Platform: PS Vita
Developer: Kadokawa Games | Experience Inc.
The Vita isn't short of fantastic localised JRPGs for British connoisseurs to enjoy. Here's another one, again courtesy of those fine folks at NIS Europe and Reef Entertainment.
Demon Gaze looks quirky and moe enough to whip Japanese gaming fans into a frenzy, but that isn't doing it justice. Taking aim at the hardcore 'gridder' RPG genre popularised by early MegaTen games, Ultima, Dungeon Master and Legend Of Grimrock, this superb effort throws us into tightly-designed first person dungeons with parties of our own creation, challenging us to out-think and outlevel some outrageously tough encounters to survive. Its as rewarding and difficult as you'd expect, versatile enough to provide deep and meaningful choices at every turn.
Yet while its fellows delight in making things as impenetrable as possible for new players (indeed, I died within minutes in Legends Of Grimrock because it didn't tell me how to attack), Demon Gaze does its best to open up the genre to everyone. Before punishing them.
Oh, and it's also a bizarre pan-sexual odyssey, seeing as your crazy digs make frat houses look tame. Anything goes... and don't say I didn't warn you.
Premise-wise, we assume the role of a mysterious amnesiac hero (here we go again), who conveniently has the power to capture demons by gazing at them. Hence, a Demon Gazer. After waking up in an inn bordering mysterious demon-infested ruins, staffed by a colourful assortment of loveable weirdos, we have to create a party and sally forth into the dangerous unknown... to pay the rent.
This bouncy setup takes a darker turn after a while, but the action boils down to classic dungeon crawling fare. From a first-person perspective and moving only in cardinal directions one tile at a time, we'll navigate some superbly-designed labyrinths that teem with secrets, hazards, puzzles and hidden passages that encourage you to return later to unlock new areas with new abilities. Beyond riches and experience, we're primarily on the hunt for Demon Circles, magic rifts that turn into save points after a tough battle and gradually force the boss of each stage to emerge. These portals add a new layer of unpredictability to the experience, allowing you to summon enemies to kill for specific loot types (a simple yet brilliant idea that remains relevant throughout the campaign) or occasionally bushwhacking you when the main boss randomly shows up to say 'hello' for a brisk appetiser.
Though familiar stuff, it's crisp, sharp and gorgeous on the Vita screen, with a simple yet effective auto-mapping system that makes navigation a cinch over the 30-40 hour runtime. It's slicker and more effective than we're used to, without losing the depth.
Combat is naturally a main focus, though, and Demon Gaze doesn't disappoint. The turn-based combat system is brisk and streamlined, throwing you into battle against varied foes with numerous special attacks, weaknesses and gorgeous sprites, while putting your party's offensive and defensive abilities within easy reach. Regular enemies are often a stiff challenge, boasting status effects aplenty, while bosses are genuinely terrifying and will wipe your party with merry abandon. The UI could be a little more helpful in terms of displaying turn order (a design decision, admittedly), while the lack of touchscreen functionality in battle or manual Etrian Odyssey-style manual mapping is an odd omission, but it's still more than fit for task.
Taking clear inspiration from MegaTen, Demon Gaze features a demon summoning system that lets you bring your vanquished demons into battle, wherein they'll act independently and generally make a wonderful mess of things. Sometimes they'll even swing by of their own accord, while providing persistent bonuses and special abilities on the field map. However, you'll need to carefully balance their use, as overdeployment can cause them to enter a troublesome rage mode and attack friend and foe alike in a fit of pique. Incredibly versatile and powerful yet easy to use and digest, it's yet another example of delivering depth without getting caught up in fuss. Allowing us to concentrate on not getting annihilated by the next ridiculously powerful boss.
Be in no doubt: Demon Gaze is tough. Very, very tough. Your resources are always limited -- mana and money -- meaning that you've got to make what you've got as effectively as possible to prevail. Thankfully the character creation is robust enough to let us level a unique party of heroes from various classes and races, all of whom boast unique skills and room to specialise within each combat role.
Paladins taunt and tank, Samurai dance through blows and slice through rows. Assassins debilitate and insta-kill with daggers or bows, mages buff and blast while healers keep your frontline fighters alive We're able to tinker with every aspect of our party, from their portraits to their gear and skill-inferring augments, using all of their satisfyingly nuanced class skills to advantage. Plentiful grinding will also be necessary to smash through the difficulty curve, which is an important part of the genre, and less onerous here thanks to the slick enjoyable combat.
Despite its mean streak, however, Demon Gaze is never unfair - and in fact does its best to round off some of the more troublesome aspects of the genre. Strong playable tutorials and comprehensive context-sensitive help screens are always on hand when you need them. Characters can be resurrected if downed, so long as your entire party isn't wiped. Difficulty can be changed to suit your skill level. When you fail, it's because you screwed up somehow or need to grind some more, not because Demon Gaze failed to adequately teach you how to use its moving parts. Compared to the insanely convoluted systems of old-school MegaTen titles and even Etrian Odyssey, it's an absolute godsend.
Demon Gaze isn't an unqualified success - in fact, a fair bit of qualification is needed here. Beyond the need to grind through difficulty spikes (a key part of the genre that, sadly, will turn away some players by design), most flaws boil down to nagging irritations. The Demon's Souls-inspired messaging system is a key case in point, letting us leave helpful hints or admittedly hilarious juvenile smut for other players to find, but the entire map is covered with floating envelopes if activated. It's unsightly and overwhelming and would benefit from a little restraint. If not a downvoting feature.
Story and characters are also a bit of a stumbling block. The plot is disappointing and generic, despite some 'wacky' diversions from time to time, never really capturing the imagination to any great degree. The characters are actually well-written and voiced down to the shopkeepers and incidental NPCs, yet as you've probably worked out from the screenshots, Demon Gaze sadly compromises its art direction in the pursuit of busty titillation. A little cheesecake can be tasty as a guilty pleasure, but too much of it is sickly and stodgy. There's no reason why outfits can't be practical and colourful -- more like this please, Japan! -- and I was good and ready to give Demon Gaze both critical barrels.
But then an elf bloke stripped down to his loincloth and an anthropomorphic catgirl started sniffing used panties, and I eventually found myself loving the whole silly, uninhibited, ridiculous thing.
Demon Gaze makes you feel like a guest at a bawdy and entirely mad hotel where anything can happen, a crazy party house on the edge of civilization, never holding back - as one of its characters says, 'love can't be constrained by gender or race.' Demon Gazers work hard and play harder. My biggest complaint, ultimately, is that more naked elven men are definitely necessary to balance out all the naughty ladies. Equality is a good thing, no?
Or, put another way, the female character designs are almost all awful, immersion-breaking and pander to the lowest common denominator - even despite the fun and cheeky atmosphere and the likeable characters themselves.
But this personal gripe isn't enough to derail Demon Gaze. Not by a long shot. With gameplay this enjoyable, streamlined yet full-fat and stuffed with intriguing overlapping systems, Demon Gaze is unquestionably worth buying and worth our coveted Editor's Choice Award. In fact, I question whether some of my more critical peers have much experience with the subgenre.
- Challenging, versatile and compelling dungeon crawling
- Attractive visuals, gloriously crisp art and raunchy soundtrack atmosphere
- Deep character customisation and demon summoning
- Incredibly tough yet more forgiving and accessible than ever
- Uninspired plot (despite a few crazy diversions)
- Messy message system, no touchscreen functionality
- PLEASE put more clothes on, ladies....
- ...or please take more clothes off, lads
The Short Version: Demon Gaze is a superb grid-based dungeon crawler that streamlines the oft-impenetrable genre, yet fleshes it out in numerous exciting ways. A strong, smart and sexy addition to the Vita's JRPG lineup, if occasionally a little too sexy for its own good.