Mask of the Rose Review
Check out our review of Mask of the Rose to find out what we thought about dating and murder in an underground Victorian London.
Mask of the Rose welcomes you to a London that has abruptly fallen underground in the mid-19th century. London is now stuck in a subterranean world of gigantic bats, tentacle-mouthed creatures, men made of clay, and literal, actual devils. This is, of course, Fallen London.
Failbetter Games has devotedly explored this setting in their previous games Fallen London, Sunless Seas, and Sunless Skies. This time around, they tackle a new genre, or rather two. Perhaps even three.
The base of this Frankenstein’s monster is a visual novel dating sim, but there’s also a murder mystery conjoined, and then there’s the very light management aspect of having to make a living to pay the rent.
All of this is, I assure you, the bare minimum of what you will do in Mask of the Rose. You will inquire nosily into strangers’ love lives, recall disturbing memories, and craft dubious theories about people.
After I created my character, the game surprised me by letting me choose whether my character leans towards aromanticism and/or asexuality. I found this a really cool way to establish your character, as opposed to relying on individual dialogue choices later down the line.
That said, everything you do after you build your character depends on how you choose to spend your time, who you talk to, what you do, and where you go.
A strange, eerie atmosphere pervades every conversation in Mask of the Rose, and a good part of the game is informed by how you and your fellow Londoners come to terms with their new crisis.
Among your many adventures, you’ll visit the drowned parliament and be forced to leave when a ghostly chorus debates legislation there. You’ll learn paths that require not looking backwards. You’ll consider the value of religiously legitimising talking rats. You’ll remember a vision of a Mongolian woman desperately writing even as her environment floods.
And then, all of these delicious promises of role-playing adventure are altogether thrown down the pit. One design choice is enough to be the complete undoing of Mask of the Rose: that you only get less than two dozen in-game days to play around in. With two activities allowed per day, it ends up as barely enough time to do even one full line of mystery or storytelling.
My playthrough of the game lasted some five hours, and it left me not just dissatisfied, but very confused. I hadn’t uncovered a single mystery in the game and had barely gotten to know the characters. It feels quite as if I played the last 5 hours of a much, much longer game.
It’s almost heart-rending to not recommend Mask of the Rose, because its writing does remain on the very high standard that Failbetter has established. The game is teeming with thoroughly Victorian gothic atmosphere, and I quite liked the characters I met, with their curious expressions and authentically antique modes of speech.
What’s more, the game’s extensively interactive writing allows a wide spectrum of role-play, so that there was always a way for me to express my character. None of it mattered when the game ended, however, and I realised that by starting a new playthrough, I’d be meeting all the characters for the first time again.
The game encourages playing several playthroughs to uncover its mysteries, and I can certainly see a type of player who’s committed enough to the atmosphere to continually play new ‘runs’, as if this were a roguelike. For a regular joe like me, though, I have to wonder how this game is meant to be played.
It’s a game that encourages role-playing, but then you have to forgo role-playing entirely if you want to get any kind of satisfaction out of it. Instead of playing your character freely, you must laser-focus your attention to a single line of story or activity. And of course, you must be prepared to start over and over if you want to experience everything this game has to offer.
And the game does have a lot to offer! It was only towards the end of my five hours that I realised I could open up loads of conversation options by using the storycrafting tool. Apparently if I put a character as a suspect on the storycrafting board, I could pursue that line of investigation in the actual game, unlocking dozens of conversation possibilities.
Realising this just before the end of the game was probably what left me feeling the most defeated. There really is so much incredible writing and role-playing to be had here, and yet the game is resolute in keeping you away from it all – why? I couldn’t figure that out.
Dissatisfying end result notwithstanding, Mask of the Rose still has some of the most imaginative and atmospheric writing of the year, which is to be expected from Failbetter Games. If you’re prepared to start over and over and wrestle with the game’s strange design, then I think you will quite enjoy what Mask of the Rose does do well.
If you’re simply looking for a satisfying time role-playing amidst romance and mystery, however, Mask of the Rose will do its absolute best to tease you with what could have been.
Developer: Failbetter Games
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Publisher: Failbetter Games
Release Date: June 8, 2023 (PC, Switch)
This review of Mask of the Rose is based on a copy of the game provided by the publisher. The PC version of Mask of the Rose was played for this review.
Thank you for reading our review of Mask of the Rose!
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