I'm a dungeon crawler at heart, so any game that throws me into the pits and makes me claw my way out is a good time on at least some level. Difficulty? Unforgiving systems? Bring it on. For me, just about any grind is an enjoyable grind.
But even as a diehard genre fan, PS Vita dungeon crawler Demon Gaze tried my patience and resolve.
Demon Gaze (PS Vita)
Developer: Kadokawa Games, Experience Inc.
Publisher: NIS America
Released: April, 2014
Demon Gaze is as classic as it gets with its 3D, first-person, grid-based dungeons. That'll have to be good enough for you as this is a no-frills RPG with very little going on outside the exploration-heal-equip loop. Battle encounters are turn-based, and they play out with only flashing icons and moving stat bars, so you'll never see your handcrafted party in action. Even the enemies are mostly static, making it a bit hard to keep track of what's happening during battle.
Demon Gaze's progression is tied into visiting various dungeons to use your rare demon-catching eye to clear out the resident source of evil. Enemies and bosses are fought in both random and planted battles, and loot-specific gems are found along the way. Up to three of these found gems are to be used on the circles where these demons hide, allowing the player to pick sort of pick what kind of loot they'd like. If you're able to defeat the boss and clear the circle out successfully, you'll earn items and equipment that can be used during your journey, or sold back at the inn.
Clearing all of a dungeon's circles out has you going up against a final boss demon that can be captured as a sort of party-assisting pet. Each captured demon has its own bonus stat perks that passively add to your party's existing stats, as well as abilities that can be used in battle. The twist with Demon Gaze is that these demons can only be used for a certain number of turns before they flip out on you and begin attacking you as an enemy. This forces the player to closely manage turns, calling upon these demons only when they're really needed. Fighting battles without using these demons lets you recharge their use gauge.
Dungeons' few random encounters aren't usually too challenging, but they can escalate quickly and without warning, so don't see surprised to see another line of enemies suddenly appear behind the original group you encountered. The harder path-blocking set encounters of the dungeons might as well be sub-bosses, while the demons haunting the group of circles you have to capture will kill an unprepared player so fast that I wouldn't be surprised if anyone outside dedicated dungeon crawling fans would throw their hands up in frustration.
The high level challenge works out for Demon Gaze as battles wouldn't be as engaging otherwise. Again, they're not much to look at with the limited animation and static presentation. Worse, the lack of variety in enemy types will have you feeling like you're seeing the same thing over and over. Thankfully, you're able to blast through these battles by holding the confirm button or using a handy battle repeat button once you figure out how to take a dungeon's enemies on. For everything outside the boss battles, Demon Gaze's encounters start out challenging, but eventually work their way down to becoming mundane after a few times.
Don't expect to be able to rush through a boss battle, though. These are tedious, drawn-out fights that will have you feeling like you barely scraped by each time.
Demon Gaze will beat you down and never apologize for it. It expects you to come up to its level and doesn't care if you can't. The challenge of each dungeon beyond the first is so high that really any encounter could be your last. Even outside boss fights, one-hit wipeouts of party members are so common that I stopped getting mad about them pretty quick. Make no mistake: this is a tough game.
Just grind up, right? Well, it takes a very long time to gain a level, especially at first. Even with this being my favorite genre of game, I felt like a first-time hurdler that kept tripping and falling at each hurdle. When I was finally able to work my way up to a point where I could afford to hire new party members (it also takes a very long time to save up money), I found that the newbies would get wiped out so often that I leveling up seemed impossible. Patience is a virtue. When you finally get that expensive item or earn that powerful ability, you'll finally be able to hang...for awhile, at least.
While exploring, outside of getting lucky and finding a loot map, you're mostly on your own in these confusing, trap-filled dungeons, left to accidentally stumble on a dead end, or worse, a circle where a too-strong enemy waits. But keeping your Vita's data connection on helps a bit with Demon Gaze's Dark Souls-like messaging system. You'll be able to leave warning messages in dungeons as well as read others'. You'll need all the help you can get.
And speaking of maps, Demon Gaze automatically maps your dungeon progress as you walk, coloring each grid box in with each step. But it's just the basics icons for doors, enemies, and some of the traps. Spoiled by the Etrian Odyssey games, I would have liked to drop in notes of some kind in some of the game's larger dungeons.
Going back to town is no relief from the grind. In fact, you aren't allowed to unload and relax until you pay the innkeeper rent, and she stands at the door at all times, so there's no avoiding her. The rent starts high and continues to increase you add members to your party. By the time you get to the maximum of four party members, you had better make sure you stay out in the dungeons long enough to be able to pay your rent, as the cost starts high and gets even higher.
After the bills are paid, the multi-floor inn serves as a hangout and base where you can go shopping, tweak your team, decorate your room, learn about systems and characters, and even take on optional quests. The inn is always a lively place, which is good as you won't have much of a social life outside of it.
Coming back to the inn is always fun as all the residents there are pretty crazy. And they're a pretty kinky bunch. I was surprised to have one of the inn's own stripping down for me for no reason one evening, asking me to poke her. Really. The character responsible for resurrecting your dead party members runs around the inn in her panties for some unknown reason, and she sleeps in a coffin at night, too. The bath house manager is, well, just plain horny. The fan service is strong with this game. Beware if you're easily offended or embarrassed as there are some senselessly horny sequences.
On the less kinky side, there are two shop keepers that live to torture each other, dorky warriors that hang out in the hall, and an eager maid that lives to serve. They all have their own story lines that play out bit by bit as you finish off dungeons and return home. Even with the fan service they'll grow on you.
Though Demon Gaze is pretty dry as far as animation and frills goes, the 2D artwork is outstanding. The highly detailed character portraits and backgrounds are always a treat for the eyes, even after seeing them dozens of times over. The game's soundtrack is also enjoyable, but only if you're open to computerized voicings as the sound team has opted for Vocaloid-style singing for the majority of Demon Gaze's tracks. The rest? Well, put bluntly, Demon Gaze looks and plays like a cheaply made game. I'm okay with that, but those requiring experiences with a high level polish, top-notch voicing, and lavish cutscenes need not apply.
Last gripe: while it's not that big of a deal, it did constantly annoy me that even though you're completely free to make your main character look and sound any way you'd like, the game's story and NPCs will always refer to you as a male. I did like that I could gender mix voices and appearances for my party, though.
You'll have to have plenty of patience and a pretty good imagination to get the most out of Demon Gaze. The dungeon crawling is great and the NPC interactions outside of the dungeons are fun, but it's insanely challenging (even on the easiest setting) and the high level of repetition and mostly static presentation could get to you after some time. And you'll also have to be okay with the game's many horny NPC situations as they didn't skimp on the fan service.
Really, the thrill of the crawl is this game's only reward. For me, that's more than enough as the dungeon crawling play fits the bill exactly as a Vita game. But if you're new to this genre, there are many better places to start.