There is poetry in the dungeon crawler. Something about the interminable journey through the dark and its many trials — a confusing maze of hallways, a cursed treasure, things creeping from the dark places of the earth — calls to the poet in each of us, and that’s part of the reason we finish these oppressive, harrowing games. There’s also the excitement of creating a party and the tension of opening forbidding doors- the fun of seeing what new horrors the game can provide. There’s also usually some light at the end, whether the literal light of the sun or the spiritual radiance of freedom.
Demon Gaze has all the frustration, trial and error, tedium, death, and claustrophobia of a dungeon crawler without the poetry. Demon Gaze takes, but does not give, making even the smallest bit of progress operose, as if the player is pushing a boulder up a hill or failing at some other hell-wrought task. Demon Gaze matches the Souls series for its increasingly demanding challenges, yet has none of the grace, poignancy, or satisfaction that makes those games playable. You meet each challenge only to be subjected to another series of inane cutscenes and literal collect-the-laundry quests that give way to dungeons with different skins and some new gimmicks.
Demon Gaze has a familiar core: take a home-made party into tile-based dungeons, fight random enemies, beat bosses, and head back to the hub. This is a classic dungeon crawler, but with JRPG anime trappings instead of medieval European ones. The aforementioned hub is an inn where the player must pay increasingly costly rent. The usual quest board, shops, and forge are all here, and the game strives for a homey atmosphere to provide sweet respite after a day in the dungeon. Players can customize their rooms, for instance, read tutorials, talk to other adventurers, and relax before adventuring forth again.
Combat uses a standard turn-based system with the addition of summonable demons that act independently to assist the five-person party. They might attack, use spells, or heal, but only for a predetermined amount of time, after which they turn on the summoner. Dungeons are populated with random battles, non-random encounters, items, traps, and Demon Circles, which are integral to progression. At each Demon Circle, the player can sacrifice up to three gems and receive random items in return, but only after a fight. This is the game’s most successful and engaging feature, and I typically defame randomly generated content. Gaining control of these circles forces the boss of each area to surface and allows the player to save their game, a necessary boon due to the game’s difficulty level. Defeating these area bosses is the key to progression.
The core of Demon Gaze is competent and playable, but none of the individual components are satisfying (with the exception of the item-generating Demon Circles) and the overall progression is exhausting without reward. Battles are fast, but relatively mindless when not positively grueling. Most monsters can and will summon friends, and a battle that looks easy can quickly turn lengthy and tedious with four lines of foes attacking, healing, mixing up the party order, and status effect-ing you to death. Character progression is exceptionally dull and unsatisfying. Unique classes and compelling skill trees may have saved the game. Building a party is also a chore due to the financial requirements for renting out additional rooms. Experimenting with different party combinations is harshly discouraged, as experience points and money are stingily handed out. I felt like I had wandered into a bad neighborhood on Halloween. Even dungeons are designed to frustrate the player into grinding or giving up: tiles that spin, hundreds of damaging tiles, and few options to navigate to and from the inner levels. At one point I entered an underwater dungeon and the inn manager called me on my magical telephone to cheerfully inform me that spells don’t work under water.
In that one moment was all the unimaginative, tedious, frustrating, go-grind! game design that made Demon Gaze’s many hours of gameplay meaningless.
Demon Gaze takes and takes. I rarely felt relieved or refreshed when playing, even after repeated victories. Reward is the keystone to a punishing video game. Without it, a game crumbles like poorly stacked stones. Only a completionist’s compulsion would make anyone want to finish Demon Gaze.
A solid narrative may have been enough to push me through the game, but the story and its cast of characters are best described as “fanservice.” There are large breasts, nearly bare butts, innumerable innuendos, children in panties, and lines like, “The breasts are the second butt.” One segment has the protagonist verifying that the inn manager is human by examining her nearly naked body and poking her breasts. I almost have to commend the game on being so inclusive in its sexualism: there’s smut for lesbians and gays as well, but it’s just as worthless and demeaning. None of this is relevant to real life, nor is anything to be gained by it except (perhaps) an erection. We might, however, lose the ability to think and talk about sex in a genuine way, and we might begin to see bodies before we see human beings.
And, yes, I know there’s an audience for this. There’s also an audience for hardcore pornography, but that doesn’t mean games benefit from including some. I don’t need to masturbate during a boss battle.
Regardless, this brand of anime fanservice looks the same both on and off of a soapbox: juvenile, distracting, irrelevant, and destructive.
If, after all that, you can still take the game’s narrative seriously, you may enjoy the few dark turns the story takes. The relationships between characters and their histories are more developed than in most dungeon crawlers, which some players will appreciate. I, however, found myself ready to move on long before the characters were done talking. Cutscenes are bloated with meaningless dialogue, and most characters and scenarios are built around one or two hackneyed personality quirks, such as the inn manager’s insistence on punctual payment of rent. Like with the rest of the cast, it’s supposed to be cute and endearing, but is instead annoying.
Aesthetically, Demon Gaze might be described as cheap, with subpar voice acting and RPGMaker-esque 2D sprites. The music, sound effects, and graphical elements aren’t a cohesive package. The vocal-heavy music is pleasant enough, but it could have been ripped from a Persona knock-off anime. Character portraits are sleazy, but the monster design is incredible. That level of imagination is absent from the rest of the game. The 3D dungeons are ugly and often poisoned by some kind of misty fog effect, but all the 2D graphics are crisp and bright on the hi-res Vita screen.
I may appear to be harsh, but my nature is forgiving. All I ask is that a game be either likeable or fun. Demon Gaze is boldly unlikeable: brimful of annoying characters, gimmicks, grinding, and filler content. And it’s no fun either: hours of tedious, hard-won progress with no reward or glimpse of light. Demon Gaze asks far too much of its players while offering nothing but a pair of barely covered breasts in return.