Rose Mask Review

Rose Mask Review


need to know

what is it? A visual novel/dating sim set in the fallen London world of Failbetter.
release date
June 8, 2023
expect to pay
loser game
loser game
Reviewed on Ryzen 7 3700X, RTX 4080, 16GB memory
steam deck Verified
associate Official website

I find it hard to believe that it took Failbetter this long to try and make a visual novel. The studio has consistently produced some of the most engaging, fun, and evocative work in the business, but it has an uncanny knack for hiding it behind mechanics that end up getting on my nerves. Between browser games and roguelikes, the wit of studios is constantly undercut by repetitive game loops. Only Sunless Skies has managed to strike a good balance so far.

So it feels like Failbetter has finally found its perfect home in the visual novel genre, right? Well, sort of. London is charming as ever, but while many of Rosemask’s mechanics are interesting ideas, they often feel a little immature, leaving me groping in the dark and not fully understanding the decisions I’m making.

(Image source: Failbetter)

london falls

Every game so far set in Fallen London (including, ah, Fallen London) takes place decades after the real Fallen, but Rosemask happens to sit in 1862, before Bats Make the Sky Started with the capital of the British Empire approximately 260 days after darkening and absconding. This is where and when you find yourself.

Who is “you” in the rose mask can be flexibly defined. Your background and gender are fluid. Plus, it might call itself a dating sim, but you can make it clear from the start what kind of relationship you’re open to. You can keep everything strictly platonic, or physical but not romantic, or open to whatever comes your way. If you want, you can just get yourself romantically involved by playing matchmaker or saboteur with the game’s other actors.

(Image source: Failbetter)

It’s admirably open-ended play, hopefully giving anyone room to play without feeling uncomfortable. Even if you flag yourself as disappointed in anything on Victorian Tinder, the game regularly checks what kind of relationship you’re pursuing, if any, with every character in the game, including giant bats and squid people.

Your relationship with the game’s actors, whether platonic, romantic, aloof, or hostile, is at the heart of Mask of the Rose, so it’s a good job for them to pursue. Shortly after the fall of London, histories and identities collide on the city’s ever-changing streets. Men and women, high-born and low-born, Jews, Hindus and Christians, are all on the move trying to find a place for themselves in the new world, even as otherworldly newcomers begin to appear.

(Image source: Failbetter)

It’s rich in texture, and it’s a joy to delve into it, but your ability to do so is limited by the limited time you have in Rosemask London. You’re constantly making choices — each of which takes time — and as the game progresses, even the clothes you wear during an encounter can change how people react to you and your dialogue options during that time, while Failbetter obviously wants you to go through time and time again to see the possible impact of your choices.

You can get through a full run of the game in about three or four hours, but that means you’ll inevitably be left with unresolved plot threads and many relationships halfway through as you earn credits. Even after going through a new character background and some different choices, I eventually felt like I was repeating parts of the game to get back to where I was before.

Even what you wear on a date can change how people react to you and your conversation options

As an example, you could describe the main plot as Mask of the Rose. Just like real life, this game is part dating sim, part murder mystery, and a large part of the mid-game is trying to prove that your friends and roommates were wrongly accused of murder (don’t worry, the victims got better of).

(Image source: Failbetter)

The first time I passed, not realizing how much time I had, I accidentally let my friend hang up because I was distracted pursuing various other plots: fomenting a revolution, conducting the London census, trying to attract Attractive people, even if they’re definitely Tories. second? I try to balance my responsibilities and let them all fall by the wayside. On the third pass, I focused and finally managed to pick out one of many possible cases as to why my boy was innocent.

The third pass was the most satisfying, narratively, and even though I was a hateful Phoenix Wright, it felt like I had to deal with the murders at the expense of everything the game had to offer. I could have ignored it, like I was careless the first time around, but it felt a little odd to hang my affable Scottish chum on the gallows when I was too busy helping another friend with their writer’s block.

Narrative Legos

You assemble your shell using the Rose Mask’s story crafting system, the jewel in its mechanical crown. It’s essentially a library of madness that asks you to choose a protagonist, a motive, and an action (you gain new ones by deepening your relationship with the game character) from a list to craft narrative solutions to various puzzles.

(Image source: Failbetter)

So, for example, the story idea part of a murder case requires me to choose a culprit, their motives and how they did it, plus a few other things, and if I choose something that makes sense, I’ll be in the With a new theory in my arsenal I can go and talk it out with someone who’s about to investigate further.

It’s great in theory, and God knows it fits perfectly with the theme of Failbetter London and its whole vibe as a studio, but I often find myself frustrated trying to use it. Either I typed in a narrative that I thought made sense, but it didn’t give me a new story to talk to people about, or I didn’t have enough groundwork to build my theory on in a practical, real-life gimmick.

(Image source: Failbetter)

Sure, I could go and chat with the people in question and hope the conversation would give me what I needed to construct a hypothesis, but sometimes the chat didn’t generate any new story material at all, even when I felt like it should. Sometimes I’ll go and talk to someone just to take the conversation some sideways, which means I don’t get a chance to discuss the things I want to talk about at all. Time is so precious, and the game is constantly auto-saving, I never want to waste time chasing the lead unless I’m almost sure it’ll give me something I can use.

Interestingly, this means I end up going after a guy who I’m almost certain he didn’t commit a crime, but I still think a jury will find him guilty and give me a lot of story material to prove it. Maybe it’s a sarcastic comment on something.

(Image source: Failbetter)

watch, listen, repeat

Failbetter’s London is a treat as always, but between the time pressures, repetition, and weaknesses of the story-making system, the game that underpins it in Rosemask never really comes together properly. It feels a bit like a first draft, a prelude to a good sequel a few years later, with issues ironed out and mechanics easier to grasp. Basically, it feels like a sunless sea.

Mind you, I still enjoy my time with it as much as I did in Sunless Sea. Mask of the Rose is an easy recommendation for anyone who loves the world as much as I do, while its simplicity and place so early in the series timeline make it a great place for newcomers to dabble. In truth, though, “The Mask of the Rose” feels like the basis for something great that isn’t great in itself.

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Bart Thompson
Bart is's List Writer . He is from Houston, Texas, and is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in creative writing, majoring in non-fiction writing. He likes to play The Elder Scrolls Online and learn everything about The Elder Scrolls series.