While it's a relatively "dry spell" for big releases right now -- particularly on the next-gen consoles -- there are plenty of excellent niche interest titles that have either just launched, or which are imminent.
One such offering is Experience Inc and Kadokawa Games' Demon Gaze, an unabashedly old-school first-person combat-centric grid-based dungeon crawler (a "gridder" to those in the know, apparently) for PlayStation Vita, brought West by the ever-reliable NIS America. This is one of those titles you may not have been paying all that much attention to -- but after spending a few hours with it over the last few days, I'd like to say a few words about why you should maybe give it a look.
Okay, "spending a few hours" isn't quite accurate. I played it a bit the morning it arrived in the mail. Then I played it some more in the evening. Then I went out to see some friends and play a game of Descent. Then I came home, played it for a bit in bed, looked up and suddenly discovered it was three o'clock in the morning and I had to be up in a little over three hours to receive a delivery. But hey; at least I captured all the Demon Circles in the Red City, beat the Demon Mars, absorbed her soul and claimed it for my own in the form of a key.
I was also accosted by a flamboyantly camp elf clad in nothing but a fundoshi, partially seduced by the manager of the inn I was staying in, left thoroughly confused at the sight of the inn's resident mortician staggering vacantly past clad in nothing but her underwear, broke up a fight between the owner of the weapon shop and the item shop over the theft of some ice-cream and caught a very embarrassed maid sniffing the inn manager's underpants. ("I can't help it, I'm a Ney," she said, referring to her cat-like race. "We just like to smell things.")
Demon Gaze is a thoroughly peculiar one, then, blending retro Wizardry-style exploration and turn-based combat with somewhat more modern visual novel and dating sim elements of a firmly Japanese bent. The result is an utterly charming and enormously addictive game that I've found very difficult to put down over the past couple of days, even when I knew that I really should get some sleep.
Demon Gaze's two components may seem disparate, but they actually work rather well together. Making the inn the centerpoint of the game -- the location that you always come back to after an expedition into one of the dungeons -- is an excellent piece of design that helps you feel like you're coming "home" between adventures. And this feeling of coming "home" is further built upon by the numerous silly little side stories that unfold while you're there -- the drunken mercenaries getting into disagreements over who's going to be the first to explore the areas you've unlocked on your travels; the inn's manager Fran responding somewhat poorly (to say the least) to those unwilling or unable to pay their rent on time; the dead-eyed mortician who lives in the basement asking you to collect skulls for her.
And, in a nice touch, your custom-designed party members -- both you, as the protagonist, and the other characters you create to fill out the remaining slots in your party -- play a role in many of these scenes, meaning it's not just the numerous NPCs who get to have all the fun. Your role in these scenes is handled somewhat like the Persona series' mute protagonist -- when you're directly addressed, you're given a choice of responses which can influence where the dialogue goes next. Your party members, meanwhile, take less of an active role, but it's hard not to feel a little warmth in your heart when the narration refers directly to a character you designed and named hanging out with NPCs and doing things in the background. And, over time, you come to be interested in the lives of the strange and colorful characters who populate the inn; who is the manager Fran, really, and why does she seem so insistent that you trust her? Why is Lancelorna, a retired warrior who used to have your Demon Gazing powers, hanging around and taking such an interest in your adventures? And seriously, why does an inn have a resident mortician in the first place?
But this is a dungeon-crawler first and foremost, as entertaining as the action that unfolds in the inn is -- and, more to the point, it's one that's not afraid to slap you about a bit before unceremoniously dumping you back at the title screen rethinking the wisdom of attempting to solo-kill a powerful demon without having saved for over an hour beforehand. This is a game without safety rails, and a game that demands you play it in a distinctly traditional manner. Explore, kill things, grind, level up, loot. Repeat.
Early in the game, the combat is very simple and consists largely of hitting the "attack" button over and over again. But once you start to fill out your party with additional members of different classes -- not to mention the abilities you learn yourself as you level up -- things get a lot more interesting. The initially boring Paladin class starts to come into its own as a powerful, nigh-invincible undead-slaying tank after gaining a few levels. Healer classes start to gain useful buffs as well as basic cure spells. Wizards gain a wider selection of spells of different elements. And you'll need all these abilities when you stumble across the dungeon bosses -- usually accidentally -- because they'll happily splatter you over the nearest wall if you're not ready for them.
Further interest is added to the game through the titular Demons, whom you gradually capture over the course of the game's narrative. Initially, you can only have one Demon equipped at once, and each carries its own passive skills that assist with exploration -- Comet, the first you earn, can see secret passages, for example -- as well as battle skills. You can summon the Demon to fight alongside you in combat whenever you like, though you can't control them -- and occasionally, once you've built up their loyalty level a bit, they'll pop out of their own accord. But they're not a bonus party member; fail to keep them under control by allowing the Demon Gauge to expire while they're still "open" and they'll join the fray against you, forcing you to subdue their powerful enraged form. Pro-tip: you don't want that to happen, so keep the Demon Gauge topped up by battering enemies while they're "closed," and only "open" them when you really need their help.
Demon Gaze is a slow burn. You'll spend a lot of time poking your head into dungeons, exploring a bit then running away screaming when you come across something that is clearly far too powerful for you right now. It'll take you a long time to "clear" each dungeon over the course of several expeditions, and the first time you encounter bosses you'll feel like they are literally impossible to beat. But with the dungeon crawling punctuated by the charming and frequently hilarious side stories that unfold in the inn -- plus the inherently pleasurable feeling of building your own custom party of invincible heroes that can take on anything -- the game strikes a good balance between old-school grind-heavy challenge and modern narrative-centric games where simply getting to know the characters better is a reward in and of itself.
Thus far, then, I've found Demon Gaze to be enormously enjoyable and super-addictive. Much like with Steins;Gate last week, I don't feel I'm far enough through the game to do a full, scored review of the experience as a whole yet, so watch out for that a little closer to the April 22 release date instead -- hopefully in the meantime today's meanderings have given you something to think about. If you do pick up the game yourself, I'd love to hear what you think.
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