If stereotypes were a bit too much yesterday, they’ve been quite wonderful today. If a game is a JRPG that stars a young protagonist who has lost his memories then surely it should be the dullest and most unambitious of experiences ever? Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception begs to differ, though, skillfully showing just how much can be salvaged with an excellent cast of characters and loads of heartfelt humor. To be exact, there are two protagonists, given that the amnesia-ridden youngster who is lost on the snowy mountains of the empire of Yamato is rescued by Kuon, a lone and upbeat female adventurer well-versed in medicine. She’s also remarkably stubborn, unanimously deciding that the boy’s name shall be Haku, and should he occasionally feel like nothing more than a pet in training, it’s just because everyone in Yamato has furry ears and a fluffy tail whereas Haku does not.
Even if Haku is exceptionally weak in this strange new world, he quickly shows skills in mathematics, engineering, and unparalleled laziness. Overall, he seems pretty much useless but for reasons unknown, Kuon still wants to look over him. If manual labor at the nearby village isn’t cutting it then perhaps the capital of the empire would have a job for someone with not much brawn but plenty of brain. Since the game is essentially a travel story, it doesn’t take long for the duo to meet up with other travelers, such as the easygoing captain of a mercenary squad, Ukon, his boozy aristocrat mage, Maroro, and a timid, bona fide princess of a neighboring nation, Rulutieh.
At least for now, Utawarerumono is a JRPG in name only. In theory, it’s an isometric, turn-based strategy RPG in which each unit gets a turn to move and act based on their agility. This part of the game seems incredibly puny and streamlined to the max. There are hit points, sure, but not really much anything else. Skirmishes won are rewarded with experience points that grant new skills, as well as random trinkets that can be equipped to buff various stats, but that’s it. There are no magic points, shops, weapons, or items whatsoever. It’s not that big a deal, anyway, considering that after almost seven hours, there has been actual playable content for maybe half an hour or so. In reality, Utawarerumono is a purebred visual novel.
Those hours haven’t been wasted time at all, though. As some weird kind of semi-anime, Utawarerumono works wonders. It might be preciously little else than pretty backgrounds housing still character portraits going through their fully voice-acted lines, but against all odds that is actually enough. This is partly thanks to the delightfully complacent Kuon but especially Haku, who is not just another mute reject of a hero but a genuinely written character who constantly shares his mind both aloud and in his thoughts. If you switch on auto mode, all the cutscenes (in this case main scenes) can be enjoyed without pressing a button. Just put down the controller and enjoy an excellent comedy adventure with a bit of ecchi thrown in for good measure.
I’m sure some might point out that if a game isn’t really a game then why couldn’t it have been anime from the get-go? Simply put, if my session today had been split into anime episodes, there would already have been around 20 of them while this adventure is more or less just getting started. Utawarerumono has taken a peculiar approach but as it’s an entertaining one, I’m not complaining!