Demon Gaze Review
Wake up amnesiac, you are the new Demon Gazer. Time to get to work.
A new friend springs you from your jail cell and guides you to safety. As the former Demon Gazer (someone with the power to summon demons) she will help ease you into your new station in life. That station will revolve around navigating treacherous dungeons brimming with foes, collecting allies and demons, and getting involved in the various personal issues and hijinks of your fellow mercenaries at the inn.
That's your story in a nutshell but I'll put some flesh on those bones for you. Although made by Kadokawa and only published under NIS here in America, fans of NIS properties will be at home with this kind of story. There isn't a huge plot or epic score to settle, or even unusual character approaches like The Witch and the Hundred Knight had. Mostly you'll chip away at the mystery surrounding the cute money grubbing landlady of the inn where you bunk. You'll also encounter plenty of visual novel cut scenes with the rest of the cast that are entertaining and sometimes even elicit a good belly laugh or “pfft-into-smile” response. How these unfold will be partly up to you when you answer questions so go ahead and make things interesting. You'll be made aware of who has a new event surrounding them with an exclamation point near their icon on the inn floor map so you can keep up to date on the latest events.
Also in the tradition of an NIS property there is a distinct duality in the visual presentation, specifically between the art and the in-game graphics. The characters designs are top notch but whether or not they resonate with your sense of style is going to be a little subjective. Suffice it to say they are colorful and highly eclectic. They are also well drawn, when characters want to whisper their image will be very close and inspection shows them standing up well to scrutiny. The background art is beautiful, I found myself looking past the characters and even the enemies to admire them. The same cannot be said for what is happening when on the move in the dungeons. From your first person perspective you'll see a whole lot of repeated, muddy textures slapped onto a map fill or flat, uninteresting planes. To the developer's credit they did manage to make the dungeons feel very different from one another with what little they had to work with.
Enemies are more or less on par with the character designs though you'll see a lot of palette swaps. The experience can seem lifeless at times since even in battle your enemies are just static drawings. They will move around, float, flash, and even expand and contract but you're always aware these are 2D objects with little animation. You can chalk this up to the visual novel style in other parts or see it as yet another drawback to what makes the in-game experience less interesting. In any case the execution is above average and more than a little charming. The special effects are adequate.
The first thing that grabbed me in the audio category was the music, that first track was really great. When I got into the game I found some other quality works that represented the aforementioned eclectic style of the fantasy realm. What I noticed next was how quickly and often it repeated. Great music is always a plus but looping so much is a no-no in a dungeon crawler where you're going to have your nose to the grindstone for hours. At least there are plenty of tracks to set the right mood. On the voice front we have something unique happening. After switching the voice tracks back and forth numerous times during my play I can say for the first time that the English and Japanese voices are of equal quality and that quality is quite good. It raises the profile of the visual novel setup. Special effects are on time and on target. Overall things can get a bit tinny when coming from the Vita's speakers.
The gameplay is divided between crawling those dungeons in the main quest, doing side jobs, item hunting, and hijinks back at the inn. The game does character creation a little strange. You can pick your class and gender and race and the image you want but they can be all mixed up. If you want you can be a male that looks like a female of another race or whatever combination you like, however all the people in the game will always address you as a human male. I suppose that makes audio capture a little less expensive and most players will be young males (hopefully human) but it can be a little disconnecting if you chose something else.
Combat is important in a game like this and Demon Gaze handles things fairly well for those who can appreciate minimalism.The basic setup is a serious throwback some might choose to call out of date and others might praise as nostalgic. I was immediately reminded of Dragon Warrior on NES. Your enemies arrive as an image in front of you and a text narration chronicles what actions are going down. The battles are more intricate than the old days though, and probably quite a bit harder if I recall correctly. You can choose to call up any demons you have captured once per battle but if you let them stay too long they will go nuts and attack you. You can't control them directly, they simply act based on their mood and it makes for random excitement. The enemies are usually tough and always on their toes, if they have arrived in rows they will swap out when tired for fresh troops from the back. One of their most terrible traits is that it appears any of them can call for more out of thin air. This feature annoyed me to absolutely no end. Multiple times I found myself in a regular, non boss battle and wound up expending all of my resources and over 20 minutes of my time defeating enemies that simply waited until they were about to die and then called in more. Bosses are even more devastating and the curve is steep. The setup is generally unbalanced in that one wrong decision during early development and you can find yourself wasting many hours with a team that simply cannot win. The first ally I created was a mage and a wisp of a girl that I thought could balance out my brute force. Big mistake, I spent all my time protecting her from being killed multiple times. Being smart isn't enough to win in this game, you have to be experimental and tenacious because of developmental oversights which shouldn't be there. Keep in mind that if you like to see yourself on screen hitting the bad guys that will never happen, you are just an image on the side of the screen and the enemies just get struck. The skills and commands are all what you'd expect.
Everything is handled in traditional turn-based style here so that's a plus. The dungeons are basic, you'll explore, pick up items, use special circles to raise monsters that drop the items you need, unlock doors, and fight bosses. This game is stingy on cash so save up and sell things, that crazy innkeeper girl keeps raising the rent. If you are truly hardcore and enjoy the grind there is some solid replay value to be had. You can make endless combinations of allies, find and collect tons of items (you're liable to miss some the first time) and direct cut scenes by making different choices. There is one network feature this game has that borrows from Demon's Souls, you can leave notes behind for other players when connected to the net.
Demon Gaze is difficult to characterize because it dances furtively on the line between out of date and charmingly old school. The visual novel sequences are a nice treat between missions but they don't make up for the balancing problems and general tedium of fighting and fighting and fighting without getting anywhere. It's a good addition to the Vita's lineup of Japanese RPGs for a niche and patient audience.
The Good: Great cast that uses anime tropes in a positive way to breathe life into the plot.
The Bad: The most restrictive form of exploration I've ever seen in a modern video game.
The Ugly: Despite the ability to change the difficulty level, balancing issues can have you riding high in one fight and completely unable to leave a dent in the enemy in the next. Enemies replace themselves to turn a quick bout into a time consuming struggle not worth the profit or worthy of patience.
5/2/2014 David D. Nelson