Long time readers of the site will be well acquainted with this fact, but for those who are just tuning in, I love dungeon crawling RPG’s, and Japan seems to feel much the same way. Between Etrian Odyssey, Class of Heroes, Unchained Blades, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, The Dark Spire and Wizardry: The Labyrinth of Lost Souls among many others, the Japanese clearly can’t get enough of the genre, and I’m always happy when someone finds it in their heart to bring the games stateside. There’s only so many times you can release a game in the genre using the same old template, however, so many of the games that find their way here tend to try and do new things to make the game in question stand out a bit, with varying degrees of success. Demon Gaze definitely falls into that “add something new to the genre” school of thought, as it takes the core elements of the genre, as well as elements that have worked in modern releases, and shuffled them together with some concepts that are all its own. Nippon Ichi was nice enough to send us an advance copy to play around with, and I thought I’d sit down with the game after playing around with it for a few hours and give everyone an overview of what Demon Gaze has under the hood in the first few hours of play.
1.) The plot mostly just throws you into the thick of things from jump, teaching you the basics of gameplay before it gets down to really explaining the whys and wherefores of the game world, in a novel touch. Once the exposition starts, though, you’ll find it revisits familiar territory pretty quickly: you’re the silent protagonist, who is both mysterious and suffering from amnesia, and your magical capability du jour is that you’re what the game world refers to as a “Demon Gazer.” Basically, you beat down powerful demons into submission, then lock them down with your weird demon eye, which in turn binds them in servitude to you, whether they’re entirely happy about it or not (hint: probably not). The first few hours of the plot take you through the basics, introducing you to various NPC’s like Fran (the owner of the inn you stay at) and Lorna (your Demon Gazer trainer), but things pick up in a hurry, and so far, the plot’s been pretty interesting in its execution, even if some of the base elements were expected. If the game can keep up the pacing and surprise factor the plot has shown so far, it’ll easily carry the experience through to the endgame, which is a good indication, and generally pleasing to see.
2.) When you start the game, you’re advised that you can create your character, though it’s not entirely apparent why you can do this thing. You can choose whatever avatar you’d like from the selection screen that comes up, but the default one that’s highlighted (IE the one with the blue glowing eye) is the one the NPC’s you interact with assume you’re working with. Outside of the avatar, the only other option you can modify is the character’s name, which you can set as whatever you’d like it to be. Your character will always be set as the Gazer class, due to the unique nature of the game, so that part makes sense. Your character will always be considered a human male within the confines of the plot, however, no matter what your avatar might be, which is a little more confusing. Even the human part makes a certain amount of sense, dialogue-wise, due to events in the storyline, but one kind of wonders why, outside of a couple of awkward sexually charged sequences with Fran, you need to have a male character specifically. The game doesn’t make so much of a big deal about it so if you want to play with a female avatar, so long as you’re cool with having sexual tension with other women you’ll be golden.
3.) Your hub in Demon Gaze is the Dragon Princess Inn, which is where you’ll basically find everything you need to get your party ready for battle. You don’t rest at the Inn so much as you pay rent (relative to party level and total members) each time you return from adventuring, so you’re instantly healed as soon as you arrive. The first floor has a Hall where you can pick up sidequests, a Basement which lets you resurrect dead party members as well as store goods and break down or improve weapons, and a bath that lets you change character appearance and gender whenever you wish. The second floor contains all your allied bedrooms, five in total, which is probably the first time I’ve really ever seen an explanation for why there’s a party limit; you can only bring five players into battle because you only have five rooms available for them to live in. You can also put furniture into each room that boosts stats based on the item in question. The third floor contains the Manager’s office where Fran assigns and completes missions for you, as well as a Weapon and Item shop for your perusal; you won’t use the Weapon shop much as the game goes on except maybe for acquiring trash gear to break down, but the Item shop is always useful for various reasons. As you progress further, more options unlock for what you can do in the Inn, but it’s mostly here for selling trash gear, healing up and improving your gear, so expect to visit the Item Shop and Basement a lot. The cast of characters that lives in the Inn is every bit as insane as you might expect from an NIS title, though some of them are far more complex than others…
4.) Once you rent your first room you’ll be able to create an allied character to go into the dungeons with you as needed. Character creation in this case is a bit more involved; you can select the same aesthetic elements as you could for your main character, but you can also customize the race and job of each character you draft. Races work about as you’d expect: you can create humans, who are basically fine at everything, elves, who are best suited to offensive magic use, dwarves, who are best suited to melee, migmys, who are small characters best suited to healing magic, and ney, cat people who are best suited to agile classes. For classes, you have fighters, samurai and paladins as your go-to front-line classes, wizards and healers for rear-line spellcasting, and rangers and assassins as your flexible classes. Nothing here is terribly out of the ordinary, class-wise; each class learn various techniques and spells relative to what it’s good at, so healers learn healing, defensive and white magic damage spells, wizards learn damage dealing spells, samurai learn damage-dealing attacks and so on. You can also find Artifacts as you go out into the world, however, that let you attach skills from other classes to your characters. Each character can equip five Artifacts in total, so you could build a healer who uses wizard skills, or a paladin with samurai skills, or whatever floats your boat. This makes characters a lot more flexible if you can get some good Artifacts, though this isn’t easy, so you’ll want to make the best of each, since they can expand your combat options a good amount.
5.) Your Gazer gets a few skills of merit, including healing spells and the standard dungeon escape spell you’d expect, but the Gazer’s major claim to fame is the ability to summon demon’s into battle under their control. Demon’s can be used from the Demon option in the Gazer’s combat menu, allowing you to either use a skill the demon offers as a one-shot, or summon the demon into battle outright via the Open Demon command. Demons who are summoned more or less act independently, based on their skillset; they are essentially treated as an independent party member (though you cannot use beneficial items or spells on them) and can attack and be attacked as normal. Each demon has their own combat skills they’ll use relative to their design, meaning some are damage dealers, some are defenders, and so on, so you’ll want to equip the demon who’s right for the job. In the beginning, you can only equip one demon at a time, though you can find items that let you equip multiple demons; while you can only summon one at a time, you can use the skills provided by each (both inherently and as combat skills) as needed to your benefit. There’s a catch though: your ability to summon demons and use demon skills is dependent on the Demon Gauge, a chain in the upper left corner that measures how much control you have over the demon. When the chain hits zero, the demon goes berserk, transforming into their enraged form and begins attacking everything until either they, the enemy or you bite it. Replenishing the Demon Gauge isn’t hard, though; as your demons level up (they gain Loyalty, AKA experience, if in your party, but more when you’re using them) their maximum Demon Gauge increases, and the more you whack on enemies and deal damage, the more the gauge recharges. It’s entirely possible to keep a demon out perpetually if you’re putting out enough damage, and since they’re often not enough of a boost to drastically off-set battles in your favor, you’ll probably want to do so, if only for the helping hand and to level them up quickly. It also bears noting that demons are at least somewhat statistically dependent on your Gazer, so the stronger you are, the stronger they are, so keeping your gear and stats up-to-date keeps your demons strong, even when you’re working with a brand new one you’ve just picked up.
6.) For those wondering how one acquires demons, basically, each demon controls a zone, and you have to find their Demon Circle, beat them in it, and then BOOM, you own them. Unlocking Demon Circles, however, requires a little doing, as you have to take ownership of each of the Gem Circles in the zone to drive the demon out. This is the other significant mechanical novelty of Demon Gaze, as Gem Circles are, put simply, both a means toward fighting and beating demons as well as your single greatest source of profit in the game. How it works is, you interact with the Gem Circle and place up to three Gems on it, which then summons a group of enemies to fight; if you beat them, you get an item for each Gem you’ve placed and you take ownership of the Circle. Owning a Gem Circle means you can change your equipped demons on it, as well as save and load, and you can leave the zone and return to place more Gems on it if you wish, so as long as you have Gems, you can summon up demons and kill them for loot. Gems come in three categories: Weapon Gems, which summon up weaponry of the associated type (except for the Nameless Gem, which can summon anything), Armor Gems, which summon up armor of the associated type, and “Special” Gems, which add modifiers to summons, such as making enemies more challenging or increasing the power of the items you win from the Gem Circle. Gems can be acquired from grinding out enemies all the live long day, or can be purchased from the Item shop for a generally reasonable cost as needed, and after a while you’ll likely eventually get to a point where you have Gems falling out of every pocket. It should be noted that there’s only a limited amount of Gems available at the Item Shop, though, so those who would buy a ton and grind out Gem Circles for cash will likely find it to not be all THAT profitable, though one supposes it’s an option.
7.) The level-up process is pretty much standard for the genre; whenever anyone in your party gains a level, you can drop a point into any one of their stats as you so choose, and they then get a boost to health and (if applicable) magic, as well as new skills in some cases. Since you can do this for any character in the group, you can easily customize whatever race you’ve chosen however you wish, though since the choice of race doesn’t impact what portrait you choose for a character you can really choose whatever race you like and go nuts. How you distribute your points does seem to have some effect on how your health and magic improve, as dumping points into Vitality, Intelligence and Mysticism seems to improve the amount raised for that level, while dumping points into Strength, Agility and Luck doesn’t seem to impact them much. It’s also worth noting that many combat classes don’t come with an MP pool to speak of at all (including the Paladin class, oddly). On the other hand, there are also sections of the game that make it impossible to cast spells in a zone, and while your casters get other skills inherently that let them contribute, you’ll absolutely want to strike a balance, class-wise, so as to make sure you can tackle every zone effectively.
8.) The first dungeon you jump into is both fairly cut-and-dry and a good template for how other dungeons will go. There are four map-zones to explore, each of which has its own unique name to it, and you’ll need to spend your time properly utilizing your Gems and putting together money so that you can recruit new party members to back you up. After you take a couple Gem Circles, the boss of the zone shows up, throws some insults, and challenges you to a short battle against their normal form (so SAVE OFTEN) before running off (if you win) and hiding. To defeat the boss you’ll need to take over every Gem Circle in their domain, which creates a Demon Circle somewhere on the map. When you attack the Demon Circle, the boss of the zone comes out, and after some more banter, turns to its enraged state before throwing down with you. As you’d expect, the demon’s enraged state is MUCH more powerful than its normal form, so you’ll need to be ready to go, full-on, before you summon it into battle. Interestingly, the game more or less continues this pattern throughout (so far anyway), but it varies up the stage mechanics to keep things interesting. While there will be a couple points where you can decide where to go next, the meat of the variance comes down to the stage layout, as some stages are underwater (which prevents spellcasting), some are multiple floors, and some have time limits and specific travel patterns to deal with. Whether or not it will hold up in the long run is another matter entirely, but it’s good to see a developer take an aggressive approach toward solving the feeling like you’re spending the last ten hours of the game just wanting the combat to end, at least.
9.) Demon Gaze has a few other novelties built into it that should actually make it a lot more interesting for genre fans, a lot more accessible to newcomers, or just more interesting all around. First off, the game’s inn system doesn’t work like your typical dungeon crawler; instead of choosing when to heal up, every time you return to the Dragon Princess Inn, someone (usually Fran) comes to collect your rent, which is based off of how many characters are in your party and what level they are. The upshot is that you’re instantly healed the moment you come back to the Inn, but if you simply don’t have the money to pay, you can enter into debt which, while undesirable, may be helpful in the first few hours of play, when cash is at a premium. There are also “Gazer Memos,” which are similar to the notes in Dark Souls, meaning that other players can leave notes behind (as can you) to give you hints on hidden doors or items in walls, as well as to when you’re walking into a trap or something similar. These require consumable items, sadly, so it may be hard to justify dropping the cash on them, but there will more than likely be a few players who help out others in this way. It also bears noting that you can change the difficulty level as you see fit in the Basement, between four levels; the game defaults to a Normal difficulty, but there is one easier difficulty and two harder ones, so you can really tailor the experience to your own needs and interests.
10.) The single nicest thing I can say about Demon Gaze at this point is that I actively almost can’t stop playing it, and while the game is hyper-sexualized to the max, if you can get past that (or are totally on board with it), it’s one of the most accessible and interesting dungeon crawlers I’ve played in years. It’s a dungeon crawler with a solid plot that, while full of clichés, tends to be endearing (and insane) to a point where you’ll enjoy the story regardless. It’s a dungeon crawler that actually manages to do some different, and interesting, things, not only with the expected core mechanics, but with the systems it borrows from others, in a way that makes it feel pretty unique. It’s a game so full of systems and content that I couldn’t even find space in the list to really talk about the visuals and audio (they’re both pretty solid, for the record), simply because there were so many other things to talk about. We’ll have a review for you as soon as I can get through the last few dungeons, but assuming the rest of the game holds up to what I’ve seen so far (and I honestly have no reason to expect it won’t), Demon Gaze will almost certainly be a game Vita owners will have no reason not to pick up.