It had been a minute since I last played Demon Gaze, one of the first games I grabbed for my Vita when I picked one up on a whim at the Sony store underneath the Comcast Tower. Persona 4 Golden got more of my time and probably brain share at the time, but Demon Gaze was the game that showed me dungeon crawlers were just better on a handheld console.
After all, why grind with a leash?
The problem with finding a tight game on a handheld console is that a lot of people don’t go in on handhelds so you can’t tell your friends as easily. The tragedy of the Vita is that even people who would lay out cash for a handheld… well, they really didn’t for the Vita. Sony made every unforced error in the book when they released the Vita (especially in the US). They let it drink up all the water, eat up all the soap, and they didn’t even call the lady in the alligator coat afterwards. Nintendo rubbed itself with Benjamins and laughed while Sony killed the Vita through a combination of greed and neglect—the most objective signifier of the Vita’s doom being the proprietary memory card. But throughout its lifespan, some developers did believe in it, mostly in Japan, and mostly RPG and Visual Novel creators who realized that it’s honestly one of the most perfect consoles ever made. And sometimes, just sometimes, those games got localized in English and released in the US. In that regard, the Vita in the US is a lot like the Drake equation understood as morosely as possible. But hey, we got Demon Gaze. That made it through.
Of course, if you didn’t get a Vita, it doesn’t matter. You didn’t get Demon Gaze. And odds are, you didn’t get a Vita because Sony never gave you a reason to jump that financial barrier (I got mine late as hell when it was discounted). Now you’re probably wondering why it would even matter if you missed out on an anime ass Wizardry-like. There’s lots of them in the world, right? Sure there are! I reviewed another one by the same developer just two months ago! But Vitas aren’t exactly built to last, as rough and tumble as they are. And soon the original hardware will be gone (and it’s already priced pretty prohibitively on eBay). Will the world miss a handful of niche sub-AAA RPGs that most never knew about? Probably not. There are other games, for sure. But preservation is important. And one rule about preservation is having more versions of a thing in more places means it’s more likely to endure. It’s like how scientists are always talking about how we need humans living on spaceships and other planets. It’s the core of the Phantasy Star series. Even Macross ends with “Well we sure do need more people living on other planets in case another orbital bombardment happens.” So, look. We need more games on more consoles, if they’re to endure.
Experience, Inc is invested in preservation, and thankfully they’ve managed to find partners for that. Sure, it’s a preservation of one’s hard work and continued financial livelihood. But I’ll take “keeping games alive and playable for purely capitalistic reasons” if that’s what it takes. Last March saw the release of the bundled Saviors of Sapphire Wings (itself a resurrection of the much earlier Xbox 360 game Students of the Round, which was itself an enhanced port of a PC game) with Stranger of Sword City (an isekai-themed DRPG for the Vita). While not direct sequels, that bundle and Demon Gaze all share a degree of game universe continuity. Where people didn’t have the Vita, nearly 93 million Nintendo Switches and 116 Playstation 4s have been sold. Compared to the lifespan sales estimates of the Vita, that’s close to 80-90 million more potential players. This time they’re partnered with Clouded Leopard Entertainment, who has carved out a space for themselves by bringing sub-AAA Japanese games to China and Korea, and is now bringing them to the US. Their first for Experience is Demon Gaze EXTRA.
Mechanically, Demon Gaze is your basic dungeon crawler. The twist is the main character is a special class (Gazer) with a special eyeball that can seal and summon defeated demons (who are actually androids) as tertiary party members who can act in combat but also provide special benefits (e.g. the first one you get, Comet, can sense secret doorways). You get the standard party of six (five party members and one demon), there’s an array of classes from the traditional tank/healer/damage dealer archetypes, and you spend most of your time exploring maze-like dungeon zones, fighting trash monsters until you’ve pissed off a demon enough to bring them to you. Kill the demon, seal the demon, maybe summon them if you want. Repeat until the game is over. And when you’re not in a dungeon, you’re managing your party in the Dragon Princess Inn, Demon Gaze’s spatially condensed hub.
With a colorful cast of your standard anime archetypes, and being the condensed hub for the game, the Dragon Princess Inn is the beating heart of Demon Gaze, not the colorful dungeons, infuriating and outlandish bosses, or the loop of collecting crystals to sacrifice on magic circles on the promise of huge fights with huge rewards. Nope. It’s all about the wacky mansion you’re renting a room in. Fran Pendoll runs things here and she’s exactly the overbearing, capitalistic manager (cough landlord cough) who will hit you up for rent every time you return. She’ll also rent you rooms which serve as additional party slots (it’s just a one time fee, but it grows with each room). There’s the rivalry between the blacksmith shopkeeper Cassel Glondike and the elven alchemist shopkeeper Lezerem Rantile that may just be an unspoken romance if you want to read into it. Lancelorna Beowulf (a warrior with a giant aesthetic boob to belly button axewound scar and an eyepatch) is your initial guide to the Inn and tutorializes much of the early game, and Prometh wears a hoodie and mismatched thigh highs, but not pants or a skirt, and lives in a coffin in the basement. She’s this game’s priest equivalent and she presides over the basement, which is its chapel (also your item storage and equipment upgrade system). If you’re following along now, and nodding in understanding and approval, this is probably the right DRPG for you. It’s not quite as insufferable as Sword Art Online, but it’s certainly walking right up to that line (look, I’m original Slayers old, I can’t keep up with what you kids are watching now). If you’re not sure, ask yourself: Do I want to live in a big house with these anime Instagram influencers?
If you can answer that as a “shit, maybe?” and you weren’t interested in Undernauts’ murky anime labor explotation horror or the predatory lesbian nun and dollmaking witches of Nippon Ichi Software’s Labyrinth of Refrain, then this might be your best bet for a contemporary Wizardry-like dungeon crawler. Because aside from changes that really don’t make any fundamental difference in gameplay, this is as standard as you’ll get. It’s a solid choice for most people’s once-in-a-console-generation DRPG.
But what makes it EXTRA? Well the graphics are HD now, and it picks up some quality of life improvements from Undernauts, like the auto-pilot system and a high-speed battle toggle. But this is largely an act of preservation. There’s English audio, but it’s nothing to write home about. The new class is nice enough, it unlocks halfway through the game, but it’s not a mechanical or party composition game changer. And the retry system might as well not even have been added. It allows you to start any fight you lost over from the beginning. If you lost due to RNG, that’s helpful, but odds are you’ll be fighting the same losing battle over and over, until you realize there’s no choice but to start over from your last save because you were always fucked.
I’m of two minds about it, honestly. On the one hand, with the other quality of life improvements brought over from Undernauts and Sword City, this was the time to do more than polish the rough edges of Demon Gaze. Instead of the Retry system, just make it a straight resurrection mechanic like Undernauts. You die, you pop back up at the Dragon Princess Inn, alive, but needing to resurrect and heal your party. Alternately, keep it entirely the same. You die. Game Over. The former solution is more in keeping with the heroic fantasy friendship anime vibe that this game puts out at pretty much every moment, it’s also the furthest away from the original designers intent. But so is retrying, if we’re honest. It’s just a way of maybe providing a solution for the occasional unfair math. And if we’re going to start overhauling, the rented room system isn’t as interesting in real life as it is on paper. Either we have rooms that we can decorate to give our companions buffs from the outset, or we just don’t need to do rooms anymore. Either way, having your party slots gated behind Fran the Anime Paywall isn’t interesting. The idea that you’re paying to “level up your party as a unit” (which I’m sure was the argument for the system) isn’t compelling. Removing restrictions is about items locked in chests that open new pathways. Growth (as a character and party) is about developing newfound power through work and dedication (and sometimes an item you find in a chest that helps you get swole). None of these are preservative decisions though. They’re all things that either add to or take away from what the game was to begin with. And that’s the rope that developers and publishers have to walk when bringing things forward in time. Games have changed and gamers with them, and what worked then may not be the best way now. These are decisions that developers have to contend with as they resurrect their past work from dead systems. And it’s up to us to figure out how much deviation from the original we’re willing to bear before we call something new enough so as to be unique.
For what it’s worth, even with the few small changes, the retry system, and the promise of future DLC that expands the postgame of Demon Gaze, I’m not sure that Demon Gaze EXTRA crosses the threshold in meaningful ways. It’s a solid port of a good Vita game. It’s neither a pure preservation nor a remaster in the way we often understand it. If you have a Vita, I’m not sure why you wouldn’t just go play it there. If you don’t anymore, or never did, this might be for you. That being said if you have one, you should play this on the Switch, because you can still handhold it. Not just because it’s a Vita game and it wants to be handheld (it does though). You should play this on the switch because I’m soundly of the mind that DRPGs are best suited for handheld consoles (maybe even smartphones). These are casual games. Sure, they may look scary with instant kill mechanics and the brutality of opaque spreadsheets, but these are games to chill out with from couch to commute to bedtime. Wake your Switch and toss a few items at a magic circle and do the fight while you wait for water to boil. Grab it off your nightstand when you can’t sleep at 3 a.m. and spend 15 minutes pushing through just a few more squares of labyrinthine burning city until you’re sleepy again. Or just chill out on the couch managing your party member’s furniture at the Dragon Princess with the Switch docked on your TV, then slap the joy cons on and watch a terrible Netflix docu-series while you hang out with your epic anime friends, fight monsters, and pay rent to a horrible moe landlord. It’s either that or doomscroll on Twitter, and this is a more productive use of your time. I promise.
Demon Gaze EXTRA was developed by Kadokawa Games and Experience Inc., and published by Clouded Leopard Entertainment. Our review is based on the Switch version. It is also available for the PlayStation 4.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.