An old-school dungeon-crawler RPG draped in a modern-day anime-style presentation, Demon Gaze is a peculiar PS Vita title that deals from the same deck as genre classics like Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder, and Wizardry. While on the surface Kadokawa Games and Experience Inc.’s latest lacks a distinctive drawing power designed to grab players’ attentions, beneath the layers of stereotypical manga protagonists and bland semi-3D locales is a rather deep progressive system that relies on an addicting combination of tireless training, loot collecting, and NPC small-talk. There’s a fair amount of customization at play in Demon Gaze, and the freedom that comes along with being able to tinker with your created team’s distinguishable aspects on a whim does well to mix up the monotony of slaying monsters, grabbing goods, and returning to the base inn hub to furnish a gradually rising rental fee.
Indeed, of all the minor annoyances Demon Gaze dishes out, having to relinquish funds whenever you double back to your humble pay-to-stay abode weighs heavily during the early stages of the adventure when legal tender is harder to come by. Thankfully, once the circadian groove of navigating increasingly deadly beast chambers via shortsighted grid-centric passageways becomes second nature, depositing well-earned monies in the ever-growing bank that is Fran Pendor’s Dragon Princess Inn is less of a bother. Similarly, myriad details about Demon Gaze that initially seem irritating become downright convenient over time. For example, the first-person perspective feels like your being put into a box, unable to clearly see your following party or the numerous routes through tight-quartered hallways. Yet, as enemy encounters are both randomized and stationary instead of roaming, the fact that you can’t see what’s directly behind you at any given moment doesn’t really factor in negatively. The claustrophobic atmosphere that Demon Gaze’s limited viewpoint provides is also ideal for leveling up rapidly, which is paramount due to a series of dastardly difficulty spikes. As easily as you can avoid the discovered combat areas on each map, you can prepare yourself for what’s ahead by grinding ad nauseam on previously conquered grounds.
Battles themselves are turn-based, expedited affairs that eventually require a scholarly knowledge of the game’s five races and eight occupational classes in order to prevail. Simply boosting stats of the attack-heavy Fighter and expecting to knock out waves of endgame adversaries with purely brute tactics will result in failure thrice over. Organizing squads with a mixture of speed, defense, magic, and healing support is key to survival. It’s RPG Mastery 101, true, but given that Demon Gaze operates out of a very antiquated niche in the roleplaying macrocosm, relearning the eccentricities of the field is a necessity. Current-generation Final Fantasy veterans will likely have a hard time with Demon Gaze right off the bat, as it clings to a more demanding, stubborn breed of gameplay that has one foot in the past and one in the present, unwilling to adapt its inner workings beyond the Sega CD era. There’s lenience in the manner characters are outfitted and bosses are approached, but not in the way exploration (if you can call it that) relates to the overall flow of the contemporary JRPG.
It’s all a bit of a give and take, really, as the developers hide an enslaving, sporadically exciting experience-building regimen, peppered with unusual sidequests (mushroom hunting, various hospitality chores) and comical chats with other inn residents, underneath a painfully stock central storyline that crudely mimics Etrian Odyssey, Shin Megami Tensei, and Ys, among other popular franchises. The tale is a pseudo-sequel to Experience Inc.’s little-played—stateside, anyway—Students of the Round, taking place thousands of years later in the same universe, as players assume the role of an amnesia-stricken Demon Gazer called Oz, who uses his special eye to unmask, seal, and repurpose the demonic forces that threaten the strange new land he has awoken in. Summoning evil spirits in combat can be diverting in tiny doses, but on the whole feels like a malnourished mechanic compared to the deeper complexities of Demon Gaze’s unabashedly dated yet oddly captivating cultivation routines.