"Oh, that's right, this is primarily a VN, not primarily an SRPG." If there's one thing that I kept thinking as I dived into this game, it's that. I mean, I knew that already. It shouldn't have been a surprise. Even in text-heavy RPGs you are usually given control of a character to wander around a main base hub or town though, but this is a VN, so I need to thoroughly recalibrate my expectations and start thinking of it like one. Depending on how the VN/RPG balance ends up, I may forgo putting up an actual scored review of this, because it wouldn't be fair to judge a VN for not having enough gameplay. We'll see, though.
False Mask opens with our protagonist being nursed to health by a girl in a tent, and fading in and out of consciousness - he recalls some scattered memories about being shut away in a lab-like environment, growing more distant from his loved ones, and finally getting in a machine (probably a cold sleep container) with a man telling him that when he wakes up, he'll be in a new world. So if I recall the plot summary of the first game, this may be the same era that Hakuoro was from, the 'Iceman' whose soul was frozen and then he reawakened in the far future when all those goddamned adorable animal-eared girls and bloody wars were happening. It seems the protagonist for this game willingly got into the sleep tube though, at least in his memories he isn't putting up a fight about taking some preservation meds and hopping into cold sleep.
Clad only in the light robe he was probably put into deep-freeze with, the protagonist escapes from the tent in a delirious fever and runs off into the snow-bitten hills, where he finally comes to and realizes that he's lost and it's freezing cold. His luck is about to get worse as he's suddenly assaulted by a bug - not just any bug, but a towering 20 foot tall monster of a bug. He's definitely not in Kansas anymore. Bugs should not be this big, he remembers that much about common sense in the world he used to live in, but nothing makes sense anymore so it's time to run for his life. He runs and runs as the giant bug chases after him, and finally loses it when he crashes down into an underground crevice.
Too bad for our protagonist, but the giant bug shows up in the tunnel from the other side. Just when he's about to get eaten though, another monster shows up and devours the giant bug. This new monster is a giant pink slime, it encases the bug and completely dissolves it in disgusting detail. As it's presumably about to do the same to our protagonist, some of the slime in its mouth shapes into a twisted face-like shape, and then...bang, someone yells out to cover his eyes and ears and a flashbang-like effect goes off, and the girl from earlier lifts him on her shoulders and runs for both of their lives. She can run ridiculously fast, but the monster is still pursuing them, so she has to use another of her baubles to slow it down and just barely make it out of the underground crevices and back up to safety.
Our savior here is the same one who was nursing the protagonist back to health earlier, her name is Kuon* and she tries to quiz the protagonist about who he is. She found him collapsed near the mountains and brought him back to her tent to rescue him. Protagonist tries to remember, but he can't, not where he came from, what he was doing before today, or even his name. Amnesia, everyone's favorite trope. I probably don't need to say it, but yeah, this seems to be 99% similar to the first Utawarerumono's setup. Protagonist even grabs Kuon's tail out of curiosity and has the whole "wait, this is real?" moment like the first one, too. She happens to have a set of men's clothing handy, and after a long ordeal the protagonist finally has to get her help getting dressed since they're so damn foreign to him and he puts them on all wrong at first.
Kuon is very kind and caring, but she's got a witty, sarcastic and maybe slightly sadistic streak at times too. After unsuccessfully trying to squeeze info out of the protagonist (who doesn't remember anything), she explains a bit in return. They call those giant pink slime things Tatari, according to Kuon they're immortal, and the only thing you can do when you see one is run, but they usually only dwell in those underground crevices so if you avoid those you should be safe...probably. Maybe. Anyway, 'protagonist' needs a name! The protagonist gets a bit excited because he wants to think up a cool name for himself, but Kuon takes it upon herself to think one up and decides that his new name is Haku. She tells him not to complain about it, that it's a very wonderful name, based on the name of a great person, someone whose tales are sung...'the one being sung' (Utawarerumono). Name-drop this early in the game, take a drink! But yeah, Haku, Hakuoro, there we go.
Kuon was on her way to a small village before she got sidetracking nursing Haku back to health, so she packs up and takes him with her. It's around this time that Haku fully realizes just how different he is from Kuon and the other people in this new world in terms of physical ability. They're attacked by a gang of mad wolves on the way to the village, and Kuon is completely unintimidated, telling Haku that these wolves are super weak and can be driven off by just hitting them a few times with a stick. Haku is relieved and tries to show off a bit, and...it doesn't work. He's incredibly weak by the standards of this new world, the wolves don't even budge when he smacks one with a nearby stick.
Kuon has to step in and show him how it's done - this is the game's first SRPG battle. Right now Haku only hits for about 8 damage on a normal attack while Kuon does about 36. The game is very hands-off with the in-game tutorials, it tells the player the absolute bare minimum and then says "if you want to know more, go look in the help menu for tutorials". This is actually kind of refreshing, I remember Luminous Arc Infinity was very over the top with the hand-holding tutorials, like "press the attack button to attack, select an enemy by moving the cursor over it and pressing the select button, you fucking moron". This game? "Here, this is a battle. Want to know more? Figure it out yourself or go look in the menu." Anyway, like the first game this one has timed-hits. Press the button at the right time for critical damage and consecutive attacks. Things are still very simple for now, but I'll do a more proper writeup of the combat once I've got a fuller and more varied party. With Kuon doing most of the hard work, we drive off the wolves.
Kuon tries to get Haku to pull his weight and recover a bit by doing some menial labor when they arrive at the inn. She asks the innkeeper for some jobs, and gets Haku assigned a job to move some heavy bags. He almost passes out moving just one of them, but apparently this is a job that little kids in the village do for pocket change, and Kuon easily tosses 7 of the same bags up on her back and moves them like it's nothing. So it's not just that Haku is emaciated from long cold sleep or that only Kuon has berserk strength, but apparently even little kids from these parts are ridiculously strong by our human standards. Maybe this area is full of people of the same type as Karura from the first Utawarerumono, guess we'll find out. Anyway, Kuon is genuinely worried that Haku is so powerless and weak that he'll just die like a dog if she doesn't work him a bit.
While calculating the exchange of money between Kuon and the innkeeper for various items she sold and vice-versa though, the innkeeper uses an abacus-like device for relatively simple calculations. Kuon also gets simple three-digit addition and subtraction wrong, while Haku can easily do it in his head like any normal person can. Kuon grills him on this later in their room and is shocked when he can do what most humans would consider pretty simple calculations in his head. That's when Kuon gets the idea to head to a main city where they might be able to find some more intellectual work for Haku to survive on, since he's clearly not suited for manual labor in this world of super-strength petting zoo people.
Also staying at the same inn is a group of men led by a guy named Ukon*, with a heavily makeup-caked scholar with ear-destroying verbal tics named Maroro*. We get roped into helping them exterminate some creatures bothering the village that they describe in a way that makes Haku think they're talking about the same huge bug he fought earlier. When they go out it turns out they're actually much smaller versions of that bug, only about the size of a person instead of the gargantuan 20 foot tall one from earlier. Kuon gives Haku a very familiar looking fan to use as a weapon - she says it's very precious to her and that she's just lending it to him for now. Another easy battle ensues where we beat down the smaller creatures and everyone's wondering why Haku was so afraid and he explains about the huge bug that he saw last time - everyone goes silent and suddenly another of those huge building-sized ones leaps out and cuts one of Ukon's men in two, making everyone retreat.
Haku and Kuon come up with a plan to have this giant bug meet the same fate as the last one, by luring it into a trap where the pink slime monster can devour this one too. Kuon hops down into the ravine to go bait Tatari this way while Haku leads Ukon's men in creating diversions for the smaller bugs and leading the giant bug to a trap. Another easy SRPG battle happens where we have to lead the big bug to the trapped area of the map for a win, it falls off the cliff and the slime monster devours it, the town and the trade route are safe once again. Everyone is impressed with Haku's quick thinking on the diversion plan and Kuon's ridiculous speed, and Ukon invites us to go to this country's capital with him and his men on caravan-guard duty since we're going the same way. Kuon declines his offer at first, she's a bit suspicious of his motives.
So, how many parallels to the first Utawarerumono arc in this one so far? Big animal/monster causing trouble, making a plan to defeat it and save the town, then setting off on a grander adventure after that. Unfortunately there hasn't been much in terms of gameplay so far. There have been maybe 3 or 4 battles, and all were easily won by just using normal attacks, so I need to wait until the party gets a bit bigger before I can get a good taste of how the battle system is. Again, I need to adjust my expectations away from 'JRPG' and towards 'VN'. Battles seem to be pretty rare, there is no 'home base' type screen, at least not yet, and saving can be done at any time so my habit of 'waiting until the game lets me control the characters again' to save needs to be dropped.
* I'm sure some of these names are butchered, so if anyone knows if there are official romanizations out there, lemme know.
Random JRPG blogging about the games I'm currently playing.