Sometimes it’s nice for things to just be simple, that was my ultimate takeaway from NIS America’s latest Vita dungeon crawler, Demon Gaze. After dealing with Conception 2 last week I was feeling somewhat burnt out on JRPGs, which at their worst can be overlong messes of convoluted mythologies and needlessly layered on mechanics that serve only to disguise depressing dull presentation and gameplay. But then Demon Gaze came along and pulled me right out of that funk with a refreshingly simple story, fast straightforward gameplay, and an anime meets D&D presentation that got the mixture down right. It’s no masterpiece of the genre or anything like that but for someone feeling browbeaten by ancillary bullshit laden battle systems and poorly thought out and overly complex back stories, it was a needed breath of fresh air.
The basic premise is that you are an amnesiac who, after waking up inside a deserted dungeon, quickly learns that he is a “Demon Gazer”, someone who can defeat and capture demons for their own personal use. You’re quickly brought to an inn, one of the few remaining bits of civilization around, and told that you can live there as long as you pay rent and continue to go out and capture demons to make things safer for everyone. And that’s basically it, there’s some minor character stuff that happens and there is a greater plot involving the mysterious innkeeper and a large foreboding castle whose former owner is said to be responsible for all the monsters and demons everywhere, but your primary motivation is just to pay your rent, defeat demons, and collect kick ass loot. It’s a pleasantly light story, one that is free of overlong expository dialogue and happy to let you just have fun. That’s not to say it’s devoid of character though, there are a number of NPCs back at the inn that you’ll deal with on a regular basis and they serve to add a generally charming back drop to the gameplay; they’re nicely quirky with some funny dialogue and add a good voice to game’s few story moments. Things can get a little lewd at times in an unpleasant fan-bait kind of way but the game seems to be self-aware enough that these moments come off as poking fun at their audience rather than being genuinely creepy and they’re thankfully pretty brief.
Gameplay is where the meat of this product is though and while the systems aren’t very original, they’re very well done and excellently paced. It’s all very traditional, standard first person grid based dungeon crawling with straightforward turn based battles, the best reference point for it would probably be the Wizardry series or possibly the old Might and Magic games. What makes it different though is scope and speed of the battles, your small party can find themselves fighting as many twenty enemies at a singe time, all neatly organized into rows. That may sound daunting but once you’ve got your actions down and know how you want to deal with your foes you can make those battles blaze forward at lightning speed. Even with such a pace, there’s still definitely a lot of room for strategy as the speed comes from the smart cursor memory the game employs mixed with how it speeds up animations to keep the pace going as fast as you want. This means that grinding doesn’t feel like nearly as much of a chore as could be, not to mention that chewing through a group of enemies at light speed is incredibly satisfying. On a similar note they’ve also streamlined how you collect loot, ensuring you get what you need while still keeping a nice element of randomness. The way it works is that rather than enemies dropping proper equipment, they drop gems representing the various types of equipment. You’ll take these gems to demon circles where you’ll use them to summon a group of monsters, upon defeating said monsters you’ll get a random piece of loot that falls into whatever categories the gems you used were. What this means is that rather than collecting a hundred bows when all you wanted was one sword, you can ensure that you can actually use the loot you find, either for immediate equipping or for breaking down to strengthen similar equipment you already own. While grinding is certainly this game’s bread and butter, it does a lot to alleviate the frustration of it by making the process quicker and ultimately more fruitful.
Another neat thing this game does is the Demon capturing mechanic I mentioned earlier, rather than going the Pokémon route by making the demons act as your party, you instead have a traditional RPG party and the demons act as modifiers and summons. There are twelve demons in all for you to recruit and they each have special abilities that affect you both inside and outside of battle; they may highlight secret paths, allow you to walk over floor hazards, or passively raise your damage or defense in battle. You can also summon them in combat to fight by your party’s side, they’re powerful but autonomous and act according to their own will, they’ll even sometime pop in randomly without you having to summon them to provide some unexpected but welcome support. There is a limit to their helpfulness though, you have a demon gauge that represents your control over them and if that runs out then they’ll go into a rage and turn on you and your party. Overall they make for a great trump card and add a fun unpredictable element to the combat that can really help spice things up.
Something I ended up enjoying in this game more than I thought I would was the presentation, it uses a very traditional D&D design philosophy and mixes it with just the right amount of anime style. This is especially present in the enemy design which has that gnarly fantasy vibe of classic D&D Monster Manuals but with a heaping helping of anime-esque elaborate ornamentation. It’s also got a really nice and dynamic but clean-looking UI that makes all the menu browsing you’re going to end up doing a little less dreary. My only real complaint with the visuals is that just like the dialogue things can get creepy at times with some overdone fan-bait style material. Thankfully the game is really good about letting you choose what your characters look like so you can make sure that at least all the members of your party, be they male or female, actually look like they’re wearing pants. To quickly talk about the sound design: the VO is sparse but fine, the sounds effects are nice and sharp, and the music is awesome. The soundtrack in this game has great high-speed to it that helps maintain the hectic pace of the gameplay. The songs incorporate a lot of vocals but they’re in Japanese and super synthesized in a vocaloid style, thankfully they’ve mixed it all really well so that the lyrics fall into instrumentals and enhance the tone while still really landing on the right beats and giving the music a good punch.
It’s not the deepest game around, nor does it feature the most unique or interesting mechanics, but Demon Gaze is very solid and it acts as a good return to dungeon crawling form. It takes a very well-worn structure and streamlines it in just the right ways so that the grinding and loot lust aspects are still very enjoyable but not nearly as frustrating. The story is perhaps lighter than some might like and the anime meets D&D flavouring of things might not be to everyone’s tastes but overall I think they’ve struck a good balance. If you’re looking for a nice light dungeon crawler to play on the bus then I can happily recommend it. This game is certainly not some awe-inspiring epic for the ages but it doesn’t need to be, as such I’m happy to give Demon Gaze a 4 out of 5 stars.