Capture the demons, and save the world.

NIS America and Kadokawa Games combined old-school dungeon-crawling with some genius ideas on loot-gathering to create Demon Gaze. This PlayStation Vita-exclusive role-playing game gives the amnesiac protagonist a debt at a local inn and the ability to capture and train demons to pay it off.

Boss encounters require constant adjustment of strategy.

Above: Boss encounters require constant adjustment of strategy.

I received a digital copy of Demon Gaze for review but ran into a game-halting bug in the otherwise error-free first part of the game. With no solution available, I decided to offer impressions in an informal manner. This is not a review, and it has no score.

So, will you want to meet this Demon Gaze?

Exploration and combat have an old-school charm

Moving around the maps can be an engrossing challenge in and of itself.

Above: Moving around the maps can be an engrossing challenge in and of itself.

Like past entries in the Etrian Odyssey and Wizardry franchises, players move around Demon Gaze’s six map regions along a first-person square grid. Environmental hazards are frequent and punishing, like a section of a cursed cemetery that damages and could poison your party or tiles that send your party back a few spaces into a trap. Maps have a nice environmental variety even with the same local region. A town ravaged by burning lava flow will exit into an ashy neighborhood sunk into a nearby lake. Demon Gaze has little regard for player safety; the simplest of navigation mistakes can have disastrous consequences.

Combat in Demon Gaze plays out in a separate first-person window akin to the first few Dragon Quest games. Only here you organize your party characters into a front row and a back row — something from the Wizardry days — and their positions determine their available actions during battle. For example, putting your wizard in the back row will keep them from enemy melee attacks while still allowing spells to be cast.

Battles in Demon Gaze play out in rows.

Above: Battles in Demon Gaze play out in rows.

Players can summon a demon they’ve beaten and captured as a secondary fighter, acting with their own mana pool and health bar. A decreasing turn counter determines their available time in battle. This counter will increase with the effective attacks and defensive moves a player performs over the course of turn. If you let the timer run out, your hold over the demon diminishes, and the creature will turn on you. It’s adds a sense of tension to the simplest of skirmishes.

Enemies operate under the same combat rules as you do, with enemy NPCs in back rows able to try ranged attacks or build up their defense. Bosses summon smaller creatures to surround them and absorb damage, making skipping over text boxes to get to your next attack a dangerous habit. It’s a deceptive, simple concept that reserves the right to punish you at any time for the wrong move.

You control your own loot drops

Gems are your way to get the exact kind of loot you want.

Above: Gems are your way to get the exact kind of loot you want.

Any gamer that has spent hours grinding for that particular piece of loot will hope every dungeon crawler takes this leaf from Demon Gaze’s book. While random battles still pop up on occasion, the true mission in each region is to capture and control demon portals. Each area has a handful of stationary portals on which the player places gems they’ve either acquired in battle or bought at stores.

These gems determine the items monsters will drop when defeated, with more advanced gems determining the quality of the item and amount of it dropped. You don’t aren’t crafting the exact item to be dropped, but you do have control over the kind of item you will eventually be given. If you just hired a new healer in need of a better hat, drop a Hat Gem on the portal before battle and reap the rewards. Making good use of these portals is the best strategy to quick character growth, as they often pit you against the strongest enemies (with the best loot) in the region. Demon portals are the smartest solution we’ve yet seen to one of the lingering problems of dungeon crawlers.

A fascinating car wreck of anime stereotypes

Time spent with NPCs is time spent amazed at how bored you are.

Above: Time spent with NPCs is time spent amazed at how bored you are.

Anime character archetypes are everywhere in the inn that serves as your hub world in Demon Gaze. While Kadokawa does have as much fun as possible with these characters, little in the story stands out as memorable or endearing. It may be hard to steer your attention away from any of the cutscenes, but not for any reason the developer might have hoped for.

NPC interactions all come off as a bizarre, cheap sitcom where characters have the emotional memory span of a goldfish. A Greek chorus of color-swapped mercenaries exist for little reason other than dumb quips and to make the player feel competent by comparison. It’s a mundane comedy set against the overused “amnesiac wunderkind must save the world” story. I’d call it satire, if only it seemed at all smart or intentional.

You’ll feel like a pervert

In no way is this OK.

Above: In no way is this OK.

While called Demon Gaze, Kadokawa’s dungeon-crawler RPG relies on the male gaze more than anything else. The path of the Demon Gazer is beset on all sides by small-framed women in little clothing. One of the NPCs is a flat-chested, pint-sized mortician that often walks around in tissue paper-thin panties slunk an inch lower than where hair should be. An upward camera tilt introduces her like a runway model, and it’s even more uncomfortable than it sounds.

These legal-aged (I’m told) characters that look like little girls come from a trend in Japanese pop culture known as lolicon, or loli. Japanese RPGs have utilized loli characters for decades but never without controversy. And in Demon’s Gaze, it’s rampant. A preteen cat girl sniffs the panties of the youthful-looking inn owner. Many female character model options for your party have younger looking women in sexual poses. “Undies” is a piece of customizable armor. Even if you tolerate this uneasy trend, its regularity here is just unpleasant.

Gameplay devolves into a monotonous routine

See that raven? You'll be fighting it a hundred times.

Above: See that raven? You’ll be fighting it a hundred times.

Demon Gaze’s embrace of old-fashioned mechanics is a double-edged sword. While exploring the map and maneuvering around lava beds is satisfying at first, it does little to vary your objectives. The pitfalls and traps of each map become second nature once you have gone through them again and again on the same fetch and kill quests. Side missions taken from the inn’s bulletin board are rarely worthwhile; the player picks up better monetary and item rewards elsewhere with arbitrary quest parameters.

Items in shops are too expensive to be worth saving up for; demon portal gems are far cheaper and may offer rewards better suited to your characters. The rent system in the game, a recurring charge each time you return to the inn, has had little done with it beyond making it a MacGuffin tax. You go out to capture demons to pay your rent, so you can go out to capture demons.

Even combat, as charming a system as it is, feels undercooked after only a few hours. Button-mashing through basic attacks takes care of most enemy grunt encounters no matter which map you are on. Enemy strategies rarely vary, and even with demon portals you will find yourself fighting the same batch of foes with mind-numbing regularity. You will hit a genuine patch of challenge with boss encounters, but all that does is give the gameplay flow a lopsided punch to the chops. It’s a slog even with the greatest dungeon crawling handicap we’ve seen in years.

Final thoughts

Midgard head is the worst kind of head.

Above: Midgard head is the worst kind of head.

One good idea does not a good game make. While the latter portions of Demon’s Gaze could throw a wrench into the formula, from what I’ve seen little of value remains here for players beyond some personalized loot drops. The narrative is half uninspired Anime Fantasy 101 and half surreal slice of life sitcom. And that’s when you aren’t made to feel like an accessory to some uncomfortable fascination with underage characters.

Anyone curious on how item-gathering should be in dungeon crawlers from now can demo Demon Gaze. Beyond that, I can only recommend an occasionally satisfying grind for those outside the kind of niches gamer culture just doesn’t talk about anymore.