Demonicon is a frustrating beast. Some great and innovative RPG customisation and story arcs occur amongst very uninspired quests and combat dynamics. Very much giving with one hand and disappointing with another, Demonicon does well in presenting a competent RPG adventure but falls short on areas where it matters the most.
Set in the apparently popular universe of The Dark Eye, you play as Cairon, a man fleeing from a particularly nasty group of necromancers with his sister and father. The Dark Eye is a German pen and paper RPG from the 80s which, at one point, sold on a par with that other one, Dungeons & Dragons, in certain parts of the world. Despite my, and I can only assume many others', unfamiliarity with The Dark Eye, the world setting is familiar and basic territory. You and your allies have all the hallmarks of base RPG heroism, race and disciplines, and survival in this world largely depends on your abilities to dispatch undead and mythical foes.
From the outset nothing is particularly striking about Demonicon. The game's narrator, along with a few characters, try and crowbar some backstory and lore into the foreground, only to confuse and befuddle. I can appreciate the rich history of The Dark Eye universe, and I'm sure it ties in nicely with other games set in the same world, but fetch quests, grinding and dungeons all too soon become the order of the day.
It's a pity that around the most basic RPG fare, a decent story and menu system is found. Not a pity that they're decent, but a pity that these things are built on such crumbly foundations, as Demonicon could have been so much more than it is. The story is a slow-burner, and throws moral dilemmas and pretty dark issues such as incest and cannibalism at you from the off, and after time a neat, intertwining set of story arcs play out in a way that is both unpredictable and samey.
Demonicon's crowning achievement is the character development. During each battle and world event you naturally gain AP used to spend on levelling up Cairon in whatever discipline you wish, rather than a base increase of all stats at the same time. Areas include strength, intelligence, perception, etc, but deeper character traits can be improved too, such as speech, blacksmithing and knowledge of the game's lore, all of which can open up extra options to you elsewhere in the game. Invest in Plant Lore, and you'll be able to pick more plants around the world and understand how to craft medicines. Increase your Blacksmith stats and you can create and customise your weaponry.
There are times in the game when you'll acquire a weapon which you cannot identify, and therefore cannot wield in battle. That can be countered by research into the game's lore by levelling up the relevant attribute, and before you know it you'll have boned up on how to use a much wider variety of swords and other weapons. Each area of expertise also grants you access to extra dialogue options which, while rarely changing the course or outcome of anything, can gain further insight into what's going on, and if you can barter, get you a few extra rewards for your efforts.
I should point out that by 'crowning achievement', I simply mean that character development is where Demonicon excels at. A great deal seen here has been done before by other, more notable games like Dragon Age and Fallout 3, but the even distribution, AP cost and use just feels spot on. You can max out your botany skills if you really want, but just be prepared to use all the medicines you create as you'll need them when your weakling hero gets consistently hacked to pieces. Alternatively, beef up your soldier too much and find that you can only bludgeon your way through armies of the undead with embarrassing clubs or sticks as you never went to blacksmithing school. Even distribution is key, but knowing when to invest heavily in certain attributes for better progression is where you can flaunt your RPG prowess.
Few RPGs really get this area just right, and sadly Demonicon is one of them. While the statistician in me applauds this area, the gamer in me yearns for more choice in the fighting section of development. Attacks and defences available to you from the beginning differ very little from the end. You can use your currency to improve your parrying and dodge rolling skills, but rarely does an actual improvement or any discernible difference play out during a fight. In fact, fighting is an absolute bore. Even when you have learned almost all methods of attack and defence, the only fruitful path to victory is mashing the attack button until your foe flashes, indicating their incoming attack, requiring you to dodge roll out of the way and mash the button again. You could parry, but clumsy controls mean you must stand perfectly still as they attack, which is difficult when often surrounded by ten enemies.
You have spells at your command too, but are very limited in quantity and variation. Levelling up your Ice Lance, for example, means you have only a slightly stronger and faster Ice Lance. There are four spells, all of which do much the same thing in battle, providing the game's ranged attack method.
Fighting is a large part of Demonicon, and its biggest let-down. Like Assassin's Creed II, gangs of enemies will horde around you as you swing wildly to take them down, but here their slow, clunky nature makes enemies easy to read and kill, particularly when they, at times, form an orderly queue and wait for their turn to kill you. How nice of them. It wasn't long for me to find that all of the quests in the game require you to indulge in a lot of fighting, which is a real chore. Even simple fetch quests (of which there are many and little else) happen to involve you bumping into irrelevant people and fighting them. The story becomes so long-winded it's easy to forget who it is you're even fighting at times. It doesn't stay a chore though. Once severely levelled up, the bitter arseache of combat becomes a breeze as your foes don't seem to get any better. Your godlike powers towards the end of the campaign parts seas of enemies like Moses.
Another of Demonicon's features, decision making, is again unoriginal, and again it's a let-down. The overall story, once you get the hang of how to understand the basic plot of necromancy and evil noblemen, is enjoyable and the sole reason to hang on until the bitter end. Along the way you'll encounter some moral decisions, and your choices affect your story and other people's perception of you.
Some of the choices are meant to be dark and test your personal character and morals, but end up being disjointed and out of place. Take the first one, for instance. Your sister, Calandra, is set to marry a man she doesn't love to ensure her family's safety and security. Naturally, the loving brother you are wants her to be happy, and she of course would rather not marry this nobleman. But why? She is in love with you, her brother. But your first choice is to say no and send her off to her miserable fate, or reciprocate her loving feelings. What kind of a choice is that?! Be a dick or be incestuous.
A little further down the line, you help out a dwarf who has only just granted you citizenship of his town. After helping defend the town from bandits, the dwarf informs it is the 'done thing' that these thieves should be executed and hung up on the walls to ward off anyone else planning on threatening the town's citizens. Cairon very vehemently argues that this is barbaric, and they should be interrogated and spared. The dwarf says no, this is how it's done. But even not really knowing you from Adam, he lets you decide on their fate, which makes two kinds of nonsense – a leader letting Johnny New-Guy making important decisions on the town's tried and tested laws of crime and punishment, and allowing you, as Cairon, to choose the fates of people he so clearly wants to keep alive. When I chose the 'execute' option, Cairon bangs his fist and says they must be executed, it's the only way. Make up your mind, man.
Graphically, the game is sound. Nothing groundbreaking, but nice to look at. Some texture issues and vanishing people aside, the people are nicely polished in most places, and the medieval fantasy land is believable and well illustrated. Speech animation is poor, however, with faces and lips becoming laughably eccentric at times, and poor acting stances with a Resident Evil feel really break the illusion that you're in another world, and that you paid how much?! for a game that feels this rough around the edges. Voice acting isn't much better, as it is evident rather quickly that Kalypso have just sat actors in the studio and said 'read this'. There is rarely any emotion attached to any of these characters, which makes caring about them difficult. Bad news for them, as other people's fates are often in my hands. If I don't care, it means you're pretty much dead.
There are certainly better games like this to play, most immediately the Dragon Age series, and doesn't sit well in an RPG veteran's library. Worth a punt if you find it on sale somewhere, you like basic versions of games you actually enjoy, or if you are one of these people who have a) heard of, and b) enjoy The Dark Eye. Playable only really for an interesting, yet pretty confusing and clumsy story.
The Dark Eye: Demonicon (Reviewed on Windows)
Minor enjoyable interactions, but on the whole is underwhelming.
Overall, The Dark Eye: Demonicon is a fair effort, but fails in almost all areas to make it an RPG of any notable worth. Areas where it triumphs, like the story and character management, fall short of greatness as everything else in Demonicon disappoints.