Friday, June 21, 2024

Mask of the Rose review — A new way to explore Fallen London

It’s easy to accept that people adapt in the face of disaster, that they evolve and find ways to continue living life. But what about right after a catastrophe? That’s the scenario Failbetter Games’ Mask of the Rose presents us with. It’s a dynamic visual novel set right after the city of London has fallen in the universe of Fallen London.

Our player character is basically a blank slate, allowing us to customize their background from one of several (a few of which that can be unlocked after you complete a full playthrough of the game). This impacts how you can interact with the other citizens you encounter, what knowledge and skills you may possess, and how you generally move through the world. Beyond that, you’re also able to choose their silhouette profile, and how they’re addressed by other characters. This goes beyond “Mr.,” “Ms.,” or “Mx.” You can be referred to as a captain, a doctor, and many other social titles. You can also decide what your character’s feelings on relationships, be they romantic, sexual, or platonic, are.

Mask of the Rose screenshot of the screen where players can choose how they feel about relationships
Image Source: Failbetter Games

The PC lives in a boardinghouse in London owned by a kind Black woman named Horatia. There are two other boarders who live here as well: Griz, a redheaded woman who works for the newly formed government run by the mysterious cloaked Masters; and Archie, a redheaded man who was training to be a doctor before the Fall and is now working as one despite his incomplete schooling. Griz is a fan of following the rules and trying to appeal to the good sides of governmental systems, while Archie is more focused on finding the truth and doing what he thinks is right, regardless of the rules.

The first act of Mask of the Rose serves to set up this world and its characters, along with the game’s many interlocking mechanics. Despite falling into the literal earth, London is still a capitalistic city, which means you need to do odd jobs to make ends meet and pay your back-rent to Horatia. You get a job automatically through Griz, who convinced her boss — one of the Masters, Mr. Pages — to let you help out with collecting census information about the locals. You can interview various citizens you encounter, and turn in your findings for cash.

Mask of the Rose screenshot of Griz. Says Griz works for the ministry of accounting and recounting. it seems to agree with her. She wears trousers to work and comes home at all hours.
Image Source: Failbetter Games

Eventually, you will also get an opportunity from Archie which introduces another mechanic: storybuilding. Within a special menu found in your room in the boardinghouse, you can play around with the characters and information you’ve encountered around town to create stories. These aren’t all necessarily true, and some characters later on may ask you for fictional accounts, but Archie is looking for theories about what the Masters are up to in London.

Beyond making decisions about who to speak to or where to travel during your day to collect information or payment, your clothing is another mechanic that impacts how you move through the world. Before you leave everyday, you can choose to change your outfit. Once you do and select a destination, the game will give you a bit of insight into how your current clothing will be received where you’re going. This becomes particularly important once you start investigating the murder that kicks the events of Mask of the Rose into high gear.

Screenshot of the dockworker's child background option
Image Source: Gailbetter Games

Unfortunately, the early pacing of this game is a bit off. We’re introduced to the mechanics of travelling, creating stories, and wearing different clothing items early on, but they don’t feel fully effective or necessary until after the game’s inciting incident: the first-ever murder in Fallen London. The weird thing here is that apparently in the depths, animals start to talk and the dead don’t stay dead. A man named David Landau dies, only to come back a few days later. Despite no longer being dead, he insists he was murdered, and blames Archie for the crime, as the last person to see him and the doctor who treated him. With Archie arrested, it falls to you to use whatever methods you deem fit to try to free your friend.

This is where the unique mechanics of Mask of the Rose really shine. For example, if you want to visit Archie in prison without needing an escort or running the risk of being robbed, you need to find an appropriate outfit. And with the information you gather during your explorations of the city and citizen interrogations, you can use the story builder to craft theories about the murder, and earn extra cash by coming up with story ideas for David’s writer sister, Rachel. This extra cash can then be converted to buy new outfits or information from informants.

Screenshot of Harjit discussing his missing companion
Image Source: Failbetter Games

Interacting with other citizens is key to getting to the heart of what’s really going on in London. Conversations will add new possibilities to your storybuilder, and will also give you opportunities to build relationships of your own with these characters, and also to foster relationships between various NPCs as well. Certain characters may have affinities for each other, or may hate each other, and you can help cultivate those relationships in either direction.

These characters are all very well written, each with their own motivations and quirks that set them apart. Moreover, there are magical creatures in this world as well, like yellow-eyed, humanoid demons and people made entirely from stone that hail from a homogenous culture far away. This gives the world more life and heft, and provides a bit more context about the larger universes of Fallen London and Sunless Skies.

Screenshot of vicar Theophilus telling the player a demon asked for his soul
Image Source: Failbetter Games

Mask of the Rose is obviously a love letter to these communities, but those who have never played those games can still easily enjoy this one. The game feels a bit weighed down by having to establish its world for those who are unfamiliar, but once you get to the main plot, things really pick up. With such detailed characters and mechanics, this a visual novel unlike any other, making it a must-play for anyone who enjoys the genre.

Mask of the Rose is now available on PC, Mac, Linux, and Nintendo Switch. A Deck verified version, along with ports for the PlayStation and Xbox families of consoles will be available later this year.

Score: 4.5/5

A copy of Mask of the Rose for PC was provided to Gayming Magazine by the developer.

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