Publisher: NIS America
Genre: Role-Playing Game / Dungeon Crawler
Reviewer: Marcus Way
Overall: 6 = Fair
Demon Gaze is the latest in a new wave of dungeon-crawler-style role-playing games that have hit the handheld market. At the forefront of this trend has been Atlus with their Shin Megami Tensei and Etrian Odyssey titles, and recently they have been joined by several other studios, including Kadokawa Games and Experience Inc. with their latest co-developed title, Demon Gaze. Localized and published by NIS America, this bright and at times awkwardly suggestive dungeon crawler has all the makings of a genre standout, but a few design quirks and missteps hold it back.
As Oz, a strange wanderer who is marked as a Demon Gazer by his ability to seal demons with his magic eye, players will make their way through a world overrun by powerful monsters and free it of oppressive malevolent forces. Setting out from the Dragon Princess Inn, the only safe haven in the land, Oz must defeat and capture the demons who hold sway over six different areas. Each captured demon strengthens him and his party alike, as they gain access to new buffs, powerful attacks, and even the ability to summon their former foes to their side during battle.
The demons don’t go quietly, however. Capturing them requires a lot of work, as they are nestled away in maps that are filled with one-way doors, illusory walls, and booby-trapped tiles that shock, disorient, and push the party along. Areas are also filled with enemies that attack at designated spots and at random, which can at times be bypassed by the use of spells. The demons don’t wander these areas alongside common beasts, but instead reside within Gem Circles. Luring them out from a circle requires that players sacrifice one to three gems of three different types: weapon, special, or armor. Nameless Gems are the most common, but as players acquire more of the 22 different gem types as they progress, they will be able to build an arsenal of specific weapons to dole out to their party. The randomness of this system makes it as intriguing as it is addictive due to the wide range of item drops, which can be anything from a basic sword to a modest shield or a rare skill-bestowing artifact. There is also an element of risk, as demons have to be defeated twice, with the first serving as a skirmish and the second an all-out brawl that will result in their capture. Both engagements can be tough enough to wreck even the strongest party, and knowing they are always on the horizon calls for careful planning when approaching a new circle.
Whenever an area proves to be especially challenging, players can warp back to the inn to take a breather and restock. The multi-story building features several facilities that will warm the heart of any battle-weary adventurer. The basement houses a morgue that is ran by the morose and frequently, creepily underdressed Prometh. Her dourness is made up for by the fact that she can not only revive fallen party members but can also enhance weapons and armor by strengthening them with Ether extracted from all of the inventory-cluttering junk that’s been accumulated. Strengthening and reviving costs money, but fortunately, she shows pity on the cash-strapped gazer by offering free extraction and storage of excess loot. The first story features a bath ran by the stylish Kukure, where players can customize their characters’ appearance, voice, and name; an entrance, where players choose which of the unlocked areas they wish to travel; and the hall, where a bulletin board hosts missions posted by the inn’s various proprietors and resident mercenaries. The second story is where the player and their party stay. Up to four other rooms can be rented out to be used by four recruited characters, and each can be slightly buffed by a single item of furniture gifted from the player. This being an inn, everything costs. Not only must the player cover their own rent, but they must also pay rent for each of their party members, and the cost fluctuates by number of party members, each character’s level, and the difficulty level chosen. The third floor is where Fran the manager lives, and it also hosts Cassel’s weapon shop and Lezerem’s item shop.
Players will become very familiar with the inn’s residents, especially Fran. Each character offers their own quests that allow for players to interact with them, albeit in some very strange scenes, including trips to the bath with a half-naked, giddy Lezerem and cleaning skulls with Prometh. But it’s Fran that players will become most acquainted with. Not only is she prominent in the storyline, but she’s also the first person that greets returning adventurers—with her hand out for the rent. Every single time players leave the inn, they will need to pay an ever-increasing fee when they return, which can feel extortionate on the higher difficulty levels. She isn’t heartless, though, and an IOU will be extended for those who return skint; however, she does shut off parts of the inn until all debts are paid. Her charity only goes so far, so it’s best to return with a nice reserve for paying up. Money is crucial throughout the game, but it’s most important during the beginning, and the most beneficial investment is new party members.
Party members can either be recruited on the recommendation of Fran or created from scratch. There are five races (dwarf, elf, human, migmy, and ney) to choose from as well as seven classes (assassin, fighter, healer, paladin, ranger, samurai, and wizard) to assign them. Any race can be any class, but save for the ever-balanced humans, there are optimal combinations that maximize each race’s natural traits. There is a mixture of male and female models for each race to choose from, 45 in total, as well as a variety of voices to select and the option to type in a custom name. Even Oz can be customized, but despite his gender being changeable, the story will always treat the protagonist as male.
These options are all presented very matter-of-factly and seem fairly straightforward, but what the game never notes is that there are leveling caps for each attribute that can seriously affect a character’s late-game performance. The manual and game suggest that elves make good wizards, but that truism carries a lot more weight within the game’s system as their higher intelligence level will allow them to always be a more effective wizard than any other race, except if the latter folks are buffed with items that carry stat bonuses; of course, the elf will also be adorned with stat-buffing gear, which would make them even more powerful. This is due to a 20-point limit for all of the game’s six attributes (agility, intelligence, luck, mystic, strength, and vitality) above the race’s starting level, which is a fact I found online from other gamers who had played the import and not in the paltry manual or the scattered smattering of miniature help menus. As it turned out, most of the informational material presented is largely superficial. For example, a weapon might have a poison attribute, but there is no hint as to the effect’s potency, duration, or probability of infliction. There are so many nice touches that inform at a glance, such as a colored gem indicated the danger of the current area, the number of enemy ranks being fought, and a color to note which characters are in the front ranks and which are in the rear, that the absence of other, much more critical information is quite surprising. In all honesty, I am sure that I missed some information along the way, despite reading through many of the help menus, simply because there are so many snippets of information strewn across so many different screens. Demon Gaze might look simple, but its underlying mechanics are far from it.
Augmenting the race- and class-specific bonuses are artifacts. These are rare accessories that add a class’ abilities to a character of another class. By finding these, paladins can have access to a samurai skill, or allow a wizard to be imbued with a ranger skill. A few can be purchased at a high price, but the majority will have to be found throughout the world’s six primary areas. Up to five can be equipped for each character, but it can take a long time before enough are acquired to fully outfit the party. The skills gained are often quite potent, as they can be used however many times the player wishes and are not tied to any pool or gauge, as magic is to mana. Artifacts aren’t the only important piece of equipment, either, as all add important stat boosts. As mentioned previously, all items can carry benefits that allow characters to excel beyond their race’s attribute limits, providing additional points in strength, agility, and so on. As with artifacts, the best gear will be acquired in the field.
That time spent in the field, obtaining items and cutting a swath through the hordes of monsters, will be a mixture of mundane boredom and intense combat. For all of the game’s faults, from the underdressed characters and unnecessarily shoehorned fan-service elements to the lack and decentralized nature of information, the biggest is its uneven pace. During the first five-plus hours that I spent capturing the initial four demons, the game was largely a bore. My party was so much stronger than the enemy that I rarely had to pay attention to the battles. A waypoint system allowed me to set my party to a far-off location and not worry about navigating them along, while a repeat function in combat allowed me to have my party unleash a series of previously inputted moves that were all but guaranteed to destroy—all of which required little to no actual player participation. The only flaws in this plan were as a result of the erratic damage done by enemies—e.g., a three-party squad hit my characters for two points of damage, then five, and the last for a staggering 653—and the repeat function not always working, a problem which unfortunately affected the healer most often, and even more so as the game went on. As my team dominated every enemy it came across, my attention was required primarily for avoiding trap tiles, kicking walls to make loot or doorways appear, and making sure my party was safe from any sudden damage spikes during combat. After a few hours of uncovering the map and knocking out the gem circles, I would finally unlock the area’s demon and suddenly find my party left as a pile of corpses. The demons are so much more powerful that I would then have to grind for another hour or so in the same area, becoming increasingly bored as each battle passed, before finally leveling enough to the point where I could defeat and capture the demon. It’s a cycle based around repetition that isn’t satisfying enough to justify such an approach.
This pattern continued even after talking with Prometh to increase the game’s difficulty. The increase in enemy strength and rent only made progression slightly more intensive. However, around the sixth demon, the game’s difficulty suddenly spiked. Enemies were frequently landing one-hit kills, appearing three and four ranks deep, and attacking with a wider variety of spells and skills. Random encounters increased, as did the number of trap tiles, illusory walls, and one-way doors, which not only made travel more tedious but also much more dangerous. The lack of a resurrection spell left me with only a handful of risky options: head back to the inn and fork out the rent, use one of the resurrection items sold by Lezerem, or hope to attain an item from combat. The risk from battle is obvious, but the danger posed by returning to the inn or using an item might not be, even if they sap the most precious resource of all: money. And make no mistake: those options are very expensive. When money is needed to also strengthen weapons, unlock rooms, pay rent, and revive party members at the morgue, it is frequently in short supply. The constant risk of engaging in one more battle to possibly acquire a much-needed item to revive a party member or heading back to the inn and losing a pile of gold creates a tension that holds all the way through the post-story dungeons. The root cause of that tension is the damage spike done by enemies, which can wipe out half a party within a few turns despite preparatory buffs and precautions, and that ultimately makes the cash-crunch element more frustrating than had combat been more consistent.
Frustration, however, is common throughout the game. It only increases as the end-game nears and players must grind for hours to beat the later demons. All of this culminates in a final boss battle that is a full screen away from save points and tucked behind set enemy encounters. There is little joy when players finally reach the designated spot as a sub-boss appears and must be defeated before the final boss emerges, and then promptly begins to summon the demons that were already battled and captured. There is no way to save after the initial fight, nor is there a way to skip the dialog that occurs before and after the battles. This means that losing at the last boss requires going back through a full screen of the dungeon, sitting through the sub-boss fight dialog and battle, then through the boss’ dialog, and then going through the battle itself—a very tedious sequence. Such needless filler occurs in several other spots prior to this fight, but it’s all the more galling here because the developers had to have known that players would die several times during the final fight and have to sit through all of this several times over.
Yet, that’s not really the end. Despite the credits, players are informed that they aren’t really finished and must go out to capture another demon. This leads to a large dungeon that is filled with trap and one-way tiles which leads to another demon that must be acquired for, yep, another battle. That final-final battle, again, has no nearby saves and requires players beat all of the previous demons—again—in order to fight the boss. Unlike the initial final boss fight, which spawns clones of the already-captured demons but can be stopped if enough damage is dealt, there is no way to skip these refights. Instead, all of the demons must be defeated in pairs, one after the other. Going back to the inn resets all of the gem circles, which means that this gauntlet must be run in a single go before the final battle. The second-to-last dungeon is, despite the reliance on gimmicks, one of the better designed in the game, but the satisfaction of completing it is quickly undone by the lazy recycling of one of gaming’s most unimaginative, phoned-in challenges: boss regurgitation.
The pacing and lackluster scenarios do not do the combat system justice. Not only does the wide range of moves offer a great way to mix class styles, but the use of demons during combat also makes for even more variety. By equipping demons, players can not only increase their loyalty but also their array of passive and active skills. Each demon has a certain bonus and purpose, with one focusing on healing, another on magic, another on strength, and so on. Sometimes they come out on their own for a single, free attack, but using them for any length requires summoning them at the expense of a gauge that steadily depletes, which is also used to cast one the abilities of those not summoned by part of the party during battle. Battle recharges the gauge, but extended fights will see the number drop quickly, and letting it drop to zero will cause the summoned demon to become enraged and turn on the party. The strength of the demons is also dependent on the Demon Gazer, as their loyalty only affects their health and abilities. What’s especially satisfying is combining all of these moves together for extended combos by having a wizard bestow a strength boost on the gazer, then summoning Mars to unleash buffed, devastating attacks. When the enemies appeared in solid parties and didn’t pull any of their insta-kill shenanigans, Demon Gaze managed to provide some of the most enjoyable combat that I’ve come across in quite some time. At the 50-plus hours it’ll take to beat the game, that allows for many great fights, and that is undoubtedly what will keep players coming back for more.
Demon Gaze is a serviceable dungeon crawler with a solid combat system marred by poor pacing, repetitive scenarios, and over-the-top fan service. The at-times genuinely funny dialog and charming character interactions too frequently lead to scenes of scantily clad characters that feel out of place and unnecessary, not to mention a little creepy, while the design falls short due to a lackluster beginning and an over-reliance on monotonous engagements. A whimsical character-creation system, an interesting mixture of skills, and a host of demon abilities make for some enjoyable parties and battles, but the trying design means this is a dungeon crawler only for the most ardent fighters.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)