The recent news that Experience Inc.’s dungeon crawler Demon Gaze is coming to PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch via Clouded Leopard Entertainment is very welcome indeed — because Demon Gaze is a great game that more people deserve to play. And from my perspective it’s a particularly good installment in the dungeon crawler genre — not because it’s especially complex, but rather because it’s one of the more accessible takes on this type of game.
I was a bit of a latecomer to the RPG genre, relatively speaking. Yes, I was one of those people who came to RPGs in earnest thanks to Final Fantasy VII on the original PlayStation.
These days, that isn’t a particularly shameful admission, of course — Final Fantasy VII is 24 years old, after all — but for quite some time, there was a bit of a stigma towards people who weren’t playing RPGs in “the good old days”. Although depending on who you talk to, the meaning of “the good old days” can be anything from “Ultima I” to “Final Fantasy VI”.
But I digress. Fact is, I didn’t grow up with first-person perspective grid-based dungeon crawlers like The Bard’s Tale, Dungeon Master and the early “Gold Box” Dungeons & Dragons game. To me, an RPG was a narrative-centric game with characters who gradually gained in power over the duration of the experience, whereas dungeon crawlers were complicated games where you had to create characters, understand mechanics in depth and kind of “make your own fun” to a certain extent.
This isn’t to say I swore off dungeon crawlers altogether, mind — I particularly enjoyed Westwood Studios’ 1993 PC game Lands of Lore, for example, and not just for the Patrick Stewart voiceover — but for the most part I found the distinctively “J” approach to games to be preferable for my personal tastes.
Or so I thought for a while, anyway. As time has gone on and I have become more familiar with mechanical and stylistic conventions of games, I’ve become more and more open to mechanics-centric RPGs such as dungeon crawlers — indeed, there are several dungeon crawlers that I now count among my favourite games of all time. And Demon Gaze marked a bit of a watershed moment for me, back when NIS America brought it west on PlayStation Vita for the first time in 2014.
Demon Gaze is, in many ways, an unabashedly old-school dungeon crawler. Low-level characters are absolutely useless at pretty much everything they attempt to do, said characters (aside from your playable protagonist) play no role in the story other than backing you up in combat, and the majority of your time will be spent getting very lost in mazes full of devious traps.
But here’s the thing: as well as incorporating all of these elements that will be familiar to veterans of the super old-school games I mentioned previously, Demon Gaze wraps the whole thing in some distinctly modern “JRPG” trappings — those things I typically found most appealing. Most notably, it has an explicitly delivered plot delivered through a cast of fun, named and voiced characters rather than the whole point of the game being to get to the bottom of a huge dungeon; there’s a feeling that there’s some sort of meaning to the experience rather than just making your numbers get bigger.
Not that there’s nothing wrong with making numbers get bigger, of course. It’s a key part of the RPG genre’s appeal, regardless of what type we’re talking about.
The interesting thing about Demon Gaze is that it keeps all its narrative exposition and characterisation to moments that occur between your expeditions into its various dungeons. That means that the game takes on something of an “episodic” feel; you go out and explore a dungeon, beat the snot out of some monsters, then return “home” to hang out with the characters you’ve been gradually getting to know over the course of the game.
And there’s plenty of reason to hang out with them; sometimes you can acquire new demons to summon in combat, sometimes you’ll have found mushrooms and skulls to give to some of the inn’s more… peculiar characters and sometimes you’ll just have the opportunity to witness the hilarious interactions between the settlement’s rival shopkeepers. It’s a consistent pleasure — and crucially for a sense of ongoing motivation, it feels like a reward for your dungeon crawling.
It won’t take you long to figure out that the dungeon crawling is actually enjoyable in its own right, though. The levels are all wonderfully designed, with plenty of traversal puzzles to figure out as you explore — with some puzzles later in the game even spanning multiple floors. In an underwater dungeon you’ll have to content with water currents pulling you around; in a graveyard you’ll have to deal with one-way doors between tombs; in one dungeon you’ll even find yourself getting fired back and forth across an inconveniently placed chasm.
The whole thing is held together with a delightful sense of style, too. The artwork is beautiful, incorporating some distinctive anime-style artwork for the characters with some astonishingly detailed designs for the more powerful monsters in the dungeons. The dungeons themselves may be a little bland on the visual side — but it’s all about the level layouts and the things you encounter in the dungeons here rather than fancy wall textures.
And the music. Ah, the music — one of the most distinctive features of Demon Gaze. Unusually, the game eschews what you might think of as a “typical” RPG soundtrack — whatever that means to you — in favour of one which makes heavy use of Vocaloid voice synthesis. Specifically, it features extensive vocal contributions from the Vocaloid IA, who even appeared as a DLC character in the original Japanese version of the game, which gives the whole thing an extremely distinctive sound. Perhaps an acquired taste for some, yes — but certainly memorable.
Anyway, Demon Gaze is great, and the fact it was confined to Vita for so long was a bit of a shame — particularly as its sequel also came to PlayStation 4. Doubtless we’ll have more to say about the game upon its release in December of 2021, but for now rest assured that this is one worth looking forward to; I certainly will be!
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