While the PlayStation Vita in my mind has always had the potential to be a strong competitor in the video game industry, until this year it had been underutilized internationally with few of the great games released in Japan making their way to the Western market. However all seems to changed with publishers such as ATLUS USA and NIS America (among others) finally bringing some noteworthy titles our way. In particular RPG’s which over the last generation seem to have thrived just as well if not better on portable consoles than standard ones.
ATLUS USA hit most of the right notes earlier this month with their 3D Dungeon crawling RPG Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars, but are not the only company offering a JRPG of this type during April. Nippon Ichi Software America is also delivering a comparable, if not more traditional dungeon crawling experience under the title Demon Gaze which was initially developed by the teams at Kadokawa Games and Experience Inc for release in Japan early last year. While it may not have a single stand out concept such as “Star Children”, Demon Gaze manages to get all of the basics right while offering a number of distinct features that help it stand out from the competition.
Demon Gaze is an indirect sequel to the 2010 PSP game Students of the Round, which you can be forgiven for not having played given its exclusiveness to the Japanese market. This game pits you as a completely custom and mute-protagonist (Default Name = Oz) who appears in the cursed land of Misrid with lost memories and the power of a Demon Gazer. As a Demon Gazer, Oz possesses an Evil Eye that allows them to capture defeated demons, whom can then be transformed into a key to be used in battle and on the field with a number of distinct perks associated with each. While the character is completely custom in terms of their appearance and battle voice, the game automatically assumes that they are male irrespective of what appearance you give them. This carries over into the creation of secondary party members which doesn’t require a gender selection.
Oz, like many other adventurers in the area take up residence at the Dragon Princess Inn run by Fran Pendoll, who is working towards completing a mysterious “mission” that involves the protagonist in some way. As one of the few safe havens in Misrid, the inn also frequented by other individuals including former Demon Gazer Lancelorna “Lorna” Beowulf, the Ney maid Pinay and the bickering Item / Weapon shop duo Cassel and Lezerem Rantile among others. There is the odd fanservice moment with each of the female characters, however most of the secondary non-playable characters contribute well to the overarching storyline even if there are huge gaps between scenes with them in.
The reason there are gaps is because most of the game takes place in labyrinths with party members who are also custom and therefore mute as well, with many events taking place in-between the completion of each dungeon. While it is made clear that Oz seeks to find more about his missing memories, development of the events, the world and the characters take some time to gain momentum, with the initial premise for defeating the first three demons essentially being to pay off a “debt” to Fran with little else taking place during this time. There was nothing all that special about the overall storyline, but Demon Gaze nevertheless delivered a fairly entertaining plot to complement what (Depending on the chosen difficulty setting) could pose to be a very challenging game. It really suited the sort of experience you would expect from NIS America.
Design / Music
Demon Gaze is a first-person dungeon crawler that makes use of 3D labyrinth designs but 2D character portraits and backgrounds during dialogue. Given access to more than 40 different character portraits with more available through DLC and other options, you would be hard pressed not to have a party of five characters looking just the way you want them to. Want a party that looks like it consists exclusively of child-like humanoids? Sure! Want a party full of catgirls / catboys? Don’t forget to scroll across enough to get to the Ney designs! Given you will be looking at these characters during the entire game, it is good to see that they have offered a strong variety of character portraits. However changing their appearance at any time is as simple as heading to the Dragon Princess Inn and talking to the stylist Kukure in the bathhouse.
None of the labyrinths in Demon Gaze are randomly generated. This means that the development teams at Kadokawa Games and Experience have managed to produce each area with a distinct theme and provide unique challenges for each of the expansive labyrinths. This is in comparison to potentially feeling like the the areas were just computer generated in a matter of seconds prior to starting a jaunt within them. The aesthetic appeal of these dungeons pale in comparison to the 2D artwork, however are quite possibly some of the better designs I have seen in a dungeon crawling RPG for a while.
The moment you access the game, you are treated to an opening sequence with a theme that makes use of vocaloid-performed lyrics (IA) rather than almost every other game that makes use of live-recorded music. Many of the other tracks in the game also feature the same style of lyrical music, and it is something unique that stands out from the other JRPG’s (Eg. Conception II, Persona 4) that make dominant use of lyrical tracks during battle and general gameplay. The music itself is pretty enjoyable, especially the battle themes which epitomize the intensity that a track of its type should have in my mind.
As with many of NIS America’s releases, they provide the option to use either the original Japanese dub for Demon Gaze or a newly commissioned English dub which can be switched at any time during play via the options menu. While the game is only part-dubbed into English, many of the core scenes are covered and is overall of a good standard.
Demon Gaze‘s core gameplay system is reminiscent of what has been included in many dungeon crawling RPG’s before: You enter one of the many labyrinths accessible to you during the game, make your way through it collecting items and defeating monsters and then defeat a boss. The variety of labyrinths included in this release are diverse and range from a simple graveyard filled with enemies weak against light magic to underwater stages where all magic is rendered ineffective. As mentioned in the “design” section, each of the labyrinths are individually and non-randomly designed with each offering something different in terms of how to approach them.
Each of the areas contain a number of “circles” scattered and hidden throughout, which you need to find and offer dropped / purchased gems to in order to summon more powerful mobs of enemies. These not only serve as a source of more powerful equipment and items (Given that all the gems are related to particular items), but once all have been activated they allow you to go up against the Demon of the dungeon and claim them as your own for battle. It was a clever system that often leaves you exploring every corner of a labyrinth for the circles and embraced the fact that all the areas are static and unchanging.
Battles themselves involve your party of up to five members battling multiple rows of enemies with potentially a dozen or more on screen at any one time. The mobs included in any one battle can greatly differ, and one battle where your party of five fought against a single enemy easily could be complemented by a mob of more challenging enemies that can easily wipe out your party with little means of escape. With the versatility of the character creation system providing eight distinct physical, ranged and magic oriented classes, tackling each dungeon comes down to what party members are more effective. Generally I found that physical / ranged members with multiple-hit or ranged-row attacks worked well for most of the game, however this will depend on your play style. The Demon battles at the end of each labyrinth tend to come with a notable difficulty spike, and are really where Demon Gaze‘s biggest challenge lies even in the earlier stages.
While the battle system is mostly no frills, giving each party member the option to attack or use skills from a front or back row, they also implement a new demon summoning feature exclusive to Oz. Prior to entering the field or at any unlocked circle, you can choose a demon or (later on) group of demons for the protagonist to summon at any time in battle. When in battle these demons can either perform special skills or be summoned onto the field as a sixth party member with a special attack or skill used each turn. Their use relies on a “Demon Gauge”, and when depleted they will turn into their more powerful form and begin attacking the party members indiscriminatingly. It isn’t a system generally used for standard mobs, however was creatively implemented for the stronger battles the party goes up against throughout the game.
Demon Gaze features a rudimentary levelling system where after collecting enough experience points a party member will gain a level. This will grant them access to a single stat point in addition to other boosts associated with their character class. Further customization of your character can be granted through artefacts unlocked at circles via specific gems. Equipping these will grant a particular character the use of special abilities – allowing an ATK oriented Fighter to use Samurai’s ranged attacks or a Wizard having access to the Healer’s healing attacks for example. Weapon upgrades are also available via the “Ether Mill” system, where converting unwanted equipment into “Ether” allows you to upgrade weapons or armour of the same type.
Demon Gaze features what I consider to be a great use of the standard quest system, where each quest isn’t just about defeating X number of monsters or collecting Y of a particular item that can be done in a matter of minutes, but have a particular purpose that can take several labyrinths to complete. At the beginning of the game for example you are given a quest for a complete set of Elfen armour to unlock new style options in the bathhouse. While the equipment store has these available, they are far too expensive to buy so you have to slowly work towards either buying them or finding them. There are still some quests that are plot-oriented and easy to complete, but most are not simply spoon-feeding tasks and take some degree of effort to complete, even for the more generic sounding ones. The same can be said about the party system where initially you are only given two rooms / two character slots, where the others you have to acquire by amassing and paying certain sums of money.
Akin to Demon’s Souls, there is also a Gazer Tag system which allows players to place notes around the labyrinths using combinations of different words. These can provide warnings on traps, hidden doors or potentially lead someone astray from their target. While I am not sure if it was a necessary implementation and will most probably be forgotten by players part-way through the game, it was interesting to see the concept applied to something other than torturous action RPG’s.
Final Words on Demon Gaze
But overall, I stand by my original statement that Demon Gaze manages to do all the basics of a traditional dungeon crawler RPG right and builds upon the experience with a diverse character creation system, a potentially risk-based demon summoning system and plenty of challenge as you seek out every corner of any labyrinth looking for a “circle” that at times can be easily missed as you go up against near endless swarms of enemies. It was a tonne of fun, and one of the more enjoyable PlayStation Vita experiences I have had yet!
- A range of character portraits for use in the diverse character creation system.
- A nice compilation of music performed by the Vocaloid IA.
- Does the basics of any dungeon crawling RPG very well, with its own unique additions that provides additional challenge and strategy opportunities.
- Effective use of the quest system
- The game doesn't tend to spoon-feed you, relying on your own skills or patience to amass the money, items or gems to acquire good equipment, complete quests or increase the party member cap from two to five.
- Story does take a while to get into full swing.
- The need to save often and bring plenty of healing items lest you either lose progress or find yourself trapped in a labyrinth.
- Sometimes looking for the hidden areas in a labyrinth can become tedious.