Developed by Kadokawa Games, Experience Inc. Published by NIS America. Released April 22, 2014. Available on PS Vita.
Demon Gaze is a cruel game indeed. It lures prospective victims in with a silly sense of humor, affable cartoon visual style, and overall lighthearted premise. Its opening dungeon crawl is a cakewalk, and it’s hard not to feel powerful as one trudges through a blasted city, stomping on goblins with ease.
Then the first real challenge appears and, if the victim is not prepared, they are mercilessly annihilated. Needless to say, no player ever makes the same mistake a second time … though plenty of new mistakes are ripe to be made along the way. Despite initially looking like one of the more accessible dungeon crawlers of its type, Demon Gaze is nothing to be taken lightly, and that’s certainly not a terrible thing.
As is common for the wandering hero type, players have been found with no backstory and even less memory, uncovered in the ruins of an ancient, monster-infested castle. Dragged back to the castle’s one safe haven, an inn run by a money-hungry enigma called Fran, players are quickly drafted into service as swords-for-hire – gifted with the unique ability to trap power demons with a special funny eye. Of course, nobody’s running a charity – every time the player returns to the inn after a hard day’s dungeoneering, they’re expected to pay rent – a price Fran jacks up each time.
Like many Wizardry style dungeon crawlers, Demon Gaze is a grinding game of taking two steps forward and one step back, something for only the most dedicated of players. Enemies hit hard, the need to keep making money is a constant pressure, and it can take a long time to level up enough to handle the all-important demons and advance the plot. As well as paying rent, players must fork over an increased fee every time they want to add a new member of the adventuring party, and it takes quite a while before selling loot or securing gold in battle becomes anything close to lucrative.
This is a game with little interest in breaking the mold. If you’ve played classic titles like Wizardry, or experienced more contemporary offerings in Legend of Grimrock and Paper Sorcery, then you’ll dive right in without missing a beat. Dungeons are explored from a first-person perspective, and the map is broken up into a grid, with players moving one square at a time. Random encounters involve turned-based combat against monsters and allies arranged into rows, and a tactical use of character classes is crucial to getting ahead. Naturally, hidden paths, optional objectives, and secret items are dotted all around each map, with exploration often leading to rewards.
The general objective in each environment is to defeat the resident demon. This is done by capturing eight circles strewn about the map, forcing the boss to come out of hiding. To capture a circle, one must use gems, which come in various shapes according to the kind of loot they attract. For instance, if you place a shield gem on a circle, one of the monsters you defeat will drop some shield equipment. Up to three gems can be placed and, as you might have ascertained, such placement leads to a battle. Once the battle is won, loot is gathered according to the gems used, and the circle is free to use as a save point.
Should one defeat a demon, the boss is captured and can be equipped like some sort of ghastly Pokemon. Each demon possesses its own unique abilities and traits, conferring a passive bonus on the party – the stalwart Chronos raises defense, for example, while the powerful Mars boosts attack strength. As well as passive help, Demons can be “opened” in battle, acting as an autonomous party member with its own attacks. A gauge depletes for every turn in which a demon is active and, when empty, it causes the demon to flip out and attack the player. It’s wise to put demons away before this happens, obviously.
In between dungeon crawls, players can hang out at the inn, using item and weapon shops to buy and sell loot, the basement to strengthen gear and resurrect slain party members, and the bulletin board to take on optional quests. This is also where one rents new rooms from Fran in order to create a fresh party member. Up to four characters can accompany the Demon Gazer, either randomly generated by Fran or personally created from a standard list of races, classes, and character portraits. All I will say is, a healing class is paramount – as is a Healing Staff, because MP gets hard to come by when you’re out in the field.
As I have reiterated throughout this review, Demon Gaze is a tough nut to crack. Not only is it important to level up, it’s crucial to build an effective party in a solid formation and keep a close eye on battle. It’s tempting to make use of the button that repeats your command sequence every turn, but I’ve learned that, even in regular battles, doing that is a quick way to get a character killed – and resurrection, like everything else, gets exponentially pricier. Remembering exactly what each character can do, and keeping tabs on the ever-shifting health bars of allies, means a successful player must always be on his or her toes.
Even walking along corridors can be dangerous, unless they equip Chronos, as some squares are covered in poisoned water or deadly flame, dealing damage with each step. This is, indeed, a game that does not want to coddle you in the least.
It can sometimes feel like a bit of slog, if I’m being quite honest. It takes such a long time to earn money, level characters, and generally feel capable of tackling challenges, that it runs the risk of discouraging progress. Even now that I have a closer handle on how the game works, there are still moments where I might as well close the game down and restart, as I realize I’ve walked into an unwinnable situation. However, this is the draw for many seasoned genre fans. These games have their roots in Dungeons & Dragons, where you either “have” a situation, or you don’t. If you don’t, you’re going to have to stay away until you do, however long that might take. I will admit that, despite putting hours into the game, I’ve a ton more still to get through, but my love for the game has not gone anywhere. Yes, this is a grind, and you’re either up for it or you’re not!
Of course, if it really gets too much, you can alter the difficulty by visiting the basement and asking. If you really, really need to.
What stops Demon Gaze being too much of a chore is that it is, of course, a ton of fun. Despite its oppressive nature, it’s a fantastically structured game, drip-feeding moments of empowering progress before slamming the next brick wall in your face. While each fresh challenge can feel impregnable, enough dedication will make the tipping point inevitable, and it’s immensely satisfying to reach a stage where you know you can conquer the latest thorn in your side. There is always too juicy a carrot dangling ahead of the player to ignore.
An easy-to-read map system, not to mention an extensive contextual in-game manual – which can be brought up on any screen to access relevant information – means players at least won’t be stuck wondering how the system works. This game might be tough, but it sure isn’t for a lack of information.
Tying this all together is a plot that borders on the bemusing. The main thrust of the story is, itself, fairly simplistic – there are demons, and you have to deal with them while making rent. However, the extraneous plot threads, not to mention the demented characters and often bizarre sense of humor, can leave one’s head in dire need of scratching. In threatening to curse another character, an elven shopkeeper proclaims, “I’ll double the size of his asshole.” Nudity and underwear are central themes, and needless to say, Demon Gaze is far from shy about making big breasts and skimpy lingerie a focal point of any given scene. At its worst, the humor is often banal and childish. However, it’s audacious enough to make it work – for the most part – while the genuinely weird stuff is charming in its senselessness.
Visually, everything’s done with mostly static images and only the vaguest sense of occasional animation. The anime designs are fantastic though, with monsters especially boasting unique and fascinating appearances. Worthy of special attention is the soundtrack, since there is a wonderful selection of music on offer. Even as I type this, the harmonies of the battle theme ring in my head.
Bottom Line: Demon Gaze is tough as nails, sometimes dishearteningly so, but its overall charm and excellent sense of polish make it impossible to stay away from for long. A truly excellent example of challenging dungeon crawling.
Recommendation: I’ve found that, if one enjoys first-person dungeon crawlers, it’s hard to hate many of them. Even so, this is easily one of the more addictive ones I’ve enjoyed for a while, and it’s perfect on Vita.[rating=4.5]