Masquerada could be Asia's next big home-grown video game

Stuff gets the lowdown on Masquerada: Songs and Shadows, Singapore’s next big video game

A hardcore-focused tactical RPG that takes cues from the likes of Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. A fully fleshed out 15-hour single player story.

Not to mention a varied cast of characters and a unique game-world to explore, a unique cell shaded art-style and a voice cast which including the likes of Jennifer Hale of Mass Effect fame

Quite a list of features, wouldn't you agree?

Well, that is exactly what Singapore based Witching Hour Studios is promising gamers with their next title, Masquerada: Songs and Shadows for the PC and PS4.

Slated for release in the middle of 2016, from a studio more known for their mobile titles, Masquerada is shaping up to be one of the most ambitious games ever attempted by a local independent game developer.

With launch date approaching soon, we sat down with Ian Gregory, Witching Hour’s creative director to talk about Masquerada and just why it’s a game that we should be looking forward to.

His office, a small space in an industrial park in Keppel, is stuffed to the brim with excited artists and programmers, each with a desk piled high with books, manuals, reference charts and more than a few cans of Red Bull.

Tables are places haphazardly around the place to accommodate all the new hires the company has had to make to make Masquerada a reality.

“The rent is cheap and it’s quite central,” Gregory replies with a laugh when I ask about the unassuming space he and partner, Brian Kwek decided to set up shop.

For Gregory, Kwek and the 20 or so other staff members that comprise this home-grown gaming studio, Masquerada isn’t just a game…it’s a passion.

And now, with a few months remaining till release, this factory of dreams is in full-swing.

In Gregory’s own words, “Masquerada is an isometric RPG in which you control a party of three as they explore the city of Ombre, a city of shadows, masks and death. It’s a story driven adventure in which you follow Cicero Gavar as he investigates a disappearance. Combat features a tactical pause that allows players to play the game at their own pace, elemental combos and powerful mask abilities.”

For 30-year old Gregory, who was weaned on old school RPGs like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights and Diablo, making Masquerada is as much a love letter to his past as it is a way to introduce younger gamers to the genre.

“The game is inspired by classics like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, infused with ideas from contemporary titles like Bastion, Transistor, Diablo and MOBAs. It’s an attempt at refreshing an old genre for a current audience. Strong storytelling and mechanics are pillars in what we’re trying to do, and these games have it in spades,” he says.

As old school gamers, take it from us, those old RPGs were truly special. Unlike today’s games with eye-watering graphics, top notch production values and orchestral scale sound design, the RPG’s that Masquerada draws inspiration from had to rely on good ole-fashioned storytelling, mechanics and charm.

There is a huge risk though, and it’s one that the Witching Hour staff know well. This is a company best known for the mobile games such as the Ravenmark series.

The jump to consoles and PCs is an unprecedented move by the developer, a move that could cost the company dearly if it does not succeed because unlike mobile titles, the investment needed to bring a full-fledged PC/Console RPG to life is immense.

It would probably be a safer bet for Witching Hour to use their resources to make a Free To Play (F2P) mobile title with in-app purchases instead of a premium game with a 30 dollar price tag.

“One of the major differences in making a game like this and an F2P game is the way in which it rewards the player. An F2P game focuses on short bursts of pleasure, while what we’re trying to do is create a journey taken with characters we hope our players will grow to love. We’re hoping certain moments experienced are kept and treasured,” the Witching Hour boss says.

For Gregory and his staff though, it’s all about being true to themselves. “This is what we’ve always wanted to do. It’s also playing to the studio’s strength as we’ve garnered the experience of providing polished story driven content over the years with our previous titles,” he said.

Like those games from his childhood, Gregory is banking on a solid narrative to drive the plater forward.

He recalls that, “we knew very early on that we’d be focusing strongly on the narrative of Masquerada, which coloured many of our development choices. I think the greatest example was the decision to set aside a part of the budget to have the whole game voiced from start to finish.”

This has attracted probably the most illustrious star cast of any locally made title with the likes of Jennifer Hale of Mass Effect fame and Dave Fennoy from The Walking Dead to name a few.

“What really caught their eye was the writing. Nicholas Chan, our writer, had put together something special and they were very keen to be a part of the project,” Gregory reveals. 

RPGs like Masquerada are very much a part of the western school of game development so we wondered if there was any Easter eggs for us locals.

With a laugh, Gregory says that, “Yes… if you know what you’re looking for. We understand that it’s a game for a global audience, so any reference is quite subtle though we’re sure a Singaporean player would be able to catch the undertones.”

With a release date sometime in the second or third quarter of this year and more than two years of blood, sweat and tears poured into this game, there is no turning back for this young team of dedicated game developers.

There is no denying that Witching Hour has taken a big risk with Masquerada and while we certainly are fans, only time will tell if Gregory’s big gamble was a success.