Demon Gaze, developed by Kadokawa Games and published in North America by NIS America, finds itself in a fortunate position as a somewhat unique experience on the Vita. Though first person dungeon crawler role playing games like Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl are common on the 3DS, on the Vita, Demon Gaze is the only one really worth mentioning (though Shin Megami Tensei IV nearly fits the genre); that is until Mind Zero is released on May 27th, anyway. But for now, there’s Demon Gaze, which turned out to be a respectable representation of the genre. It won’t win any awards for incredible storytelling, and it focuses on fan service to an almost absurd degree, but the gameplay is solid, if a bit repetitive after the 30 or 40 hours it takes to get through the main story.
The story of Demon Gaze is simple enough to understand. The main character, named Oz by default, is a Demon Gazer, so he is able to defeat and eventually command demons to fight alongside him. Waking one day to find himself at an Inn, and with no memory of any sort of past, he is immediately expected to go on a journey to defeat and collect demons. As you might expect, this eventually develops into the usual “save the world” scenario so commonplace in role playing games, but it is as good an excuse as any to go dungeon crawling.
The Inn itself is home to an interesting cast of characters who seem to exist for the sole purpose of providing our hero with the kind of support any self-respecting dungeon crawling adventurer would need. There’s Lezerem, an elf who runs the Item shop, and Cassel, the weapon shop owner. Then there’s Fran, the manager of the Inn, who helps Oz assemble a party, Kukure, who allows the player to change the appearance of the characters, and Prometh, who brings characters back to life, and provides item storage and modification. There are also some less useful characters as well, such as a collection of mercenaries who can bump into Oz out in the dungeons, Pinay, the obligatory cat-girl and the Inn’s maid (will cat-girls ever escape enslavement?), a mysterious girl named Lulu, and Lancelorna (Lorna for short), a retired Demon Gazer.
While most of the characters may have been dropped into their positions at the Inn for gameplay purposes, nearly all of them—including the mercenaries—end up playing significant roles in the storyline, though to explain how would spoil the few surprises Demon Gaze has to offer. There are a couple really good surprises in the plot that caught me off guard, but for every one of those, there were a few extremely predictable moments as well, which made it difficult to take the storyline too seriously.
The storyline is even harder to take seriously considering the female characters are clad in extremely revealing outfits, and that the developers took every opportunity they could to strip them down to their undies—though to be fair, they did the same to Lezerem, who for some reason takes it upon himself to rip his clothes off several times throughout the course of the game. Oz is not bothered by any of this, and after a fair amount of questing he can enjoy the intimate company of three of the girls.
None of this helps the storyline at all, but I’m sure there is an audience for this sort of thing nonetheless. And since the storyline as a whole is so strictly average, in the end, it’s the gameplay that will keep you playing, not the plot or the panties.
The main course of Demon Gaze is the dungeon crawling. Players can expect to spend the vast majority of their playtime moving step-by-step through massive labyrinths filled with dangerous traps, challenging foes, and a few plodding puzzles as well. Anyone familiar with the genre will feel right at home exploring the levels, with their damage tiles, one-way doors, teleporting tiles and every other devious trap known to the genre.
Unlike the recent Etrian Odyssey games, the maps in Demon Gaze are drawn completely automatically. On the plus side, you don’t have to waste time fiddling with a finicky map drawing tool, but on the other hand, the map is only revealed for tiles that Oz is standing on, so there is no way to make note of a distant object or map feature, or to set a reminder to come back later. In fact, there are a few essential spots in certain dungeons that must be remembered for the sake of making progress in the storyline, but they are not indicated on the map in any way, so it’s best to make a mental note or to write down important locations when they are encountered.
In order for Oz to battle and eventually win the alliance of demons, he must first activate a set of circles that are hidden around the demon’s dungeon. When a circle is encountered, a fight will occur, and once won, Oz will then control the circle and can use it as a save point. Circles are also like the treasure chests of Demon Gaze, as winning battles on them always rewards the player with equipment according to what gems the player activates the circle with before the encounter. For example, if Oz needs a new sword, the player can choose to set 3 sword gems on the circle, and then after the fight, 3 random swords will be dropped by the enemies. It’s an interesting system since it allows the player some control over the types of gear they can acquire (assuming they have the relevant gems), and helps to prevent characters from becoming underpowered.
The circles are typically scattered all over the dungeons, so the player is forced to nearly 100% clear them in order to find them all. I normally do that anyway, but I imagine a less compulsive player might find it a bit frustrating to have to so thoroughly explore each map. Eventually a circle will trigger a battle with the demon instead of a random encounter. Though this battle serves as an introduction to the demon, it’s also a real enough fight—losing leads straight to the title screen—so it can be quite frustrating to be at a save point, but unable to use it, and to lose the battle against the demon. If the battle is won, the search for circles continues, and once all of them have come under Oz’s control, the demon appears somewhere on the map, ready for the true battle.
Once the demon is defeated for a second time and after a bit of storyline progress, Oz can then summon the demon in battle. Each demon has unique strengths and also provides passive abilities to Oz and his party. For example, Mars is a strong physical attacker, and increases everyone’s attack power, while Chronos is an amazing defensive demon, and protects the party from damage tiles, allowing them to walk through poison, burning landscapes, and other hazards. Thus, surviving the sprawling dungeons is a matter of selecting the right demons, and forming an effective party.
The most compelling aspect of Demon Gaze, and its main source of replay value, is forming a strong party of characters. The character creation screen allows the player to choose from five races, seven classes, sixty voice sets (short sound effects that play during combat) and forty-five (or more with DLC) pieces of character art.
The odd thing is that you can’t actually select the sex of your characters. You can filter the artwork and voices according to gender, but as far as the game is concerned, the main character is a human male, and all of the party members are male as well. It’s not as big a deal as it sounds, however, because the game so rarely mentions your party during the storyline that it doesn’t even matter whether they are comprised of males or females. Most of the time that they are referenced in the dialogue, it’s just for a bit of thanks, like, “Thank you Oz, and you too, Yakko, Wakko and Dot!” But every so often they will refer to a character by a pronoun, and in those rare moments, everyone is a “him.” It’s still surprising though considering this game so blatantly shows off the female characters at every chance it gets, and that the vast majority of the female character art is as skimpily dressed as the storyline characters. You’d think they would let the player actually create female characters! But I digress…
Putting that odd bit of information aside, all that matters during character creation from a gameplay perspective is race and class (though race is as irrelevant to the storyline as the absent gender choice). The race determines starting stats, with humans being average across the board, but having a slightly higher total number of points at the outset, and the other races having better numbers for specific stats. For the most part, these distinctions are predictable. Dwarves have the highest strength, elves have the most intelligence, the cat-like Ney race is very agile, and the Migmies—who are smaller than dwarves—are the best healers. Even if you are not a fan of a particular race, feel free to choose it anyway, because the character art you choose is not restricted by your choice of race, or even class. If you want that half naked cat-girl with the magical purple smoke coming out of her hands to be your powerful warrior, feel free to make her a Dwarf, just for the stats. I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.
So the real trick is coming up with a great combination of classes. For my game, I chose to have a Paladin to act as a tank, and for it to be my only front-line character. As it leveled up, I distributed the stat points into Vitality so that it would have a ton of hit points and be able to protect the other characters. I gave Oz a medium range weapon so that he could attack the front line of enemies, and filled out the rest of the party with a Healer, a Wizard and an Assassin. I kind of regret pairing the Assassin with the Paladin, as many of the Assassin’s best weapons are short range, but for the sake of getting the most out of the Paladin, I kept the Assassin in the back row, and I was able to complete the entire game, including the post-game content with this party on the default difficulty setting.
The classes I didn’t get to play with include the Fighter, the Samurai and the Ranger. If there was ever a reason for me to play the game again, it would be to see how different the game would be without having a Paladin as a tank, and to instead have the Samurai, Fighter and maybe even Oz on the front line, with a Ranger and Healer in the back row providing some extra damage and support. I honestly don’t know what I would have done without a tank, as the game remained challenging even with one, but it could be fun to give it a try.
Battles Against Battalions
Demon Gaze has a lot of combat, and aside from a few exceptions, it’s the same turn-based battle engine we’ve been playing with since the 80s. You enter the commands for your entire party, and then you see what happens, with a text window at the bottom of the screen describing the details.
I suppose the devil is in the details, as they say. Or should I say the demon is in the details? Demon Gaze differentiates itself in several ways. The most glaring is just how many enemies you can encounter in a single battle. It is not uncommon to encounter a line of enemies that has 5 or more enemies in it, and for there to be 2 or 3 additional lines behind them. The bad guys also have a tendency to call for help, and an unprepared party will not be able to defeat the enemy units as fast as more appear. I swear I fought more than 50 enemies in a single battle; the reinforcements just kept coming!
Then there are the demons that Oz controls. They each have abilities that Oz can activate by using Demon Points which are replenished by attacking enemies with your characters. Oz can also summon the demons directly into battle (though they occasionally show up without his permission), and in that case, they act as an additional member of the party, except that you cannot target them (for buffs or heals), and they act autonomously. While summoned, the demons use up Demon Points every turn, and if you run out, they go into Rage mode, making them much more powerful, but also making them unable to discern between friend and foe (and also typically stripping off most of their clothes). Oz eventually learns an ability that forces the active demon into rage mode without any risk of it turning on the party, and with that, demons become much more useful.
Aside from that, it’s business as usual in terms of the battle engine. Attack, be attacked, heal, buff, debuff, attack some more; you know the drill. Once you have your party formed and working efficiently, there’s really not much to it and things threaten to get repetitive. Fortunately, you can press and hold the triangle button to speed through combat quickly, with your characters repeating the last command assigned to them. I’m sad to say that 95% of the battles I fought were fought this way, with me paying no attention to the details whatsoever. But every now and then I would encounter a powerful group of random enemies, or get caught off guard by a powerful boss, and in those situations, I really had to plan my moves carefully.
When things got really tough, I had to stop holding triangle and think carefully about how to survive the encounter, or what I would have to do differently the next time. And things do get tough in Demon Gaze. Many of the boss encounters test your party’s damage output by healing a great deal every few turns. If you are not able to damage the boss faster than it can heal itself, then you will be stuck until you become more powerful, or figure out a better way of utilizing the resources available to you.
Ether and Artifacts
Sometimes you have to go back to the drawing board. In Demon Gaze, that means trekking back to the Inn and upgrading your gear. At a certain point in the game you can start using the Ether Mill to break down useless and obsolete weapons and armor into Ether, and spend that Ether to strengthen your best gear. Have an Awesome Helmet? Turn it into an Awesome Helmet +1, or an Awesome Helmet +10! The Ether Mill can significantly improve the attack power of weapons and the defensive ability of armor.
But what if you max out your gear and you still can’t do enough damage to get past a boss? In that case, short of grinding a bunch of levels, you still have one other option. The rarest items in the game are called artifacts. They are rare because, for the most part, the only way to get them is by using an artifact gem on a demon circle, and artifact gems are very hard to come by. There’s a good reason for that; artifacts enable their wearers to utilize the abilities of other classes, and up to 5 artifacts can be equipped at a time, per character.
If you hit a brick wall of a boss, you might want to consider the options available to you in terms of artifacts, or spend a couple of those rare gems on acquiring some new ones. Many of the hardest bosses in Demon Gaze won’t fall until you have acquired some great artifacts and figured out the best way to use them. There’s an amazing artifact called True Snipe that allows a character to remain in “concentrate” mode—enabling powerful attacks—indefinitely until they are struck by the enemy. When Oz has that ability, he can use his most powerful skills every single turn instead of every other turn, assuming you can keep him protected. This can really turn the tables on bosses.
In any case, artifacts are one of my favorite features of Demon Gaze, as they add a great deal of versatility to forming an effective party. Don’t want to bring a Wizard along, but you’re worried about not being able to buff your party? No worries; there’s an artifact that contains the whole set of buffing spells! Want a beefy Fighter with the ability to attack more than one enemy at a time? Easy! Give the Fighter the Slash skill, borrowed from the Samurai class.
There are even extremely powerful artifacts that contain unique abilities, like God’s Arms, which allows a character to dual wield any type of weapon (except bows), including 2-handed weapons! The going may get tough, and no matter how futile your effects might seem, there’s always a way to beat the bosses of Demon Gaze.
Everything is Rent
Unfortunately, it’s not just the bosses of Demon Gaze that will give the player trouble. Fran, the Innkeeper, expects rent to be paid not only for Oz, but for each member of his party. Not only that, but she expects payment every single time the party returns to the Inn from the dungeons, and the rent increases as the characters increase in level. What this means is that you can’t just rush out to a demon circle, turn a few gems into gear and then head back to the Inn to upgrade your new items, because if you do that a few times, you’ll likely go broke. And if you spend a long time in a dungeon trying to earn a bunch of gold, your reward will be higher rent when you get back, because your characters will have leveled up. It’s especially rough early on in the game when Oz has to pay additional gold for new rooms for his party members. Sometimes the rent consumes all of the gold earned from an entire trip to the dungeon, so saving up enough gold to buy another room for a party member can be a daunting task.
Making matters worse is that the enemies are incredibly stingy and do not drop a lot of gold. They do drop trash items that you can sell, but Demon Gaze tricks you into holding onto them by introducing a quest to collect a couple of trash items early on in the game. I’ll tell you right now, that quest is the exception, not the rule. Aside from those Fluffy Feathers, feel free to sell every single piece of trash that the monsters drop without worrying about being unable to complete a quest later on. I wish someone had told me that before I started playing.
You should still try to maximize your time in dungeons so that you are earning more gold than you are spending on rent, but that shouldn’t be as difficult if you’re selling all the trash. Selling gear is also an option early on, but once you unlock the Ether Mill, you will most likely want to destroy extra gear for Ether instead of selling it, and beyond that, upgrading gear requires gold in addition to Ether, so you really do have to be careful about your finances in Demon Gaze. I honestly could have done without the rent “feature” in the game, but at least the game’s currency serves a purpose instead of just piling up uselessly.
Aside from the “Fluffy Feathers” quest, there are a few other quests in Demon Gaze, but they are not really quests as much as they are very long-term objectives. Two of the optional quests involve collecting items for Pinay and Prometh, but the items are hidden throughout nearly every dungeon in the game, and require every single demon to collect, so don’t expect to finish those up until towards the end of the game, if ever. I found them to be more trouble than they are worth, personally, but considering the prizes start at rare items and end just short of nudity, I’m sure a surprising number of players will finish them. These quests are made easier by social features that allow you to read notes left by other players (like in Dark Souls), but you still need to have the right demon at the right time to collect the items, and if you’re not using the social features, a confusing treasure map system will lead the way.
Almost all of the other quests are storyline objectives, so there isn’t really a questing system in Demon Gaze at all, even though it seems to have one. Then again, who needs to kill 7 rats for the 100th time? It’s probably a better game for their absence.
So is Demon Gaze a good game overall? I’d say yes. It succeeds in providing dozens of hours of dungeon crawling gameplay, and it has substantial challenges and even harder difficulty settings for players that choose to walk down that path. There are a couple extra challenges after beating the game, and a New Game+ mode.
The storyline is hit or miss, and in my case it missed, but that’s not a deal breaker for this subgenre of RPGs. Gameplay is what it’s all about, and Demon Gaze has plenty of it. I did get a little bit bored of combat once my party was strong enough to survive on autopilot, and a couple of the dungeons were excruciatingly long, but I still enjoyed most of the dungeon crawl.
I also wasn’t particularly impressed by the game’s setting. It’s very typical fantasy, with forests, swampy graveyards, castles and the like, but none of the environments are ever as fully realized as in a game like Legend of Grimrock, or, for a far less fair comparison, something like Skyrim. There’s also a frustrating lack of animation throughout the entire game; even in combat the sprites just float around without, stilly. On the other hand, I did enjoy the music in Demon Gaze, which did a better job of providing atmosphere than the visuals.
Other imperfections manifest throughout the game. There were some very strange choices in the translation, with many skill descriptions and tutorials causing more confusing than help. On the other hand, the English voices were much stronger than I was expecting. I just wish there was a stronger storyline to accompany them.
Demon Gaze should appeal to all Vita owners looking for a first person dungeon crawler RPG, and those that love their fan service will like it even more, whereas those interested more in a good story than a good game should probably rent instead of buy, or disregard the game entirely. Regardless of which group you find yourself in, Demon Gaze is a welcome addition to the Vita library, and a good game overall.
Ari completed the main story of Demon Gaze in 42 hours, and spent another 8 hours with the game before writing this review. He received a copy of the game from the publisher for review purposes.
Available on: Vita
Version Reviewed: Vita