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Genre: Dungeon Crawling RPG
Developer: Experience Inc.
Publisher: NIS America
Release Date: 04/22/14
When we last looked at Demon Gaze, in the Ten Thoughts piece I wrote up about a week ago, I was around halfway through the game and generally enjoying the experience overall. A big part of that, as we’ve discussed, comes from the fact that I love dungeon crawling RPG’s, so obviously a game of this sort was going to appeal to someone of my tastes almost immediately. However, dungeon crawlers don’t appeal to a large subset of the gaming community, as they’re often absurdly difficult, lacking in plot or character development, and often based on mechanics that players may view as antiquated without a lot of innovations tacked on to elevate the experience sufficiently. Demon Gaze, on the other hand, was shaping up to be something with a broader appeal, as it featured multiple difficulty levels, a consistent and character-based narrative, and several novel mechanics that made the dungeon crawling feel fresher than it has in similar titles. With an entire second half of the game to go, however, there was always the chance that the experience might go sour, as plenty of games lose their appeal in the second half, as development teams run out of ideas or add in sections that outright frustrate. Well, as my time with the game has come to a close, I can safely say that Demon Gaze is, more or less, the same consistent experience throughout, and is definitely a worthwhile game for NIS to have ported to the PS Vita. It’s not without some significant frustrations, unfortunately, so it’s harder to recommend to the neophyte player or those who’ve found the genre to be beyond them than it could have been, but genre fans or anyone looking for something to do with their Vita will find it to be worth picking up.
The plot of Demon Gaze is actually somewhat involved; you’re the new Demon Gazer of the Dragon Princess Inn, a strapping young lad with no memory of your life prior to now, a glowing blue eye, and the ability to trap demons in keys that then allow you to forcibly summon them into battle under your beck and call. As you begin the game, you’re basically working under Lorna, the now-retired former Gazer for the Inn, at the beck and call of inn owner Fran, who is using your talents to fulfill an unrevealed larger goal that revolves around capturing every demon in the land. As you’re almost certainly expecting, this eventually transitions into a massive undertaking that involves saving the world from massive, unspeakable evil (multiple times, in fact), alongside a custom team of allies, generally while fighting through numerous corridors and enemy forces. What’s interesting about Demon Gaze‘s plotline isn’t so much its core storyline, but rather how it’s handled, as your Gazer is very much an active character; it’s not Mass Effect, but there’s absolutely a romantic subplot, and your character is an active part of the story rather than a nameless body that exists to trawl the dungeons endlessly. The plot as a whole is also somewhat cliché, as heel turns and misunderstandings abound, but the game gets around the standard clichés by being as absurd about them as possible. The game’s mysteries are obvious and apparent from the beginning, but the game resolves those mysteries in such a way that keeps you entertained, as you’ll want to see what other new and excessive reveal the game comes up with next. As such, the plot is far better than it has any right to be given the circumstances, and anyone who hated dungeon crawlers with bare-bones plotlines will have a lot to love here from jump.
Demon Gaze goes with the standard visual style console dungeon crawlers have been using, IE, 3D environments for movement and 2D combat and artwork. The 2D artwork is very much anime-styled, but it’s also very pretty and colorful, and there’s a very good amount of it. Cutscenes are handled with such art, and generally are well drawn, as are the static character portraits and enemy artwork, though the flipside is that enemy sprites aren’t animated to any extent, which, while that’s a standard for the genre, is kind of disappointing given that 2D animation is entirely possible, and this is a Vita title. The 3D environments also look solid enough and the various interactive elements use clear visual signifiers of what you can and cannot do that players will be able to figure out with little difficulty. They’re also well varied, and you’ll find that each location generally fits the theme of the demon ruling over it nicely. Aurally, the music is your standard fare, varying between light-hearted tunes, guitar-laden rock tracks and serious, somber pieces as needed. The soundtrack doesn’t take a lot of risks or try anything you wouldn’t expect, but it is very solid and fun to listen to, which is really all one would expect. There’s a good amount of voice acting, in both English and Japanese, and the voice work is honestly very good across the board in either language, as every character is cast appropriately, be they angry, apathetic, or borderline insane. The sound effects are your standard fare, featuring lots of enemy grunts, combat effects and so on, and everything works well and fits the experience nicely.
We covered a lot of the basics of Demon Gaze in the Ten Thoughts piece, but the general gist is that you’ll alternate between going out into the world to explore and kill monsters, and working around the Inn, shoring up your assets and team as needed. The mechanics are all pretty self-explanatory, but the game spends a good amount of time explaining how everything works across the first few hours of the game, and every time you learn something new it takes time out to give you a good idea how to do what you need to do. Movement in the dungeons is pretty easy to get; pressing forward moves forward, back turns you around, left and right turn in those directions, and the triggers strafe if you’d rather move sideways. The X button is your default interact button, while Circle lets you cancel out of menus and decisions, Triangle brings up your character menus, Square shows you the full area map when out in the field, and you can press Start at any time to bring up help menus whenever you need them. The game is also heavily menu-based, in the Inn and in combat, so anyone with experience with a standard J-RPG will have a pretty good idea how to do anything they’d want with the game, so the learning curve for HOW to play is pretty low, honestly.
Now, as this is a dungeon crawler, genre fans will be unsurprised to note that you can basically build your party as you see fit, though the mechanics behind this deserve a little discussion. For one thing, your main character is always going to be a male Gazer, which is a combat-centric class, so while your main character doesn’t get a lot of flexibility, you’ll find that from a skill-based perspective this works out fine. Your Gazer gets a lot of powerful physical strikes and can basically equip a majority of the gear available (though swords and shields will be your bread and butter), shoring up your melee capabilities almost immediately. Your other four character slots can be occupied by whatever you see fit, however, and you’re given plenty of jobs and character portraits to choose from. You’re given five races (adaptable humans, physical dwarves, offensive magic-based elves, healing magic-based migmys and agile ney) to choose from for your character creation, and seven jobs to slot them into, so you can make a dwarven Paladin to soak up damage, a migmy healer to support the team, a ney Ranger to rain down ranged damage or anything in-between. You can’t create an entire team all at once, however, as you’ll have to rent a room at the Inn for each character you want to use at one time, which has a set up-front expense, so you’ll have to ease into team building for the first several hours. This can be helpful for newcomers, as it allows you to see what does and doesn’t work instead of building a team up-front that sucks, and the game even makes recommendations to you to help you along as well. Your party members also generally end up around the same level by endgame, so you’ll find the delay in creation of characters doesn’t cause as much of a problem as you might think.
While each class gets their own unique skills to round out the team, the Gazer tends to have the most interesting skillset of the lot. While your default skills are adequate and mostly combat focused, you can also use the Gazer to summon demons into battle on your behalf. In the beginning you can only field one demon at a time, but as you progress you’ll be able to equip up to three at one time, and each comes with their own unique and interesting skillsets. Each demon has inherent skills that can passively benefit the party in some way, from increasing your health or stats to showing you secret doors or protecting you from damaging floors, and many of the demons have active skills you can use that might kick on defense boosts or regeneration effects as well. Each demon can also be summoned into battle to aid your team, acting as an independent ally each turn they remain active to take hits, deal damage, heal the team or perform other actions as they see fit. There’s a catch, however, in the Demon Gauge, which depletes by a set amount every time you use active demon skills or every turn a demon remains active. If the gauge hits zero, your demon goes nuts and attempts to attack anything that moves, though you can replenish the bar in real-time by beating down enemies, so combat can often be a sort of tug-of-war to keep your demon active without having it turn on you. You can also put the active demon away, though it cannot be summoned again during battle if you do this, and sometimes you’ll need to have a demon active, so doing this thing needs to be considered heavily before you do it. Also, demons can be knocked out in battle if an enemy hits them too hard, and the penalty for this occurring is that you not only lose the ability to summon the demon, but the ability to use their skills; since you can’t actively heal demons this also becomes something of a concern if your demon takes too much damage. Demons, in general, are actually something of a random factor to any battle; even when you don’t have them summoned they may well come out on their own for a turn, and when they are summoned they generally do their own thing, so they’re a good tool to have, but not one that can be relied on entirely.
Actually getting demons onto your team is a whole matter altogether, however, and is actually the basis of much of the game. Each demon controls a set section of the game world, and none of them are particularly happy about your attempts to take them under your control. Generally, how these sections work is that you’ll find various Gem Circles throughout the zone, each of which is under the control of the demon that owns the area. Gem Circles serve two purposes: first, you’ll place gems in each Gem Circle to generate items, and second, you’ll take each Gem Circle in the zone in order to flush out the demon and take it under your control. The first point is how you’ll make most of your money throughout the game, as enemies pay out dirt and drop items that are generally worth no cash, but Gem Circles generate weapons and/or armor for every gem you place, which you can turn around and sell to the shops in the Inn for cash (or equip and buff out). Gem Circles you’ve taken control of are owned by you from that point onward, allowing you to save your game as you wish and change out demon loadouts as you see fit, and if you leave the zone and return you can even place more gems on them to get more gear and earn more money if you wish. The second point is fairly self-explanatory; each location has a set amount of Gem Circles, and to flush the boss out, you have to take them all over, which causes a Demon Circle to appear, which sets up the fight with the demon of the zone. Of course, said demon is almost certainly going to take umbrage with this, and will even challenge you once to assert their point, but eventually, you’ll flush said demon out, at which point the real fight begins. Demon battles are completely unlike normal battles; they use all kinds of crazy skills and attack multiple times per round in most cases in addition to summoning allies, and these battles are often massive battles of attrition, but winning nets you a new demon soul to use and access to more areas, so it’s more than worth it.
Now, as you’d expect, going through and wiping out the enemy forces allows you to grow and level up, though there are a few novelties to how this works in Demon Gaze as well. Now, each character, when they level up, is given one skill point, which can be dumped into any of the skills available as you see fit, so you can add more Vitality to your Paladin to make them hardier or more Strength to your Fighter to improve their damage, for example. They’ll also often learn new skills in the process, based on their job type, which can be passive or active, so your Healer might learn a skill that allows them to regenerate magic each turn or new healing spells, or your Paladin might learn passive defensive boosts or the ability to provoke enemies into attacking only them, for instance. Further, your demons can also level up, via increasing their Loyalty to you, which essentially acts as experience points. By default, any demon on your active team will earn some Loyalty just by being with you as you fight, but they’ll earn it faster when summoned into battle by you, so it pays to use demons even in normal battles. As they level up, they increase in health and magic, and each level adds an additional point to the Demon Chain, so the higher your overall demon Loyalty, the higher the Demon Chain value is. They also learn more skills you can use, but interestingly enough, they do NOT get stronger statistically; their statistics are determined by your statistics, so your stats and gear decide what they can do in battle, which is worth considering. You’ll also want to keep that in mind as you use the Gem Circles to get new gear, as gear comes in various tiers, with the better tier gear offering higher stats and better bonuses (in theory). Gear can also be improved statistically by adding pluses to it, which improves defense (on armor) and offense (on weapons), to make it even better. Normal gear (marked with a gray letter grade) can only be improved ten levels (though it can come out of Gem Circles at higher levels), while rare items (marked with a yellow star letter grade) can be improved thirty levels, making it far more desirable, if more expensive to upgrade.
When you’re not fighting the demonic forces against you, you’ll spend your time at the Dragon Princess Inn, which affords you plenty of useful functions to aid you out in the field. The first floor contains the hall (which lets you take on side quests), the basement (which lets you store goods, resurrect the dead, melt down gear into essence, and use essence to add pluses to gear) and the bath (which lets you change character appearance). The second floor contains each bedroom for your party members, allowing you to change out demon layouts in your own room and add furniture to each person’s room, which can add additional statistical improvements to them. The third floor contains Lorna’s room (where you can talk to her), the Item and Weapon shops (where you can buy and sell stuff as needed) and the Manager’s office (where you can rent rooms, recruit characters and turn in demon souls). You’ll want to make sure you’ve done everything you can think of when you’re here before you leave, as you have to pay rent each time you return based on the total amount of party members and their levels, which can get very pricey as the game goes on. You’ll be back frequently, however, whether it be to resupply, to buff out gear, to turn in quests, to put things into storage, or for other reasons altogether, and you’ll find that even as some aspects of the Inn become obsolete others take a more prominent focus, so there’s always something to do when you get back home.
You can clear the game’s main plotline in around forty hours, give or take, though there’s plenty to do with it during and after that time has been spent. Outside of the main plotline there are also two major sidequests, to find hidden skulls and mushrooms based on hint notes you’ll find around the world, which are rather vague but net useful rewards and cutscenes on occasion. Further, there are two post-game dungeons to explore, one of which, the Black Cage, you’ll probably spend time exploring during the main plot, though both can only be completed after the main story is done; these feature two of the toughest sections the game has to offer, as well as some of the best rewards you can acquire. You’ll also be able to carry over your characters to a New Game Plus once you’ve done these final dungeons, allowing you to try and clear out the last few Trophies you might miss; your characters, levels, and gear carry over, as do your demon levels, though the demons themselves have to be earned again. There are also four total difficulty levels for those looking for varying degrees of challenge, whether you want to take on a new challenge blind or with a leveled up New Game Plus party. As such, there’s plenty of reason to come back to the game over again, especially since you can have up to eight party members (three can sit in reserve) so you can really see everything there is to see without having to suffer for it. Demon Gaze could almost be called the best dungeon crawler to be released in a good, long time if we were only talking about these positives, as it’s truly accessible to a wide range of people and offers a lot of short and long term value.
However, the game is full of small annoyances that, when combined, make the game harder than it honestly should be to recommend to anyone who isn’t a genre fan, and all of these begin and end in combat. First off, you’re almost always going to be stuck carrying around Chronos, and while she’s an excellent demon to have, it’s annoying that you’ll need her to avoid taking floor damage (which many dungeons abuse) or that she’s basically the one demon that can really survive most boss assaults. You can use Demon Rage to spike a demon into hyper-power mode if you can keep the damage high enough to keep the Demon Chain up, but even then demons can be glassy against bosses, and if a demon dies, the skills they impart die with them, making it hard to justify using other demons in battle. Further, monsters, and especially bosses, love to use skills that wipe your party buffs or reverse your party order a lot. In most games the former isn’t a huge issue, but with how much of a war of attrition battle can be, battles often become a case of using the Healer skill that locks down buffs and recasting it when needed… which gets annoying when bosses do this twice in a row, or when bosses confuse the Healer, because this may not even kill you, but may make battles far longer than they need to be. Meanwhile, the latter is a massive annoyance because it either means setting your party in reverse and waiting for the boss to reverse you, OR using the Whistle skill constantly and whiffing if you can’t recast fast enough, and both are annoying as hell. Oh, yes, and this game does not teach any characters a resurrection spell, which is awesome because many monsters, especially bosses, can one-shot your characters, which gets extremely old in a hurry since resurrection items are limited in supply and expensive as all get-out early in the game.
This, on its own, wouldn’t be a huge issue, except for one small point: the final boss of the game, because of all of these issues, is absolute garbage, and that is coming from someone who is an active fan of the genre. You have to fight seven battles against the demons you’ve faced previously before this boss, with no save points in-between, and if you do go to save you either reset the zone and have to do that all over again (if you go to the Inn) or have to walk about ten minutes through three of the harder zones the game has to offer to get there, then walk back (if you go to King’s Palace) and both options suck. Further, the final boss loves to one-hit KO party members, swap positions, and wipe your buffs while inflicting status ailments (yes, even with “resist all” gear equipped), and hits hard enough that even buffed out characters can die from a full assault. The one Youtube video I saw where someone beat him even noted in the description that the player recording the fight hated the battle, so believe me, it’s not just me. Now, this in and of itself isn’t atrocious given the nature of the game, but given how accessible the game is up to this point and how unfriendly the battle is to both the player and for a portable console, it immediately undoes all of the good will the game earned up to that point. Honestly, for genre veterans? Sure, this will be par for the course; you’ll be fine with repeating the seven battles prior to get new gear, jack it out, level up and so on, and grinding is a fact of life for us. However, for as accessible as the game is prior to this point, the fact that even on the easiest difficulty this is an hour plus long struggle and completely absurd in its difficulty relative to the battles preceding it, it makes the game hard to recommend to anyone who isn’t part of the exact same market that always buys these games, which is a massive wasted opportunity on several levels.
This is a major shame, as Demon Gaze could have been the dungeon crawler that new players used to ease their way into the genre, as it does so many things right that made it accessible to all types of players, but the game shoots itself in the foot in the end and ends up really only being appealing to the exact same market it would’ve appealed to regardless. The game has so much going for it; the plot’s cute and over the top, the visuals and audio are rather nice overall, and the game plays as you’d expect but offers a lot of novelties and hand-holding to get all kinds of gamers into it. There are concessions made to the neophyte player and difficulty options to give even top-tier players a challenge, so there was really a wide variety of options here that could’ve made the game an easily recommended choice for almost anyone. Even with the annoying mechanics, like the position changes and skill wipes, or the lack of resurrection skills in your party, the game was still manageable and could have worked around these annoyances. However, the final level of the game is such a massive war of attrition that the accessibility of the game is undone because of it, as the player is forced into an hour plus long slog through boss after boss after boss, only to reach an end boss that is more frustrating than fun and punishment of repeating the entire sequence again should the player fail. If you’re the sort of person who is fine with grinding or doesn’t mind a last minute difficulty spike, Demon Gaze is fantastic up to that point, and genre fans will absolutely love the game regardless, but the inconsistent final section makes it hard to recommend to newcomers, and that is honestly a goddamn shame.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Demon Gaze is basically the Mass Effect 3 of dungeon crawlers; so much time is spent creating an endearing experience that anyone can enjoy, only for the game to shoot itself in the foot in the last hour in such a way that it can sour the entire experience. The game makes a very good effort at accessibility prior to that point, between a cute and excessive plot, colorful and interesting (if not technically top notch) visuals, strong audio presentation, and mechanics that are both readily accessible and full of novelties and functionally interesting elements to impress newcomers and fans alike. There’s a lot of variety and content to the experience that could bring players back for more even after the game is complete, and it’s easy to see where the game went right in so many ways to bring newcomers into the fold while impressing diehard fans at the same time. There are some annoying mechanical choices, true, such as constant buff wipes in a game where boss fights are wars of attrition and party layout swapping skills that are just annoying, as well as a complete lack of resurrection skills (except on one demon super late in the game), but even these could have been forgiven. The final hour of the game, however, is the sort of thing only the diehard will enjoy, between seven boss battles in a row with no save points and a final boss that is absurdly hard in general and insulting given the game he appears in, and it sours the wide appeal of the entire game as a result. Honestly, if you’re fine with grinding or can accept late-game difficulty spikes, Demon Gaze is still worth checking out, and genre fans will love the game for many reasons, but the massive end game difficulty spike makes the game hard to recommend universally, and that is the saddest thing I have had to write all year, believe me.