Failbetter Games’s Mask of the Rose is the kind of game where I can turn my laptop toward my friend, show her a picture of a giant being with no visible face except for two glowing red eyes (?), and say, “Hey, do you think I’m gonna hook up with this thing?” and within minutes, be actively hooking up with that thing.
Mask of the Rose
PC, Mac, Switch
June 8, 2023
Sidequest was provided with a copy of Mask of the Rose for PC in exchange for a fair and honest review.
Mask of the Rose, the latest in the Fallen London universe, is a visual novel and dating simulator that lets you explore the labyrinthine, bizarre world of the browser game not through strange events or eldritch travel, but through characters. Failbetter’s intricately crafted world sits adjacent to ours, an alternate history in which Victorian London was taken beneath the surface of the world by bats in an event called “the Fall.” In Fallen London, life has gone on beneath the surface for some time, with a tenuous new social order and mysteries to unravel after the initial chaos has died down. In Mask of the Rose, however, the Fall is recent history. Your character is in their first year in this new, eerie world, surrounded by other people trying to survive, some of whom may have ulterior motives.
Fallen London has always interested me more as a setting than as an actual game; though I’ve enjoyed my time with the browser-based game and spin-off Sunless Sea, I’ve been unable to immerse myself as much as I like because character is secondary to the worldbuilding. The worldbuilding is, to give credit where it’s due, incredible—there are few fictional worlds as fully realized as Failbetter’s. But it’s character that I want, and Mask of the Rose meets my needs and occasionally even exceeds them—even if it’s sometimes too opaque to completely succeed.
Mask of the Rose is described in marketing copy as a visual novel, dating sim, and detective story, all of which are, to some degree, accurate. In practice, that means that you play through the game with typical visual novel expectations. Various characters appear on screen, many of whom can be romanced, and the story progresses based on your choices for dialog and actions. You have a limited amount of time to spend pursuing different activities each day, such as shopping, romancing, investigating, solving problems, and exploring. In each of the game’s seasons, players have different objectives depending on which characters you get to know and who you want to help. In true Fallen London fashion, those objectives can range from creating a saint of rats to attempting to undermine the Masters of the Bazaar.
Where things get interesting is in Mask of the Rose‘s Storycrafting system, which tasks players with learning interesting figures and tidbits of information about the world that can be combined into new narratives. These narratives may be used to unearth information about the murder mystery that makes up the game’s middle section, to create propaganda, or to help an author craft juicy stories for publication. The system itself is an excellent idea, if somewhat difficult to understand—in my first playthrough, it went largely untouched as I struggled to figure out how to use it. In subsequent playthroughs, I figured out how to use it, but not effectively. I couldn’t figure out what information I needed to solve the mystery, nor could I figure out what to do with my propaganda. All of these problems were solvable, I now know, but because I wasn’t interacting with all the interlocking stories, I felt like I was locked out of certain content.
That feeling is an unfortunately common occurrence with Mask of the Rose. Though each of my playthroughs were fun and exciting in their own ways, pursuing one story at the expense of another sometimes blocked me from moving forward. For example, I was interested in getting a character I believed to be wrongly accused of murder out of prison. However, earlier in the game, I’d pissed off another character who could pay me money by being hypercritical of them. Because I was so focused on proving the accused murderer innocent, I hadn’t bothered to talk to another character at all, completely missing the fact that they could pay me for completing other tasks. When the imprisoned character’s questline required money to progress, I felt I had no option and turned to trying to break them out, but ran out of time to accomplish my goals. In another playthrough, I fixed this by saving lots of money ahead of time… only to find, in the end, that I was missing access to a character who was crucial to solving the mystery, and I had no time left to find them and build our relationship up to the point that they could help.
Many early players and reviewers of the game expressed similar issues with the time constraints, and Failbetter has since expanded the seasons to give players more time to explore, craft, and seduce their way through the game. Initially, I liked the time constraints—it gave the game a frenetic energy, as I knew I couldn’t accomplish everything in a single playthrough. But now, having struggled to solve the mystery four times in a row (even with a walkthrough—I’m human, after all!), it feels less like the time constraint is the issue and more like signposting is. I ran into two characters on my first playthrough and have been unable to figure out how to do it again ever since. I went through two playthroughs without realizing there was a third way to make money. The frenetic energy is great, but without guidance toward alternatives, I spent a lot of time aimlessly talking to people and hoping for the best. With more time, I did the same thing—I just started running out of content to interact with.
That may sound like I didn’t enjoy my time with Mask of the Rose, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Because my enjoyment of Fallen London has always been a bit hindered by its emphasis on worldbuilding over character, Mask of the Rose was actually the perfect accompaniment for me, bringing in the much-needed human (uh, for a certain definition of the word) element to the game’s exquisite setting. The writing is, as always, excellent, and the artwork is the perfect blend of appropriately creepy and realistic.
I don’t know that Mask of the Rose would hold up as well without some familiarity with Fallen London, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s a neat little gateway to the world if, like me, you prefer character-first storytelling—one that can make the broader developed world more interesting. And with an emphasis on concrete characters, the game lets players get into the nitty-gritty of Fallen London‘s Victorian-ish sensibilities: what do Victorian social mores mean when you’re closer to Hell than to the sun? What do human prejudices mean in the light of unfamiliar sapient species and disconnection from historic forms of power? What does power mean when our figureheads retreat in very human fear and are replaced by beings we can’t fathom?
Mask of the Rose doesn’t answer these questions—instead, it invites us to ask them, and, in doing so, reveals the artifice behind our ideas of normalcy and truth. It creates a space for our minds to play in, making the broader world of the setting and its associated games all the more rich.
And, importantly, it lets you get freaky with a squid-faced being, an impossibly large figure in a cloak with glowing red eyes, and some guy who “kisses as if you might be the thing that saves him.” What more could you want from a game?
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.