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Plunging headfirst into a brand new RPG is always a breath of fresh air. Things still feel so new, and digging into character creation is an exciting process: Choose an avatar, a voice, a class, stats if applicable, and name your hero before embarking on a thrilling adventure. But wait! Right as you lock in your choices in Demon Gaze, you're informed that, no matter which avatar you choose, you're going to be considered and referred to as a male while playing. Even if you're playing a female. Say what?
That bizarre statement at the beginning of Demon Gaze really sets the tone for what kind of game you're in for. The game is littered with bizarre decisions like this that actively fight against themselves. Characters are deeply customizable, but ultimately interchangeable, like pawns on a chessboard. There are plenty of dungeons to explore, but doing so is a chore. Even the game's interesting boss battles become tiresome, as you have to grind for days if you ever hope to defeat them. Demon gaze does little to endear while asking players to stick with it for hours and hours of monotony.
It doesn’t help that the setup is a tale we’ve heard several times over. Step into the shoes of Oz, your everyday amnesic hero. His (always a "he", remember) task: felling 10 rogue demons before the harrowing awakening of Big Bad demon Sol. Oz is a Demon Gazer, an individual blessed with the power to, well, stare at demons until they’re magically captured. After being found wandering around in a dungeon and rescued by a plucky ex-bounty hunter, Oz is put to work immediately sealing demons while cohabiting with others of his ilk in a mysterious inn.
Though the narrative provides a barebones framework for dungeon exploration, it's entirely forgettable. And, because your character is arguably throwaway, it's tough to become attached to anyone or anything, giving you little incentive to stick with the laborious grind. Why do you persevere, and for what? The supporting cast of characters are entertaining at times, but certainly not enough to carry the entire game. Your modus operandi is sealing demons away by any means necessary, and that’s all you need to worry about.
For the most part, Demon Gaze boasts a competent dub cast, but it's not always sunshine and rainbows. Often, character subtitles will not match what is being said, or lines are delivered with all the enthusiasm of a layperson having been called in to offer their vocal “expertise.” Luckily, the dual-language option is available to subvert this very issue, and I would recommend swapping to Japanese early on before you become acquainted with the English cast, who simply don't appear to give the script the old college try.
Of course, if you want to seal any demons, you have to find them first. This is accomplished via several instances of dungeon exploration, which is done via first-person. It looks and feels wonky, given the Vita's analog stick to use for navigation, so simple exploration can be frustrating until you become acclimated to the bizarre controls. These lend a claustrophobic feel to dungeon-crawling, especially since you’ll be relying on your minimap for information about your surroundings rather than what’s in front of you. This is frustrating, especially because specific demons indicated by colored icons on your map are optional--but if those icons happen to cross the path you need to take to advance, you're stuck sitting through a battle you may or may not be ready for. If your party isn't fighting fit for the boss at the end of a dungeon, prepare to die again and again.
While the moment-to-moment grinding of Demon Gates becomes wearisome, the boss encounters that they culminate go a long ways toward making up for it. These behemoths are a sight to behold, and the fast and furious matches that ensue are nearly worth all the heartache endured to reach them--that is, if you can keep up with the insane difficulty some come packing. If not, it's back to grinding.
The summonable demons you’ve sealed while playing can alleviate the pain of defeat somewhat, but they can also hinder your ability to conquer each boss by a wide margin. If you allow a demon to fight too long and deplete an on-screen gauge before recalling it, you'll end up fighting it as well. Being forced to combat your own sealed demons is self-defeating for Demon Gaze, especially given the tried-and-true methods games like the Shin Megami Tensei series employ, where any demons or monsters accrued are simply under your control indefinitely. Instead of providing gratifying challenge, it feels cheap.
Demon Gaze shoots itself in the foot in other ways, too: particularly, the Inn, your base of operations. Once there, you'll purchase additional weapons and equipment, edit the look of your party members (again, this doesn't matter in the slightest), and do a bit of interior decorating. Purchasing furniture for your party members increases specific attributes, but maintaining a living space isn't without its own challenges. Each time you return to regroup, you have to pay rent for your party, which is frustrating when you desperately need that gold for new equipment.
You can also accept quests at the Inn, but Demon Gaze does an abysmal job of explaining what you need to do or why you need to do it in order to clear the condition set for each quest. There's so little direction that you're simply left to your own devices. For example, a good portion of early quests cannot be completed until you progress much further in the game. How are you to know this? Purely through trial and error.
Ultimately, Demon Gaze's somewhat interesting concepts are marred by self-defeating twists. It's hard to stick with a long-winded RPG when it provides little incentive to do so. But if you're still interested, go forth: Create your character, select a class, choose a voice, customize your avatar, and run headlong into the ultimate grindfest, brave warrior. Welcome to the life of a Demon Gazer. Welcome to mediocrity.
Demon Gaze is colorful, brash, and spunky, but it's little more than a wonky journey through dungeon after forgettable dungeon. If it's a grind you're looking for, you can do far better than the mediocrity of becoming a Demon Gazer.
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