So it seems our little hiatus is well and truly over as, over the next week or so, we should have a few reviews dropping, all from yours truly!
The first of these is the just happened Switch release of the first-person action-adventure game, Mask of Mists by 9 Eyes Games Studios. You'll find yourself immersed in a bright colorful world where you'll explore ancient ruins, mysterious caves, and abandoned buildings as you collect items, solve puzzles, create potions and fight enemies. Imagine if you had a budget, bite-sized version of Skyrim and you decided to rip out the NPCs, lore, and RPG elements, but replaced them with a first-person Metroidvania style layout, and loads of interconnected locations filled with puzzles. Well, what you'd end up with is Mask of Mists.
Story-wise the set-up is pretty simple and is explained in a few openings scenes that use static images and text to set the scene. Basically, this is the situation: this world contains a sealed-off area known as the "Infected Territory". This location was once thriving but after the land was exposed to an unbelievable amount of magic energy it became corrupted, releasing a horde of mutated monsters and led to the place becoming a dangerous environment where no one ever goes.
Well, almost no-one that is...
A wise and powerful magic user, The Archmage of the Magic Academy, has been conducting research in the area, performing experiments and seeking answers to questions only he knows. Unfortunately, though, communication with the Archmage has completely broken down recently and nothing has been heard from him in quite some time.
So what are the people of the council to do?
Well, they hire an adventurer of course! And this is obviously where you make your appearance. The ruling council quickly makes the situation known to you and uses their magic powers to open a portal that will take you to the area the Archmage was working in. After a few seconds to gather your thoughts, you step into the portal and vanish. And this is where the game begins, you appear in the Infected Territory and it'll be your job to risk its dangers, track down leads, solve various puzzles, gather ingredients, and make potions, all of which will ultimately help on your search for the missing Archmage.
And during this search, one of the first things you'll notice is this game’s style. So many titles now go for the dark and gritty approach so Mask of Mists bright and colorful aesthetic was quite refreshing. While not the most detailed or striking game by any means, it's world was relaxing to view and searching it for the games various McGuffins was fun. When combined with the soft medieval style music it created an environment that was very good for winding down with at the end of the night and I'd mark the game’s atmosphere as one of its strongest suits.
Now earlier I mentioned Skyrim but by saying that I might have raised expectations a little higher than I would have wished. I don't want to give the wrong impression here, so let me clarify that Mask of Mists is a budget game and as such is a much smaller experience. While still a decent game, many of its aspects could be described as "basic" and are rather simple in nature. For instance, combat relies on only two weapons and, although they do upgrade in strength as you advance, these two are all you get. Assigned to your right bumper is the main weapon, your sword, which is used for simple slashes to damage enemies. On the left bumper you have your flintlock pistol, once you've discovered it that is, and this is your ranged weapon. By picking up the bullets scattered around the environment, of which there is a limited number, you can do damage to faraway opponents. To round out your combat abilities you also have a dodge, assigned to Y, and using these three together is the sum of your combat abilities. So, as I said, "bas6ic" and this doesn't just apply to the combat moves but the enemies as well. They do have a bright colorful appearance, mostly blues, and purples that fit the overall aesthetic but they only come in a handful of varieties. Slimes, spitters, and giant mushroom men are the most common but all types have very basic attack patterns that won't really challenge you. Most will simply run straight towards you and will attack every few seconds. By constantly backing off, and slashing your sword repeatedly, you'll beat most opponents without trouble but you might find a dodge backward is needed occasionally too. The only exception to this is a type of spitting flower that pretty much acts as a turret. Its easily overcome with a sidewards dodge every few seconds to avoid it's poison spit, while you close in and clobber with your blade. Not particularly challenging but fun enough for what it is. Across a larger, longer game this simple combat could become irritating but, as the game has a short length and there aren't that many enemy encounters, it stays reasonably fun although not quite as engaging as it could be.
Where the real good time is, however, and what the game does best, is in its exploration and puzzles. The world, which you can move around in freely as you unlock more of it, is made up of smaller sections, usually separated by locked doors, magic forcefields, walls of thorns, fields of poison gas and so on. Each will have you searching for some solution to gain access, allowing you to enter more areas with more puzzles to solve, enemies to fight and items to collect. These sealed doors require a wide range of solutions and there's plenty of times when you'll pick up items whose use won't be apparent till much later on, or you'll discover a barrier that will stand till you find the relevant item much later. Many of these locations feel rather "Metroidvania" in design, except done in first-person, and expect to be backtracking regularly to unlock them. For example, to take out the walls of thorns you'll encounter will require you to find a stronger sword to cut them down. Poison gas fields will require you to create a "hold your breath for longer" potion that requires both a recipe and the correct ingredients. There are fire generating plants in your way? Find some way to make it rain. There are many others but by now you get the point. Gaining access to these areas gives a satisfying feeling of progression, just like it does in other games that use this system, and leads to new areas, improved versions of your weapons, and increases in your maximum health. My only criticism of this mechanic would be the lack of a map. I found myself running around trying to locate an area I remembered from earlier, but forgot it's precise location. Having a map with indicators on it would have greatly reduced this problem to the point of nonexistence but, as the world is relatively small, you will find what you're looking for eventually, it might just take some wandering.
Alongside the locked areas, there is also a myriad of smaller puzzles spread all around the environment, with every new area having at least one to figure out. There's also a wide range of these puzzles too, some as simple as discovering a key, while others are more involved. As you search each location any item you can pick up will be highlighted with a marker on the screen, these are the items that you need to use to work out the solution. You'll pick up mushrooms and flowers to craft potions, and find weapons, health potions, etc too, but the main focus will be to try to find the items needed as keys to advance. Early in the game, an actual key is floating around in a magic chandelier and you'll need to smash its protective sphere with a nearby stone cube. Other times you'll be pressing symbols in a certain order, creating a rabbit trap to get meat, using said meat to poison a plant, or following clues you find on maps and scrolls. There are times when you are told that the magic statues you're looking for cause an adverse reaction in vegetation and leads to you searching the environment for clumps of brown, dead grass to dig up. These are just a few examples of the large amount of puzzles you'll come across. The relatively small map size, compared to the usual RPG maps, and the 5 hour-ish play length means your time is mostly packed with these puzzles and I found it to be the most interesting part of the experience. Many do feel like "find the relevant item that functions as a key" style solutions but finding the items themselves is fun and working out the more complex puzzles is rewarding and requires a little bit of brainpower to do.
Breaking up the puzzle sections above ground are a selection of dungeons, which are the main locations you're searching for. Each has basic traps like rolling logs and poison lakes, plus enemies to fight but basically function like the above ground areas. Down here you're searching for a giant crystal that unlocks the portal that the Archmage (remember him?) seems to have disappeared through.
And that's the gist of the game. There aren't any sidequests, NPCs or grinding to do so it's a pretty pure adventure game with a focus of puzzles that is quite fun to play and won't outstay it's welcome.
Bug-wise there wasn't much to complain about. I played mostly in console mode and experienced a little bit of slowdown, some pop-up and a few instances of environmental geometry problems but nothing major. The game doesn't require fast reaction times or split-second timing so I wouldn't say these detract from gameplay too much but were noticeable enough to mention.
Lastly, I'd like to bring up the play length. Now I've already mentioned it can be completed in around 5 hours and how you react to that will be entirely subjective. Some people will like being able to complete the game over a couple of nights while others might expect a longer experience for their cash. Something that needs to be brought up, although whether you put it in the pro or con column will be up to you, especially when it's cheap price is also considered.
Summary: An interesting, short first-person world that's interesting to explore and filled with puzzles. Mask of Mists could scratch the itch of someone wanting something quick but good to play. The bright colorful world, with its relaxing music, creates an environment that's good for unwinding at the end of the night. The puzzles give some challenge while never being infuriating and exploration is both needed and rewarded. Keeping track of locations you'll need to return to later can be a little annoying without a map but the compact world means you will find it eventually. A lack of sidequests or NPCs might shorten the experience but it also keeps you focused on the quest ahead. More minor slowdown and pop-up are minor criticisms of a game that's worth a look if you want a quick, short, budget experience.
*Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purposes of the review.
Final Score: 7/10
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