Mask of the Rose is a wonderful introduction to Fallen London trapped in an underwhelming visual novel.
Mask of the Rose review: Failbetter’s spinoff is hard to fall for
The world of Fallen London maps beautifully to the form of a visual novel, but Mask of the Rose loses something in translation all the same and sorely lacks the freedom that’s been a staple of past Failbetter games.
I’ve always had trouble falling for the charms of Fallen London.
The supernaturally-slanted Victorian setting of Failbetter’s flagship browser-based game is one of the most intriguing games that I haven’t spent enough time in. Even as someone who is inclined towards games that put all their chips on narrative and storytelling, a text-based RPG is something of a hard sell in 2023.
Mask of the Rose feels like a savvy attempt to sway me away from this stance.
Failbetter’s latest is a visual novel adventure that brings the developer’s distinct fantasy world to life in a more approachable way while putting a fresh spin on a familiar subgenre. It’s bold and bite-sized in ways that Sunless Skies and Sunless Seas weren’t while keeping a grip on much of the same atmosphere, gravitas and charm.
Set in the immediate aftermath of London being pulled down into the underworld, you play as a single citizen struggling to find their feet (and love) in this new status quo.
To make ends meet, your housemate hooks you up with a gig for the government. The assignment is a fairly simple census. You’re tasked with going out and taking stock of the various denizens in the city and their romantic inclinations.
What are the hooded Masters in charge of London doing with that information? Don’t worry about it! It’s probably nothing nefarious. Besides, with a murder mystery and the opportunity to pursue a romance with any of the residents you encounter in the mix, you’ve got more pressing concerns to deal with than the secret agendas of those pulling the strings.
With each passing in-game day, the list of locations and characters you can visit in Mask of the Rose grows. However, your capacity to make those ends meet remains static to the sum of two actions per day. You can go to one location in the morning and one in the afternoon. Evenings are typically reserved for story developments that concern your household and the people living in it.
While the fundamental gameplay here isn’t too far a deviation from the norm when it comes to visual novels, Failbetter has built two neat and original systems atop this foundation.
The first is the ability to customise your character's appearance. Over time, you’ll unlock new outfits and accessories. More than just flair and flavour, these unlock new dialogue options and story possibilities depending on the person you’re interacting with at the time.
I found this system neat to engage with but almost wished there was a little more depth or detail here to disguise the fact that each element of your outfit is essentially a key in disguise. Even a rudimentary set of stat bars or shortlist of adjectives that reflect the vibe my character is putting out into the world could go a long way here to make this aspect of Mask of the Rose feel more worthwhile aspect to engage with.
The second bespoke mechanic that Mask of the Rose introduces is story crafting.
Stories are something of a currency in the world of Fallen London. They’re critical for convincing characters to act outside their own interests and solving the many mysteries that lurk below the surface of the flowery prose. They can even earn you money or influence if you know the right people.
As with the fashion system in Mask of the Rose, this mechanic sometimes feels a little too ancillary. It’s very easy to overlook or ignore. I was honestly a little surprised that Failbetter didn’t make it more central to the main plotline. All told, story crafting is a great idea that feels shallow and underutilised by the time you hit the credits.
In contrast to these novel innovations, it’s the striking visuals and gorgeous soundtrack in Mask of the Rose that give the game a lot of its staying power. I may have issues with it, but the vibe was pleasant enough that I kept wanting to come back for a little bit more.
Both make for a splendid complement to the predictably delicious prose in Mask of the Rose. The writing in Sunless Seas and Sunless Skies was a strength of those games and the same is true here.
That said, the way that Failbetter has integrated the romance mechanics can often feel clunky and inappropriate. It's one thing to be able to flirt with everyone you meet, it's quite another to be prompted to take a pass at someone right after you've learned their tragic backstory or within moments of meeting them.
In addition, Failbetter’s penchant for good storytelling sometimes feels a little penned in by the nature of the format they’re working with.
With a time limit on the main plot and dozens of different directions to go, Mask of the Rose has clearly been designed with repeat playthroughs in mind. There’s no way you’re going to see everything in one playthrough, or even two. That’s not uncommon for visual novels, but it is a little irksome nevertheless. Everything is happening at such a piecemeal pace that the individual impact of any single decision or action can't help but feel minimised.
In the time since I finished my first playthrough, Failbetter has actually moved to amend this through updates that make the latter section of Mask of the Rose a little longer. All the same, I can’t help but with that Failbetter had opted for a more non-linear approach in line with Sunless Skies or Sunless Seas, or given you a bit more room to experiment and explore from the get-go.
Is Mask of the Rose worth buying?
Mask of the Rose is a delightfully written and well-realised world trapped in a frequently frustrating gameplay experience. It’s little surprise that the charms of Fallen London translate well to this particular sub-genre, but what’s here ends up feeling beleaguered by the bugbear of that formula all the same.
Even if Mask of the Rose succeeds in translating so much of what works about Failbetter’s wonderful and weird world, it ends up a little trapped in the process. There are glimpses of greatness but most of what's here ends up feeling more serviceable than superb.
The taste of Fallen London provided by Mask of the Rose left me wanting more, but probably not in the way that Failbetter intended.