Platforms: PC (Xbox 360 and PS3 versions to be released in 2014)
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Noumena Studios
The Dark Eye: Demonicon is set within the fantasy universe of the Dark Eye, Germany’s most successful roleplaying game. Having absolutely zero knowledge of this strange world I almost immediately came to the conclusion that I was in for yet another generic fantasy RPG as the game’s opening weighted me down a barrage of lore revolving around ancient demon lords and the like. With dwarves, elves, demons, necromancers and spiky armor in abundance the setting doesn’t do much to set itself apart from its contemporaries. Yet as I discovered the further I delved into Demonicon, looks can be deceiving as the Dark Eye universe had some rather interesting stories to tell.
You’re going to have to slog through a lot of poor to middling gameplay, jarring dialogue and rough graphics to appreciate it, though. There’s no doubting that Demonicon was made on a rather tight budget. You’re relegated to a relatively small slice of the game’s world. A limited section of a city acts as your first hub for the many missions and quests that you embark on, and contained within it’s streets is…well, not very much, to be honest. After that you get to visit a dismal little village suffering from the plague, from which you once again venture out into a few little areas to fulfill your standard RPG checklist of “fetch/kill three of X” missions, before returning to the city and revisiting all the places you were before. At least later on you get to visit a few more locations, belatedly giving the game some much need variety. There’s some fairly good texturing to admire in the environments, but those same environments are sparse and lifeless, devoid of the little details that are the hallmark of more masterfully crafted titles, be they on a tight budget or not. There’s the occasional moment when Demonicon actually manages to look pretty, as you can see from a couple of the screenshots adorning this page, but overall this is a visually weak game with stiff movement and facial animations. But that’s nothing compared to the fact that characters don’t blink in this game! Seriously, during a conversation they never blink, instead they just stare at you with their unseeing, creepy eyes. It’s just plain damn weird. What’s more is that the time and money have been used to ensure that a whore’s breasts jiggle when she moves, while other things like combat animations and people’s inability to damn well blink have been ignored. That’s priorities for you, right there.
You play as a young lad named Cairon with an aptitude for fighting, and the game wastes no time in flinging you into the action, tasking you with finding your warrior sister who is due to take part in a pre-arranged marriage. But she’s gone wandering into a dangerous underground lair in Moloch Mountain, and so you’re forced to chase her down and confront a cannibalistic blood-mage whose got a load of the local villagers trapped. It’s here you’re introduced to Demonicon’s strongest feature: moral choices. Normally morale based decisions in games aren’t my cup of tea because they tend to be very clearly painted in black and white, the “good” and “evil” answers handily marked out for you and usually exaggerated as well for good measure. While this sort of thing certainly has its place within games (The Fable series for example), I prefer more subtlety being involved when it comes to titles with a darker or more mature nature. The Witcher 2 did things right by simply presenting you with a decision and the consequences of your actions, bypassing the whole black and white thing for numerous shades of grey, which is far more natural and compelling. Demonicon follows suite, as demonstrated by your first choice: kill the blood-mage and he claims his magic will result in the trapped villagers dying a horrific death, but let him go and he promises to free them. There’s no right answer here: free him and he could kill hundreds or even thousands more, and you have no way of knowing if he’ll be true to his word. Kill him and you’ll be safe in the knowledge that the world will never suffer his wrath again, but doing so may result in a slow and painful death for the mage’s prisoners, assuming he was telling the truth. It’s a tough choice, one that I paused to take stock of before passing judgement. There are several such tough decisions to be made throughout the game, and in many cases it feels like what you’re doing is really picking the lesser of two evils, rather than simply saving everyone and going for tea and cake or blowing everything up while laughing maniacally.
These morality based moments do have some flaws, though. The first is that I found myself unable to get invested enough in the characters for many of the choices to really have any sort of emotional impact, making them feel arbitrary at times. Once you’ve made your choice, the game doesn’t usually manage to deliver the serious consequences required for your actions to feel like they’re having a true impact on the world, either. I chose to kill the mage, to end his dark power before he could hurt others. My choice lead to the death of the prisoners, but it happened off-screen. I didn’t feel much because I’d never seen these people – I didn’t know who they were. Back in town there were a group of citizens in front of the church mourning the loved ones that had lost, but that was only tangible consequence of my choice. Rather the outcome of your hard decision is usually explained away during one of the game’s rather pretty cutscenes. Some choices also influence the way the story plays out, but again the effects are negligible.
During their little excursion against the blood-mage both Cairon and his sister Calandra have their latent magical abilities activated by mixing their blood, and thus begins our tale proper in which brave Cairon must wander around the world, doing a series of pointless quests in order to made any headway. There’s necromancers, dark forces and strange magic in abundance, thereby setting the stage for a fantasy plot that manages to hit most of the genre trope branches along the way, yet hidden within the clichés is actually some rather engaging twists and turns, albeit twists and turns hampered by poor dialogue which results in stilted conversations and bouts of awkward exposition. This is a tale with a decidedly darker edge to it than we usually see, and while there are certainly many plot-holes and senseless elements to pick apart this is a story that manages to offer something a little different that should just about manage to keep most RPG fans playing.
As for Cairon he’s a likable enough hero, falling neither squarely in the good guy or bad guy territory, even when you’re not deciding his morality yourself. Like a real person he has shades of grey within him, and that makes him just a little bit interesting. He’s a bit of a badass, doesn’t take lip from anyone and is willing to make the tough decisions in order to get things done. The actor portraying him also does a good job despite the script. In fact the game boasts some instances of solid acting, which is something not usually seen in a game with this sort of budget. However, the cast surrounding Cairon are considerably less interesting, a fact not helped by the games habit of introducing a steady flow of characters without ever stopping to dwell on any of them, leaving them as hollow husks that could have been so much more had the time been given to them and the script tighter.
Bashing things in the face with other things is the games weakest component next to the repetitive quests, which is a shame given that bashing things in the face with other things is your main occupation in life, aside from meddling in dark powers and annoying demons. You don’t need to travel far in Demonicon to find a fight. Even in the civilised city of Warunk you’re often set upon by angry people from whichever faction you choose not to align with. The building blocks for something enjoyable are certainly there, with special attacks and magic providing a little tactical choice to go alongside your basic strike, parry (it’s actually block, but the game insists on calling it parry) and dodge. Each strike regains a little “essence” used to power your magic, encouraging you to go on the offensive, and building up a successful chain of strikes allows Cairon to enter mode where he does extra damage. Even with this solid foundations, though, the combat is clumsy and the controls are frustratingly slow to respond to your command. Press the attack button and Cairon will ponderously swing his weapon, the blow feeling like it’s taking an age to land. His attack speed can be improved, but it never feels like Cairon is responding to your button presses so much as getting the memo a few seconds later. The dodge is a bit better, but some times it feels like it sticks for a split second and I never felt like I could trust it completely. As for the parry system it felt unreliable at best to me. Half the time it never seemed to work, and the other half of the time it simply wasn’t quick enough. Chuck in some poor feedback to let you know if you’ve actually successfully blocked the attack and you’re left with a parry/block system that’s best ignored in favor of using the dodge mechanic. It also didn’t help that poor enemy animations meant it was often hard to know if an enemy was genuinely attacking you or if it was just having a moment of awkward movement. Using magic during combat also feels lackluster: unleashing an icy bolt to freeze enemies doesn’t feel like you’re doing much more than throwing an ice-cube at someone who mildly annoyed you, while setting foes alight with your Nova attack involves you creating what looks like a pile of gellatine at your feet before unleashing the attack which doesn’t so much set fire to enemies as generate some weird particle effects. I was also at a bit of a loss to discover that some special attacks interrupt your combo chain while others do not, and in keeping with the tradition of the universe in general being a bit of a dick it just so happened that one of those moves was my go-to attack for most enemies. Damn.
To put it simply combat is cumbersome, and the only way it provides a challenge is through the sheer number of enemies attempting to mash you into a pulp, usually resulting in you rolling madly around the place while guzzling potions of healing and throwing ice spells about the place, because frozen enemies take extra damage and it’s an easy piece of magic to spam. Otherwise battling demons or human enemies or whatever you’ve ran across is a skilless excercise that doesn’t even manage to at least be a visual spectacle. There’s just no satisfaction to be had from fighting, unless you happen to be utterly drunk, and you’ll do so much of it that the mere sight of a giant spider or bandit will having you sighing in exasperation. Having said, place enough points into combat skills and there is a sort of perverse amusement to be taken from slicing through hordes of foes that were previously giving you problems.
And before I move on from the combat I do also want to address an error that Demonicon and so many other RPG insist on making, and that is informing the player that they’re incredibly powerful at every possible opportunity while never actually making them feel powerful during gameplay. Numerous times throughout Demonicon the game insisted that Cairon was growing more and more powerful, yet I never saw any evidence of this. His blows felt weak, his magic was pitiful and he only ever actually has four spells to his name anyway. Each time I killed an Awakened I supposedly grew even more deadly, but again during the actual gameplay this didn’t seem to be the case: i felt almost the same as I had in the beginning, except now I was better at fast talking and my armor was a bit shinier. In fact most of the Awakened I faced and other foes felt more powerful than I did, and their defeat was probably only down the fact the they were being controlled by an AI with terrible aim and an inability to cope with people who use the dodge button a lot, not because I was some powerful being. So, RPG’s, inf you insist on telling me I’m powerful you’ve got to make me feel like it.
When it comes to the placing of points into skills there is of course the standard RPG levelling mechanics slotted into the game. At first the system is almost confusing, presenting you with a variety of things that can be upgraded, stats and strange words like AT and BT and IB that all have subtle but important influences on your character. Your pool of Adventure Points – earned by killing foes, completing questions, reading signs and almost anything else – can be spent in several different areas to increase your base stats, specific skills or special combat moves. Your first time visiting the upgrade screen will probably be spent staring blankly at everything on offer while you desperately attempt to figure out what you should begin sinking points into – should you bump up your strength, or perhaps increase your Legend Lore skill? Maybe you should power up that powerful heavy strike move, but then maybe you should improve your fast talking skills in order to open up a few extra dialogue options during conversations. Having Adventure Points dictate so much is confounding, but it does mean you have to think a little bit about what you want to focus on, although the game is fairly generous with points so you’ll be upgrading stuff all the time. Magical skills, meanwhile, are controlled by a separate pool of points which can be put into any of the meagre four available to you. Each spell, and each of three available combat moves, has a few tiers each, with each tier having two smaller upgrades as well.. It’s a fairly robust system and one that offers a good degree decision-making, yet would benefit from have a clearer layout.
Quest design plays it safe throughout the game, going for the usual mixture of fetching or killing three things in order to progress. This sort of lackluster design has been plaguing RPGs for so long now that it almost feels unfair to complain about it, but at least in the cases of other titles they have strong combat, dialogue or other mechanics to help mask the repetitiveness of what you’re doing, while Demonicon doesn’t. Side missions also pop up from time to time, but again they follow the exact same design except that they don’t bother with narrative and the rewards tend to be disappointing – loot in Demonicon is standard fare, almost all of which fails to inspire any excitement. Side-missions would have benefited greatly from having small tales for you to enjoy that expanded the game’s lore.
Unusually for a game of this style there’s no manual save system so your left to rely entirely on the auto-save function, trusting it to capture your progress at the right times. For the most part it’s reliable enough, but there were a few frustrating moments where the game didn’t save after a fight or long chunk of exposition and when I loaded the game back up I was forced to go through it all again. It’s a small thing, but in games like this a manual save system is preferable.
The strange thing about Demonicon is that after a few hours in you want to keep playing, despite the fact that it’s just not that good. It has an odd addictive quality to it, the very same that I’ve encountered previously in low-budget games of this nature. There’s something soothing about games that are this mundane in their design.
All in all Demonicon ranks as a merely okay RPG, one that’s worth picking up when it pops up in a Steam sale or if you’re really a die-hard roleplaying fanatic looking for his or her next fix. The clumsy combat, poor dialogue and technical limitations of the game sadly overshadow an otherwise intriguing plot set in a dark fantasy world filled with great ideas and concepts that are never realised.
+ Solid upgrade mechanics.
+ An enjoyable plot.
– Poor combat.
– Awkward dialogue.
– Boring missions.
The Verdict: 2/5 – Okay.
The Dark Eye: Demonicon is a venture into a relatively unknown and interesting fantasy role-playing game that doesn’t manage to bring the source material to life in a fitting way. Still, there’s enjoyment to be had if you can snatch it up during a sale.