Thanks to another leisurely weekend, I’ve managed to make progress in Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception. Its characters seem to be spending equally leisurely time themselves. What first seemed like a travel story has now rooted itself deeply in the capital of the empire of Yamato. There, Haku and his gang are doing occasional odd jobs while mostly concentrating on eating, boozing, shopping, and cooking. Their troupe has increased in size, welcoming aboard Nekone, the mercenary Ukon’s awfully tsundere little sister, as well as a couple more royals from the neighboring countries; a scatterbrained and romance-hungry princess Atuy, as well as a young and virtuous prince Kiwru. With a couple of dozen side characters thrown in for good measure, the cast is already more than adequate, and that’s putting it mildly.
At this particular moment, my biggest gripe with Utawarerumono is the way it meanders aimlessly. Even after 22 hours played, there has been preciously little of relevance going on, apart from a continuous barrage of new characters being introduced. The player is stingily given brief, enigmatic glimpses into the veiled pasts of both Kuon and Haku, but as for the plot, it’s still hiding somewhere. There are just tons of small, disconnected scenes about the everyday fuss of living in a big city. They’re a good source of some excellent, unabashed character chemistry, and can occasionally be even a little touching. Still, the storytelling is currently like a sailboat stuck in a dead calm. I’m mostly just waiting for stuff to start happening.
The game’s turn-based skirmishes, fought on checkered isometric maps, have been brief and exceptionally rare. They only lasts for maybe 5-10 minutes, and so far there have been eight of them. Of those, most have been designed to give the player such a huge advantage from the very beginning that there’s barely any need for any kind of strategic thinking. If you can be bothered to check how far the enemy units can move and attack on their turn, it’s a piece of cake to bait them into individual, easily toppled targets. There are little gimmicks such as being able to slightly increase or decrease damage with a well-timed button press right before a blow lands, but they do very little to improve what is an extremely crude and barebones battle system. Battles won can be replayed in free battle mode but since the experience reward of doing so is negligible, it’s not really worth it. Besides, there never seems to be any real need to grind, anyway.
As awkward as all this might sound, Utawarerumono isn’t still a lost cause at all. Even if it’s easy and 95% passive, its characters and their interplay continue to work. I’m especially pleased to see that even if Haku is surrounded by several beautiful maidens, the game isn’t a tired old harem adventure. There’s plenty of love in the air, sure, but when pretty much everyone has their own quirks and persons of interest, even the romantic comedy feels fresh and versatile. A much better approach than, say, having everybody going after the protagonist. I’m probably close to the halfway point, so if only the story would kindly start moving soon, this could still become quite a ride.