Mask of Mists Review | Into the Abyss

In Mask of Mists, you play as a mercenary who is tasked with finding Crowl, an Archmage of the Academy who went missing while conducting dangerous research. After a brief storybook-like introduction you are teleported into the Infected Territory, a space crawling with monsters from the Abyss, and it's up to you to activate all the navigation stones, plunge into the Abyss and rescue the Archmage. And that's it. Then you're set free onto the world to explore monster-ridden caves full of glowing mushrooms and ancient ruins full of owl statues and stone masks. Usually, this is where I talk about writing and performances but there isn't much of that here. The plot is only briefly touched on at the beginning and ending, and there is no voice-over of any kind. For players expecting a deep story that offers more than a simple inciting incident to kick off the adventure, this will be a disappointment.

However, where Mask of Mists falls short in story, it makes up for in game design. The game world of winding paths and cave systems is fun to explore and while none of them are too difficult, they do require your full attention. Picking up a new item and realizing it could help you get to an area you previously crossed or recognizing a recently discovered landmark as the one you've seen before in a drawing is an exciting part of the gameplay loop. And with no in-game map or destination markers, the game gives the player the responsibility of navigating the world as they see fit. My only criticism of the game design is that can often be too lean. If something is interactive in the world, it probably has some significance to game progression, and due to the fact that every puzzle is auto-solved if the necessary item is in your inventory, it doesn't require too much trial and error on the player's part.

The gameplay mechanics in Mask of Mists are probably its biggest drawback. The movement system was so jarring to me that I got a headache after the first 30 minutes and had to step away. Playing this game is like playing the 1993 Doom. The main difference being that the walking speed, which resembles a man in New York after he realized his meter ran out, is much faster than the speed of the point of view camera. This means that although you move fast, the turning speed is ridiculously slow. And before anyone suggests it, yes I tried increasing the camera speed in settings but it just makes it feel like I'm playing the game with speed hacks. On PC, I'm sure this wouldn't be a huge problem thanks to the use of the mouse, but on consoles, which is where I played it, it took some getting used to. Part of me even wonders if the game would have been better off as a tile-based game like Severed from DrinkBox Studios. There are combat mechanics as well, you pick up a sword pretty early on and a pistol soon after. Both of those weapons, along with a quick dash move, are how you deal with enemies. The combat isn't particularly challenging, but it remains engaging and I did find myself leaning forward a bit as I performed a close dodge in a dungeon.

While the game did give me a headache when I started to move, upon me loading into the world, before I even touched the analog sticks, my first impression of the game was that it was pretty. The game's art style is easy on the eyes and I would occasionally stop for a few seconds to stare at the frame and take a few screenshots. The visuals are accompanied by fitting music composed by Pavel Nokkard. The soundtrack is short, coming in at around 15 minutes long, and though the tunes get recognizable pretty early on, the sense of adventure they invoke doesn't get old and at no point in my time with the game did I take off my headphones or opt for an audiobook or podcast. There's not a big variety in the sound effects during gameplay, but what they do have is used sparingly and appropriately. These things add up to make Mask of Mists an oddly meditative experience. An easy game to unwind with, akin to putting together a 100-piece puzzle. 

In fact, after completing the game, part of me wishes to see a more fleshed out story in this world. Don't get me wrong, I don't want them to make the next Dragon Age game, but a few NPCs spread sporadically throughout the map would go a long way. But at the same time, that would most likely increase the playtime and part of the enjoyment of the game comes from the satisfaction of completing it in such a short amount of time. And speaking of completion, for my fellow trophy/achievement hunters, if you can finish the game, you'll easily get 13 out of the 15 achievements. Which should take no longer than around 5 hours without a guide. A word of advice though, if you don't have all the collectible masks before you go into the Abyss, create a separate save file specifically for that, so you don't end up like me and have to play through the game again just for the last 2 achievements.

There are a few other things I want to briefly touch on before I wrap it up. The first thing is that I wish the game had some sort of hint system. I did manage to solve all puzzles on my own, but there were times where I would pace aimlessly trying to search for an item only to find it was right above my head, literally. I would have appreciated the game to realize after 10 minutes that I had no idea what I was doing and to give me a pop-up reading: Look up, stupid. The second thing is that the game does suffer from a few brief stutters. They usually happen when the game is autosaving and it is made more noticeable because the game is very floaty and smooth the rest of the time. Also, the game does have a fair bit of backtracking, and as I said earlier the game trusts you to figure that out on your own and unless you're taking notes, you will wander around trying to figure out which cave had what and where that one item you saw was. Lastly, the last puzzle before the sixth and final dungeon is a bit of a weird one. I don't want to spoil anything so I will simply say: the color blue is not as blue as you may think.

I definitely got off on the wrong foot with Mask of Mists. But I went back, started a new save, took it from the top, and 5 hours later, having finished the game, I can confidently say that I'm glad I did. Mask of Mists isn't a smooth experience, mainly due to controls that don't feel tuned for a controller, but the game has a certain charm to it that makes it easy to look past its rough edges. This is only 9 Eyes Game Studio's third game, and second first-person puzzler, and I'm interested to see what the team does next. Mask of Mists released earlier this year on PC and is out September 2 on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch. A review code on the Xbox One was provided by the publisher.

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