There are few genres that are as unabashedly old-school as the first-person dungeon-crawling RPG. Its rich heritage can be traced back as far as 1981’s influential Wizardry series, an early progenitor of a genre that was one of a small handful of video game breakout pop-culture successes of its time. With the rise in popularity of Dungeons & Dragons-style boardgames in the early 80s reaching fever pitch, Wizardry set gamer’s imaginations alight, transporting them to an idyllic fantasy world filled with scaly beasts, dark dungeons and chests brimming with shiny, gold coins. Experience Inc’s Demon Gaze II is very much a throwback to these XP-filled escapades of yore, and it does a wonderful job of recapturing the essence of the era, whilst putting its own unique and charming eastern-flavored spin on the formula.
Things kick off in typical JRPG fashion, as your character awakens in a dank dungeon with – yep, you guessed it – a bout of troublesome amnesia. After some customary exposition, you are ushered through a tutorial dungeon before learning that you are a member of a revolutionist party, an organisation tasked with protecting the kingdom of Asteria from the unruly governor Sirius Magnastar. Further, you discover that you’re a demon gazer, a special individual with the power to capture and control demons. Handy.
You soon find yourself in the company of an enigmatic cast of bizarre, oddball personalities, with a roof over your amnesic head. Dubbed “Stella’s Place”, your new home-base is a reconverted theater retro-fitted with its own radio broadcasting studio. See, the revolutionist party that you’ve joined has taken on the responsibility of transmitting motivational speeches to the people of Asteria, along with airing some catchy tunes to inspire the revolutionist’s call-to-arms.
Led by two charismatic sisters named Muse and Prim, whom you were very close to growing up (but have now completely forgotten all about), Stella’s Place acts as a hub-world where you chat to your companions, buy and sell equipment, upgrade your gear, resurrect dead party members, personalise your appearance and kit out your very own guest room with a variety of furniture (which offer a multitude of helpful buffs). If you’ve played the first PS Vita exclusive Demon Gaze (which – for the record – I adored), then you’ll feel right at home in its plucky sequel. Even the prosaic Prometh and dashing Cassel make a return and their inclusion is welcome, particularly for fans – like myself – of this game’s predecessor.
Narratively, Demon Gaze II is a little uneven, with its stop-start storytelling taking the wind out of its sails in the early hours. Nonetheless, once you’ve been introduced to the ramshackle gang of misfits that’ll assist on your journey to capture the demonic entities within Asteria, the game’s jigsaw pieces start to fall into place and its rhythmic cadence starts to find a solid footing. The dialogue is often endearing and outlandish with characters doing and saying the most bizarre things possible (“showers are evil manmade creations,” shrieks Libra before zapping them with a bolt of electricity which bounces back and electrocutes her in smile-inducing lunacy). Luckily, its wacky dialogue is terrifically delivered with excellent voice acting and top-notch localisation, too.
This time around, players are given a few extra options when first starting out, including a preference of “temper” for your character. This ranges from good, evil, or neutral, and each choice gives you a boost to you and your allies’ defensive or offensive skills (with neutral offering you a balance of both). You’re also granted a choice of special skills when you capture a demon for the first time. Having these extra opportunities to differentiate your experience is a swell touch.
Much like the original, the key to progress is making your way through a variety of distinct dungeons using a tile-based movement system. Navigating environments one tile at a time, you are tasked with hunting down the area’s bosses and capturing them within your newly-fangled demon’s eye. As a result, this gives you control of a new powerful ally, that joins your party as you advance through more sophisticated and more challenging labyrinths.
Before the boss makes an appearance, players must traverse the mazes and battle monsters in locations known as “Circles.” Using weapon and item gems – which influences the loot drop of the conflict – creatures are summoned for you to defeat. The use of these weapon and item gems tie in neatly with the game’s loot system which gives you a lot of flexibility over what loot you wish to acquire for your party. Once all the Circles have been conquered, a special Demon Circle appears. Here, you will encounter the area’s boss demon, though, you must complete a short – occasionally baffling – environmental puzzle before you step into the ring and go toe-to-toe.
The core combat is well designed turn-based action with a few neat twists on the traditional formula. Your party can be compartmentalised into two rows (front and back) and being mindful of positioning your roster can pay dividends in your ongoing success. It’s beneficial for your more melee-focused physical damage dealers to hold the front-line, while the healers and support classes take up the rear. Libra, for example, is a skilful mage with a penchant for ranged magic but doesn’t have a great deal of HP, therefore, I often placed her in the back row to protect her, while taking advantage of her effective ranged fire spells.
As you level up your demons, new powerful special abilities are unlocked, as well as gaining the customary HP and MP pool upgrades. You also get the opportunity to allocate a point into one of six attributes; strength, intelligence, mysticism, vitality, agility, or luck. As always, this gives you some nice wiggle room to mold your demons into how you see fit. Speaking of demons, one big twist to the traditional turn-based combat, is the ability to “Demonize” your demonic roster. This temporarily boosts all of their stats and makes your demons a force to be reckoned with. Demonization ends when your Star Gauge has depleted, though, it does slowly recharge over time. Your Star Gauge can also be upgraded as you progress through the main campaign and can additionally be used to activate some really important and powerful special abilities too, especially as you progress further into the main story.
Some special abilities require you to “Concentrate”, which essentially skips that individual character’s turn. On the flip-side, when that character’s turn rolls back round, they can unleash some super powerful special attacks, like massive HP-guzzling triple or quadruple attacks, which are unsurprisingly really satisfying. Though the moment-to-moment combat against the plethora of monstrosities the game throws at you is mostly a cinch, the dungeon’s always crescendo in a boss battle which tends to provide the majority of Demon Gaze II’s challenge. That said, it’s noticeably not quite as unforgiving as its predecessor, particularly in the early hours. However, the difficulty soon ramps up and you always have the option to pump up the difficulty via Prometh’s room if you’re feeling especially masochistic.
Unlike the first game, Demon Gaze II also integrates in a pretty fleshed out dating simulator into the mix. Using special crystals allows you the opportunity to perform “maintenance” on your ramshackle crew of cutesy demons. Essentially, you’re tasked with finding the “sweet spot” on your demons (oo-er) and this helps to improve their likability towards you. As likability increases, this grants you helpful buffs and even unlocks new abilities. It’s not a huge highlight, but it does provide you with a little extra freedom in the way you sculpt your party’s stats and attributes, as well as gifting you an opportunity to build up more of a bond between each of the feisty demons under your control.
Presentation-wise, Demon Gaze II isn’t exactly a looker in the modern sense, but it’s comprised of some beautifully hand-drawn anime character designs that are eye-catching and interesting to behold. Environments are pretty low-resolution but they do get the job done where it counts; each area looks distinctive and feels atmospheric, while there’s enough aesthetic detail in the remarkably imaginative enemy designs to get any die-hard Dungeons & Dragons fan’s juices flowing. To top it all off, it brims with some really catchy music that is full of zingy jazz hooks and whimsical pop vigour.
Strange, gorgeous and arrestingly charming, Demon Gaze II may not be a game for everyone, mainly because old-school dungeon-crawling RPGs are simply not a genre for everyone. Nevertheless, if you have a soft spot for classical ‘crawlers like Wizardry or Dungeon Master, this’ll likely scratch that itch, and it’ll do so with a tonne of spunky Japanese verve and charisma, to boot.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which was provided to us by NIS America.
Strange, gorgeous and arrestingly charming, Demon Gaze II may not be a game for everyone. However, if you have a soft spot for classical 'crawlers like Wizardry or Dungeon Master, this’ll likely scratch that itch, and it'll do so with a tonne of spunky Japanese verve and charisma, to boot.