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Demon Gaze Review – Don’t Stare Into the Shimapan!

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For fans of the “Gridder” (Or Blobber, as detractors often refer to them as), there was no greater moment than the day Etrian Odyssey arrived on the Nintendo DS in 2007. Until that moment, the turn-based, party-based, first person dungeon crawler was an RPG relic that was to gaming what the Ford Pinto was to the modern automobile industry.

They were the exact opposite of what a full-featured RPG was expected to be, and were considered best left abandoned in a warehouse somewhere like the Lost Ark at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie. A subgenre of RPG too focused on grinding, equipment farming, and one-shot deaths to see that its paper-thin storylines and confusing dungeon maps were no longer appreciated by the gamer majority.

Etrian Odyssey changed that, and many of the dusty mummies like myself who had been subsisting on obscure titles like Devil Whiskey or the PS2 “Tales of the Forsaken Land” Wizardry spin-off began to claw our way out of our tombs and into the light of modern gaming.

We finally had a contemporary equivalent to the Wizardry series, and Atlus kept us well-fed with sequels to slake our thirst for even more challenging “Gridders”.

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Then a funny thing happened; the younger generation caught on to the addictive and easy to digest gameplay of the gridder subgenre and helped make it a financial sure-bet. With Etrian Odyssey’s phenomenal success, other Japanese gridders soon followed. Within just half a decade we’ve gone from hardly any of these so-called “blobbers” to being inundated with them.

We have five Etrian titles, Dark Spire, Unchained Blades, two (soon to be three) Class of Heroes games, Frayed Knights, Wandroid, Elminage, Labyrinth of Lost Souls, 7th Dragon, Legend of Grimrock, Mind Zero and now even the next Shin Megami Tensei game, Persona Q, is going the blobber route. It’s enough to make an old man cry…

…But there is a downside to all the attention this once forgotten subgenre has been getting. Namely, it’s becoming difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Many of these games, particularly the first Class of Heroes and Elminage, tend to have glaring faults that make it hard for all but the most insane blobber fans to enjoy.

Granted, they’re great games that I’m thankful for, but they are hardly the flawless epics that we dreamt would begin appearing when the gorgeously detailed and supremely well-crafted Etrian Odyssey first hit the scene.

So this finally brings us to Demon Gaze, another anime-fueled blobber that, at least on its surface, appears to be nothing more than another Class of Heroes. Just cute little wide-eyed school-aged anime children wielding swords and swapping inappropriate jokes while we slog through repetitive dungeons to the tune of bad Japanese synth music. Sounds about as enjoyable as having someone scratch their nails on a chalkboard, right?

What if I told you that Demon Gaze is actually better than Etrian Odyssey?

Before that statement causes every Etrian fan reading this to blow air out of their nose and click the small “X” in the upper right hand corner of the browser, I want you to know that the majority of you out there won’t come away with that same verdict. Unless you grew up with the harder, more “Base” wizardry games of the 80’s and 90’s, you’ll more than likely find Demon Gaze to be a bit too gear-centric and unforgiving.

Unlike the more user-friendly Etrian-based blobbers of the modern age, Demon Gaze resembles the poorly received Elminage with its often criminally unfair battles and its almost non-existent enemy scaling. Those used to having their hand held for them or getting new gear at regular and predictable intervals are in for a rude awakening if they boot up Demon Gaze.

This isn’t to say Demon Gaze is unfair, since it is much like Dark Souls in the way that it forces you to constantly prepare for the worst and never assume that anything will ever go the way you expect it to. Enemies that only pop up in an area once every thirty-or-so fights may suddenly randomly manifest and wipe you out due to you thinking you’d exit the level before they’d appear and therefore didn’t pre-cast your buff spells.

A demon summoning circle may have a boss in it that you aren’t properly outfitted to battle, resulting in a complete and total loss of progress since your last save. Demon Gaze really doesn’t care about this, and shows it by relying on a (I’m using that name again) Dark Souls-esque player note system to point out these dangers.

Essentially, if you see a note from another player warning you that a boss far beyond the dungeon’s typical level range is one block away from where you’re standing, you’d be wise to back off.

Demon Gaze is a blobber, true, but its supporting systems, such as the aforementioned note mechanic, make its otherwise very staid and simple gameplay feel fresh and exciting. It also shows that Demon Gaze, unlike other blobbers, isn’t afraid of being weird. In actuality, most of the game outside of its combat engine is in fact very strange.

Your character is what is referred to as a Gazer. Simply put, you have the ability to control and dominate demons, and after defeating them you can call upon them to aid you in battle. These demons are essentially the “sixth” party member of your otherwise only five strong RPG group, and while you decide when and where they act, you cannot control them manually.

Each demon has its own tendencies and abilities, making them a bit of a wild card in a game that is already wild enough without them. Knowing which one to use in each boss fight and exactly *how* to use them is as important as being the right experience level or possessing the right set of gear.

The oddball part of this feature isn’t that you capture demons, it’s that each dungeon area has a dozen or so summoning circles on it and the demon seems to randomly appear in these circles until you “conquer” each one…forcing it to manifest outside the circle where it can be captured. Of course, at that point the demon assumes its true form and becomes every bit the wild animal it truly is.

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It can be somewhat frustrating since the only safe place to save the game is within these conquered summoning circles, which causes you to weigh the price of “getting one more circle conquered” or retreating back to a previously cleared one…many of which are separated by several grids worth of nasty random battles that will whittle down your power before you get there.

Adding a wrinkle to this otherwise simple sounding boss-battle system is the loot drop mechanic that is tied into it. Unlike most of these types of RPGs, gear is never dropped by monsters. Instead, equipment can only be gained by sacrificing gems at one of these boss demon’s summoning circles and then hoping you get something good.

Each item type has a corresponding gem type that will cause that particular variety of gear to drop, the rarity and quality of which can be manually manipulated with special “rarity” gems placed next to them in the circle. At first, this may sound complex and aggravating, but it’s actually quite liberating.

Those who have played true Wizardry clones, including Wizardry itself, are more than likely aware how hard it is to get the more valuable items to drop. Finding the Muramasa Katana in Wizardry requires massive amounts of grinding the same difficult monster until the one time out of 65,535 chances that it spawns; a herculean task that very few bother to attempt.

In Demon Gaze, such time sinks are avoided, since gems are extremely plentiful and summoning circles are equally as innumerable…and drops are incredibly generous. Factor in the item strengthening system that lets you take power from one weapon or armor and transfer it to a new one, and you have a really liberal gear system that does away with nearly every complaint RPG fans have when it comes to loot distribution.

Not once in the 40+ hours I have played this game so far have I ever complained about the weakness of my equipment or lack of quality drops. Any time I felt my gear getting old, I quickly hit the summoning circles and started sacrificing gems for loot. It’s an odd system, but also a very flexible one.

This is a fortunate thing, since the boss battles in Demon Gaze are downright ridiculous.

Everything that needs to be said about the battles you have with each demon’s final form can be summed up perfectly with the experience I had fighting Neptune.

Not only is Neptune guarded by a line of constantly regenerating helper pawns, but she regenerates 400hp per round regardless of her current state.

After losing half a dozen times to her due to my inability to do more damage than she could heal per round, I came frighteningly close to chucking my Vita against the wall.

Thankfully, some tactical re-thinking and a new approach to my equipment strategy allowed me to finally kill her in two rounds. It felt satisfying, and was the first clue that I was not going to come by any easy victories in this game.

I loathe making the comparison again, but Demon Gaze is very much the turn-based version of Dark Souls. When you see a treasure chest and are warned by other player’s notes not to open it and you do, then act shocked when you get stuck in a half an hour boss fight with the oozing intestines of a giant mimic, you’ll finally see why these two games are so similar in design.

Demon Gaze isn’t unfair, like a lot of its blobber kin. It’s a game that gives you plenty of chances for customization, specialization and statistical growth. If the liberal distribution of gear, the complete freedom in strengthening said gear by sacrificing weaker gear to it, and the special skills of your conquered demons aren’t enough to help you win, then you may not be fit to play a game such as this.

The game’s difficulty is easily compensated by the incredible amount of options it gives you to grow. Even its character class roster, which seem a bit anemic at a paltry seven, is bolstered by the fact that there are artifacts that let a character learn cross-class skills. The numerous ways you can tweak your party is enough to make even the most obsessive min/max’ers happy.

So the combat, exploration, equipment and class systems are all solid…but what about the non-essential fluff?

As great as Demon Gaze is, a lot of the old school grognards like myself that enjoy games like this will more than likely be turned off by the art style and the extreme fan service that goes on with it. Sure, it’s a top-notch grid based dungeon crawler, but it’s also a NISA-published JRPG done in an anime style.

From my experience in the hardcore CRPG community, games that possess such a pedigree are not just frowned upon, but often outright ridiculed. Which is a shame, since the actual gameplay is exactly what those folks have been looking for.

From the first moment you see that initial glint of light reflecting off of a pair of shimapan, you’ll be subjected to more than a fair bit of fan service and harem fantasy. Though some may be turned off by seeing Prometh, the game’s resident basement dweller, running around in her bra and panties, all it did was make me laugh myself silly.

With the catgirl Pinay getting caught sniffing everyone’s underwear, and sidequests that actually let you steal and WEAR said underwear in combat as powerful unique armor, I think it’s safe to say that if you’re a prude you had best stay away from Demon Gaze.

For the rest of you, get ready for a crazy slice-of-life story interspersed within your hardcore gridder. If you’re into that sort of anime then you’re in for a treat with Demon Gaze, since the staff of the hotel you stay in is absolutely insane.

Besides Prometh, a disaffected basement dweller that mopes around the building naked and the catgirl Pinay that sniffs everyone’s undergarments, you also have an anal retentive elf chemist, an eccentric afro-wearing stylist and the hotel’s own frisky-but-shy female manager.

There’s a reason why the game warns you during character creation that your character has to be male, and the reason is that he is basically caught in the middle of a hot chick harem. Not that any self-respecting perverted anime fan like myself would really mind, though.

Overall, the game’s story is surprisingly entertaining. Normally you don’t see a grid based dungeon crawler with a dramatic storyline, so it took me by surprise when Demon Gaze actually made me enjoy talking to the game’s NPCs. Further adding to my surprise was that there are a couple unpredictable plot twists that even caught an old RPG veteran like me off guard. Imagine that, a storyline in a blobber!

Like the storyline though, it’s easy to dismiss the art style as “just more anime nonsense”, but that would be a bit unfair. Granted, the colorful characters of the hotel are drawn in typical anime style, but the other aspects of the art, the non-superfluous ones, are much more impressive.

This is easily seen in the boss demon designs, all of which are beautifully done. Even the backdrops that appear during combat scenes stand out, since they abandon the anime style and look rather realistic; a technique the makes combat seem even more of a separate and more serious entity than the “silly” events that take place back at the party’s harem hotel.

So really, the only thing you need to ask yourself is if you’re accepting of that style of anime, and if not, whether your desire for hardcore dungeon crawling is strong enough to ignore it. There are other small aspects of the game that people consider annoyances, such as the fee you have to pay the manager to continue staying at the hotel, the expensive resurrection items or the fact that you automatically lose the game when your party dies, but I didn’t have a problem with them. They were merely minor hurdles compared to the mile high mountains the boss battles felt like.

Overall, Demon Gaze is an extremely impressive, well built “gridder/blobber” that doesn’t fall into the same gameplay traps that others of this subgenre often do. There is no late game boredom due to overpowered party members thanks to the really steep climb in monster strength, there is no grinding for gear since the sacrificial gem system dumps tons of quality items on you, and there are no “gimped” classes since artifacts can be equipped that let each party member learn skills of another. It’s all a well-oiled, well-balanced machine that, quite frankly, still has me in shock at how well it all works.

I’ve played nearly every game of this type that has existed since 1986, and I can honestly say that this is the absolute best dungeon crawler I’ve played since 2001’s Wizardy: Tales of the Forsaken Land – and that’s some very high praise, considering that Forsaken Land is one of my all-time favorite games of this type.

So in closing, if you don’t mind your hardcore grid-based dungeon crawlers packed with ample amounts of panty sniffing and some strange (but clever!) gameplay mechanics, you’ve just found your next obsession.

Demon Gaze is, without a doubt, one of the very best “blobbers” I’ve played and is everything I had hoped it would be. It has personality, oozes with style and has some of the best wizardry-esque combat and exploration I’ve ever seen. Kudos for NISA for seeing this and bringing it stateside.

Demon Gaze was reviewed using a code provided by NIS America. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s reviews/ethics policy here.

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Carl Batchelor

About

Carl is both a JRPG fan and a CRPG'er who especially loves European PC games. Even with more than three decades of gaming under his belt, he feels the best of the hobby is yet to come.