When Demon Gaze first burst onto the scene in Japan last January, it sold 25,316 physical copies in its first week alone, outselling Compile Hearts' Monster Monpiece which launched on the same day. Subsequently, PlayStation Vita owners outside of Japan rejoiced as Kadokawa Games’ dungeon crawling success story was announced for release in North America and Europe; with sales figures like that, surely it has to be excellent, right? Sadly, despite some promising attributes, the title doesn't live up to the hype.
The game follows the story of Oz, a young lad with a strange ability to capture and control demons, and a case of obligatory amnesia. After waking up in a rather dark and dismal dungeon, the hero is soon engaged in a battle with a demon named Comet, but luckily for him, this foe is pretty weak and only takes three hits to take down. Needless to say, the next battle won't be so easy. After a quick chat with a rather busty red-headed lady, the protagonist is not only roped into a quest to challenge and capture the numerous monsters that terrorise the land, but also a rather dodgy contract with a young woman who runs an inn with some shocking pricing schemes.
It's not all bad, though, as the tenants that reside in the inn are a colourful cast of characters who will help you out on many occasions throughout your journey – even if they do have a bit of a tendency to strip to their loincloths. Among these is the handsome weapons guy Cassell, a snooty elf named Lezerem who robs you blind at his item shop, and Prometh, a young girl who sleeps in a coffin and revives your fallen party members – for a fee of course.
The comedic script – which mainly consists of banter between characters – is superb, helping to liven the mood after a long slog through a dungeon. While the story may be a little cliché, the cheerful writing and well-crafted characters do provide just enough of a justification to pursue and endure the many tedious fights which you will encounter on your journey. However, this game is also full of some painfully unnecessary narrative moments, with scenes such as the cat-maid Pinay sniffing inn manager Fran's undies, and the aforesaid Fran forcing you to inappropriately touch her chest regions to 'check she's not a demon'. Way to lower the tone, guys.
But how about the gameplay? For the majority of the time that you spend playing Demon Gaze, you'll be grinding through dungeons from a first-person perspective, taking down hordes of enemies by means of turn-based assault in order to boost your stats for the next big demon boss battle. Each dungeon contains a certain number of circles, which when activated and defeated, act as save points and grant you certain rewards, such as new weapons or armour. Not all of these result in a mere horde fight, however, as certain 'Demon Circles' can trigger a rather tricky bout with a nastier foe, which will lead you right back to the title screen if you lose – so make sure that you save before you activate any new circles.
At times, the game can ask a lot of you, with a devilishly steep difficulty curve during the first few stages, and little reward for your hours of monotonous level grinding, aside from that all-important feeling of achievement once you finally take down a demon. The difficulty can be quite off-putting for not only those new to the genre, but even seasoned players, so be prepared to do a lot of levelling before you even consider challenging the next boss.
Remember that we mentioned Oz's Demon Gazing power, which gives him the ability to control demons? Well, the game has this rather nifty mechanic which lets you use a captured beast in battle. However, this ability comes with a catch, as your monster will only remain loyal to you for a certain number of turns, as once the Demon Gauge at the top of the screen runs out, your demon may start unleashing devastating attacks on your party instead of your foes. In order to escape the wrath of your puppet's tantrum, it's best to keep an eye on the Demon Gauge, and recall your ogre before it reaches zero. Demons also have other handy skills, such as uncovering secret paths and locations within a dungeon, and keeping you safe from a variety of obscure 'traps'. It's an interesting concept, and very welcome in a game that's sadly lacking in innovation elsewhere.
One of the best aspects of the gameplay has to be the quick travel option, which allows you to select a destination on the dungeon's map which you have previously visited, and walk in auto-pilot to the location without having to manually manoeuvre around the area again. This is perfect for when you desperately need to get back to a save spot, or for generally lazy people like us. The auto-pilot walk will only be interrupted if you come face-to-face with a random encounter attack, but will automatically resume once the fight is over, so long as you don't accidentally press any buttons.
Another great aspect of the game is the Gazer Notes system, which lets you leave physical in-game notes for other players, such as warning them of traps or pointing out hidden items. While, of course, the system has been abused by various silly notes (our favourite being "butt pudding"), it's a genuinely excellent concept when used in the right manner.
However, the game does suffer from a few frustrating design flaws, namely the fact that you'll always be referred to as a male, in spite of the extensive character customisation options. Masculine pronouns may not affect the actual gameplay or storyline, but it does nothing towards immersion, and remains a glowing example of lazy and cheap game design. During our playthrough, we were also affected by a bug which froze our paladin's battling options to 'defense' mode, meaning that we couldn't progress in the game, and eventually had to restart entirely. While, as far as we know, only one other reviewer seems to have been affected by this odd glitch – and the developer insists that it isn't a problem that's been encountered before – it is something to be mindful of.
It's also worth noting that you're going to need to endure some poor presentation. While the dungeons and thumping battle soundtracks do a great job of setting the atmosphere, the surrounding graphics are low-res and unimpressive. Fortunately, outside of the first-person mode, the game is filled with beautifully detailed backdrops and cute anime-style character models which look great on the Vita's screen. It's just such a shame that the game couldn't maintain its good looks all the way through.
It may not be genre defining, but Demon Gaze provides Vita owners with a somewhat entertaining – albeit gruellingly difficult – introduction to first-person dungeon crawling. Despite its imperfections, an array of handy gameplay mechanics coupled with a colourful cast of characters provides just enough intrigue to justify the thirty-or-so hours that you'll spend level grinding your way through this adventure. Oh, and Hatsune Miku fans, did we mention that there's a vocaloid soundtrack?