, they didn’t look the best compared to PS4. They still looked good but in hindsight I would’ve played these games on PS4.

The gameplay is good. As this game is mainly a visual novel, I did not expect deep gameplay for the simple reason that it is not the main reason why you’d play these games. This game is split into two distinct gameplay styles. There is the “ADV” mode which is the visual novel section and then there is the RPG part where a tactical RPG-style battle appears which the player has to overcome.

Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception_20161221175145
Image description: Multiple anime characters are in an open area of a forest. Stones are on the ground. In the bottom left is an information box with stats on the character “Haku.” On the bottom are three cards. The one of the left has “Move” written on it in blue text. The one in the centre has “Attack” written on it in red. The one on the right has “Wait” written on it in yellow.)

I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was a good amount of depth to the tactical gameplay. Additionally, there was also a turn rewind feature which greatly helped with accessibility. If I made a mistake, I could rewind turns and do it ever again until I found something that worked. It saved so much frustration and helped make the time I spent in these games very enjoyable.

Now let’s talk about the story. The plot was slow to start however I was hooked from the outset in part because the characters you meet have such vivid personalities. This includes the antagonists. The first character I began to get drawn to was Nekone, one of the main heroines who leans into the “tsundere” anime trope but also is very dependable.

This story would go on to be further expanded too, greatly boosting immersion. By the end of Mask of Deception, the kingdom of Yamato was taken over as part of a coup. However, the further in the story you go many emotionally moving scenes feature especially in the last third of Mask of Truth. The political and social dimensions of the characters and world all came together. The plot was excellent with multiple twists and turns including references and characters from the first Uta game.

The real impact on me though is realising that it serves an unintentionally great metaphor for masking in relation to autism. I say “unintentional” as due to Japan’s understanding of autism being very poor in general, I highly doubt the scenario writers at the company even realise it themselves. Allow me to explain.

Utawarerumono-Mask-of-Truth-screenshot-oshtor
(Image description: Image is of a masked white man wearing a blue and white robe. Behind him is a battlefield at night with multiple soldiers on. The text box says “Oshtor: Oshtor, Imperial Guard of the Right, hereby accepts your challenge.”)

At the end of Mask of Deception, Nekone’s brother Oshtor dies. He is a highly respected masked figure in the kingdom of Yamato but also developed great trust in Haku, the game’s protagonist. His death follows a face-off with one of the game’s antagonists who is partially responsible for the coup. This antagonist is about to kill Haku and Nekone when Oshtor steps in to take the damage instead. His parting wish to Haku is to take care of Nekone and the princess. Oshtor heaves Haku with his mask. That day, Haku chose to take on the role of Oshtor and put on the mask claiming that Haku is dead. In other words, he put on a mask to live someone else’s life.

Hence the events of Mask of Truth consist of Haku living as Oshtor. However, like masking, this doesn’t last forever. Over time more clues about the mask seep out as it’s impossible for Haku to keep up with Oshtor’s image. The most apparent way this shows is regarding physical strength. Oshtor was physically strong yet Haku is very weak. Another one of the game’s antagonists sees through the mask and goes along with it due to this noticeable clue.

In fact, most of the other protagonists will realise Haku’s deception by the final hours of Mask of Truth (I say most because a few characters were in on the secret very quickly). However, when they finally do the reaction is very positive. They accept Haku’s decision, support him. Furthermore, they don’t hold it against him that he put on the mask in the first place.

I realised something important in relation to this. When it comes to accepting autistic people, this is what should happen. There should be no pressure for autistic people to mask and be accepted as they are. They also deserve to have genuine peers who support and accept them like this. Of course, this is often not the case in the real world. Bullying and isolation frequently happens which leads to poor mental health and lower life expectancy and it is a shame.

utawarerumono-mask-truth-nosuri-cg
One of the more lighthearted moments from Mask of Truth. (Image description: A redhaired woman is riding on a masked man’s back. She is resting. In the background is a sunet sky beaming onto the shrubbery.

Aquaplus are a developer that has extensive experience in storytelling and this showed early on. However, I do hesitate to recommend it to others. Alongside the usual stigmas towards Japanese games, there is a lot of fanservice-heavy slice-of-life content in the first half of Deception and a little in Truth. As I was in weeb hell at the time and was ignorant about the issues with that content, my tolerance level for it was far higher than it is now. But even then, I felt it was too much in Deception and was there for filler. I mentioned the background of the developer earlier as I believe this content was added instead of adult content as a substitute.

(As an aside, an action game spinoff called Utawarerumono Zan recently came out in Japan and retells the story of Deception removing the fanservice and slice-of-life content entirely in a favour of a short campaign. Should it get an English release this may be the more accessible way to consume Deception’s story.)

I feel conflicted about visual novels as a whole due to this. I love the format of the medium and it has a lot of potential to tell captivating stories. This includes incorporating it with great gameplay such as the Danganronpa series from Spike Chunsoft. Many of my favourite games have visual novel style cutscenes such as Persona 4 Golden even though they aren’t visual novels.

In the case of visual novels, many otaku developers have to pander to a very problematic audience for their games to sell (especially bishoujo games). Many visual novels feature questionable sexualisation of their characters as well as harmful tropes. This is largely why they are niche. However, with developers increasingly having to look outside of Japan to stay afloat this may diminish over time. With Sony recently deciding to restrict this kind of content on their platform it’ll be interesting to see how these developers react. Until then, most output from smaller Japanese developers will remain obscure.

To finish up, the Uta duology were among my favourite games of 2017. Mask of Truth would go on to become my favourite visual novel despite being difficult to recommend. Furthermore, I would really like to see more titles from Aquaplus get localised for consoles (including ports of their older console games). If I could find such a unintentional yet deep interpretation of one of their greatest stories to date, then who I knows what I could find within their other titles?

That’s all for today.

Best wishes,
Subtle

(@subtlykawaii)

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