Visual novels are a strange beast. They're not really games in the classical sense, although many of them aspire to be. As visual novels (VNs) and other forms of interactive fiction have seen prolific growth in recent years, we've seen more efforts to build on these genres, both by telling stories that are unconventional in the video game space and by experimenting with new mechanics that can draw the player further into the fictional world.
Studio Failbetter's Mask of the Rose is definitely one of the more interesting endeavors. Starting with a mysterious and complex setting, the game pulls every trick it can to bring the player into the story.
BeNeath the Surface
1862 was an odd year for Britain. The empire was thrust into chaos as London abruptly sank into the earth, carrying all its residents into a Stygian cavity - known as "the Neath" - below the surface. The city miraculously survived the transition, but now with Parliament shuttered and the royal family locked away in the palace, England - above and below - was devoid of leadership. And for the ones caught below? They wondered if there would ever be a way back to the surface.
This backstory might sound familiar to you if you've played Failbetter's previous games. It is the Fallen London setting used in various titles produced by the studio. Most likely, you know about it from the popular 2015 game Sunless Seas or its 2019 follow-up Sunless Skies. However, the setting dates back to the first Fallen London game released in 2009, which was a browser-based text adventure that is still available to play today. In many ways, Mask of the Rose feels like its successor, complete with the same curious obsession with clothing.
Geography isn't the only thing that's changed in London, and the eternal night of the Neath is far from the strangest happening. Golems and devils walk the streets, animals spontaneously acquire the power of speech, there are rumors of tentacle-faced men and giant bat monsters about, and death has become merely a temporary inconvenience.
Into this world walks the player, yet another lost soul forgotten by the world above. You have been recruited by the "Masters" - imposing, inhuman cloaked figures who have a habit of making up words on the fly - to conduct a census of your neighborhood. In any other circumstance, this would be a mundane task. As it is, the world is so bizarre that you barely have time to wonder why it is that the Masters are so evidently obsessed with the romantic lives of the people of London.
In the middle of the census, there is a murder - or isn't there? The "victim" is seen walking around not so long after the deed is done, returned by the Boatman to the twilight world of London. A friend of yours has been charged with the killing, and the former corpse is intent on pressing charges. It's up to you to liberate your friend, one way or another.
Crafting Story and Style
Mask of the Rose is a visual novel with both mystery and romantic elements. The various characters will present the player with quests that can be completed for money or answers. There's also the opportunity to befriend - or woo - just about anyone. A close friendship can offer an alternative solution to a lot of problems, but don't get so caught up in courtship that you forget what you're doing. There's only so much time each day to run errands, and the plot is always moving forward no matter what you do.
Despite Mask of the Rose being referred to as a "dating sim" in many sources (including the Steam page), the social aspects are wholly optional. The powers that be in the Neath may be obsessed with love stories, but for the player, it's merely one means of solving a puzzle. That being said, a dedicated bachelor or bachelorette can still play matchmaker, as linking interested parties is another option.
Compared to a lot of VNs, Mask of the Rose has a bit more mechanical heft, and that starts with clothing. In the Fallen London setting, many people have lost touch with their pre-fall identities and rely instead on outward trappings to give them guidance. That's a fancy way of saying that people behave how they dress, and that includes you. A change in wardrobe can affect how an NPC perceives the player, but it can also unlock new dialogue options as the player-character is influenced by their gear.
Another novel addition is the Storycrafting system. From time to time, a character will offer the player a conundrum that needs to be solved with the right narrative. The player must then assemble this narrative by swapping elements in and out. The right story (whether it's true or not) can be worth some money. It may even be enough to set a dear friend free.
A Final Word
A playthrough of Mask of the Rose will take a few hours but don't expect to play the game just once. There isn't enough time allotted to finish every questline, and there are multiple endings based on how the player resolves the main conflict. You might also find it worthwhile to play through again with different fashions, just to see what happens when your character behaves like an uncultured idiot or an aggressive jerk to everyone.
As a VN, Mask of the Rose is bound to be an acquired taste for most people, but I'd recommend it to anyone on the fence. The writing is well above average, the story and setting are intriguing, and there's enough impactful player input that it does feel like you're playing a game rather than just watching the plot move.
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