By Jack . April 21, 2014 . 5:40pm
First-person dungeon crawlers were a genre that I never knew I loved until about a year ago, when I played Etrian Odyssey IV. Before then, the genre always kind of intimidated me as most of them strip RPGs down to their base, focusing on raw mechanics and exploration rather than lots of dialogue and impressive graphics. Demon Gaze sits somewhere between the two extremes, making it one of the most accessible dungeon crawlers I’ve ever played.
Unlike a lot of games in its genre, Demon Gaze makes a noticeable effort to ease you in. There is a fairly lengthy opening sequence that introduces you to the dungeon crawling mechanics, a surprising amount of story dialogue, and mandatory introductions all of the game’s secondary mechanics. It’s safe to say that Demon Gaze does not give you a lot of freedom at the start, as even assembling a team of party members is a delayed process.
Party members are customizable in terms of appearance, class, and voice acting. This is usually my favorite aspects of these kind of games, as you get to set up a party with a true sense of ownership, but I found the whole process to be unusually restricted. You aren’t allowed to set up all five party slots right away; instead you have to pay increasingly large amounts of money in order to purchase rooms for them to stay. Similar build-up is required to access most of Demon Gaze’s depth, which feels intentional as to not overburden newer players.
While Demon Gaze feels a little more restricted than your average dungeon crawler, it makes up for it with abundant energy. The entire game is very vibrant, with lots of bright colors and upbeat music backed up by vocaloids. Dialogue is made more exciting thanks to tricks like zoom-ins and movement across the screen. Even the battles themselves, while nothing impressive, move with speed and intensity that get you excited for their outcome. I’m not usually one to get really swept up by presentation, and it’s obvious this game didn’t have an extensive budget, but I was impressed by how lively a game that involves mostly looking at static character art felt.
Essentially the game is broken up into three modes: combat, exploration, and regrouping. Combat is the usual fair for dungeon crawlers, you encounter enemy hordes randomly and take turns beating on each other. It isn’t the deepest RPG system in the world, but I found that it was satisfying to play and required a lot of different strategies to effectively fight different hordes and bosses. My one complaint here is that the difficulty balance occasionally seems a bit out of whack, thanks in part to the random encounters occasionally giving you hordes that are way out of your league.
It seems like a small thing, but the pace of battles is expertly handled. Similar to other first person dungeon crawlers, there isn’t much to the battle animations (although the static HD art looks very nice) which means little time is wasted waiting for attacks to unfold. On top of that there’s also an extremely efficient “auto battle” kind of option that repeats your last turn by pressing triangle. You can easily adjust whatever characters you need to turn between turns while presetting the rest, making the mindless encounters fast and the bigger brawls efficiently manageable. Getting stopped in a random encounter never feels like a chore, as no matter what the battle will be decided very quickly.
The most unique characteristic of the game is that you’re a “Demon Gazer,” meaning that you have the power to stare at demons really hard until they help you out. Once you’ve captured a demon’s soul with your piercing glance, you can bring them with you to dungeons. Every demon has unique abilities to assist you, and deciding which one to bring along is incredibly important depending on your situation. Some demons can spot hidden doors while others can buff up your defense significantly, so mixing and matching becomes a very strategic process.
Obtaining new demons is a big deal, as they are all gained from boss encounters. A lot of time is spent building up to these battles, as in order to corner a demon you need to locate all of the gates they can hide in throughout the map. Finding all of the gates requires doing a full sweep of the area. Multiple times I had gone through the whole dungeon only missing one gate, only to find some obscure hidden door off in some corner of the map.
Exploration never feels like a chore, though, as the dungeons manage to be very open without being overcomplicated. The majority of the dungeons are kept on an even level rather than being broken up with multiple flights of stairs, with different sections of the area logically connecting to each other. The layout makes traversal easy and natural, as every map has a memorable theme and is full of hidden secrets and shortcuts. Eventually the dungeons do get more complicated, but by then I felt confident enough to actually want that complexity.
In between your bouts of dungeon crawling you head back to the inn to recover, but not for free. To stay in good standing at the inn you actually have to pay rent based on amount and strength of the party members you have whenever you return. This opened up an odd strategic aspect to the game where I kept trying to balance myself between finding enough rent money in dungeons while also heading back to the inn just before a level up so I could be as big a cheap-skate as possible.
Staying at the inn is where you’re also going to get most of the story. Despite its unusual emphasis on narrative, this is easily the weakest aspect of Demon Gaze. The inn is inhabited by a host of one-note perverts who, male or female, are more than willing to tear their clothes off at moment’s notice. It’s silly, over-the-top, and most importantly, makes it extremely hard to care about the characters in the game. Unfortunately, Demon Gaze tries to make you care regardless with awkward tonal shifts and plot twists that just don’t fit the nature of the writing or character designs.
There’s an established world here, but Demon Gaze does very little with it. I ended up being a little confused as to whether Demon Gaze was actually trying to tell a story or if the narrative is just a vehicle to get to the next wacky, contrived antic. In that sense it almost works, I was always interested to see what bizarre thing the inn folk were going to do after I defeated a boss. It just feels like a wasted opportunity to put so much effort and dialogue into something that is ultimately superfluous to enjoying the game.
Thankfully, Demon Gaze can stand on its dungeon crawling alone. Demon Gaze is a good entry point into the genre, being simple enough to easily get into while also having a satisfying pace that keeps you hooked.
Food for Thought:
1. There’s an online messaging system (inspired by DARK SOULS??) where you can leave notes on the ground called “Gazer Memos” for other players to find. This would likely be a big help to keep players out of traps while also pointing out secrets like hidden doors. I didn’t get much out of it because I played the game before its release, but I’m hoping someone reads my dumb misleading messages at some point.
2. Demon Gaze features some gratuitous borderline nudity, but what I actually find the most explicit are the noises the party members make when bumping into walls in dungeons. Those voice actors are really into their wall bumping and I imagine it’d be pretty easy for anyone nearby to think you’re up to something shady.
3. I was surprised how little secondary content I encountered during my time with Demon Gaze. The main hall of the inn has a bulletin board filled with quests, but very few of them actually end up being optional. For better or for worse, Demon Gaze is very focused on its main quest.
4. A neat touch is that the demons you capture still have a mind of their own. There’s a numbered gauge that decreases the more you use their power, and when it hits zero the demon goes berserk and tries to kill you. Demons are also very impatient; if you go too long without summoning one it will take it upon itself to come out and start fighting.