I wrote a piece on visual novel Deus Machina Demonbane over at Games Are Evil earlier today and I would be terribly thankful if you went and read it, even if you’re not a particular visual novel fan. Demonbane, while fundamentally not that different from most other visual novels — you read, read, read, read, read, read and occasionally make a choice — is, as I say in the article, interesting and noteworthy for the fact that it’s not your typical galge/eroge. The main point of the game is not to pursue a particular female character romantically, but rather to work your way through a more “traditional” (for want of a better word — its combination of thematic influences is anything but “traditional”) narrative that wouldn’t be out of place in a JRPG.
I wanted to talk a little more about the game than I had the chance to get into in that article, however, and I’m probably going to get spoilery from this point onwards, so if you are intending to play Deus Machina Demonbane and would like your mind to remain virgin pure beforehand, I suggest you stop reading now. For courtesy’s sake, I shall put in a “More” tag for your convenience. Click the “Continue Reading” link to… you know. Continue reading. Otherwise, I’ll see you tomorrow.
All right, now we’ve got rid of those killjoys, let’s talk Demonbane. First up, an interesting thing about Demonbane is that it is super-long — like, 20 hours. A single playthrough of your average VN, assuming you read everything and don’t skip straight to the bonking, usually takes on average between 5-10 hours depending on the game. Something like School Days HQ, which has a lot of alternative routes and branching paths, tends to be a little shorter, whereas something with a smaller number of discrete routes tends to take its time a bit more. For comparison’s sake, it took me just under 40 hours to see absolutely everything Katawa Shoujo had to offer, and there are five distinct routes in that. (That’s about 8 hours per route if you’re a bit slow on the old maths.)
There’s no set rule saying how long or short any game should be, of course, but 20 hours is a long time to just sit and read and occasionally choose between two options. It’s long for a VN, I’m saying, but there’s no reason why this should be an issue — after all, aren’t there books of vastly different lengths? In Demonbane’s case, the plot is kept nice and pacy through a chapter-based structure, and it gradually accelerates and expands in scope as the story progresses, so even though it takes a long time to get to the end of, it doesn’t feel like a chore.
Since Demonbane isn’t your usual eroge, it does things a little differently in a number of ways. One of the most notable factors in this is the matter of the protagonist Daijuuji Kurou. In many eroges — particularly the “here are some girls, date one of them” variety — the protagonist is kept as a mostly “blank slate” for the player to superimpose their own ego atop. More often than not, the protagonist’s dialogue isn’t voiced, even when the entire rest of the game features speech, and in “event” scenes it’s rare to see the protagonist’s face — it’s usually hidden in shadow, behind a mop of hair or simply off-camera. There are exceptions to varying degrees, of course — in both School Days HQ and Katawa Shoujo, for example, the protagonist is a discrete character in their own right, and in My Girlfriend is the President player character Jun has a clearly-defined personality but not a voice or face in most scenes. In the case of Kurou, however, he has a personality, a voice (in the parts of Demonbane that are voiced, that is) and a face, and is absolutely a distinct character rather than a cipher for the player. And the story of Demonbane is as much the story of his journey to become a better person as it is of Good Against Evil.
Kurou begins, like many VN characters, as the very picture of a flawed protagonist. He’s not obnoxious or perverted or anything like that, though — rather, at the outset, we see him as a broken man, unable (or unwilling) to pick himself up out of the gutter and make his life better. Following his life-changing meeting with local business leader Hadou Ruri, however, he begins to take his first steps on his journey. He works his way from reluctant, workshy freeloader to devoted hero of justice over the course of the game, and this journey can at least partly be attributed to the influence of the companion with whom he spends most of the game — at least in its “true” route.
Al, also known as Al Azif or indeed the Necronomicon is a truly interesting character, not least for the fact that she is a character at all — the Necronomicon, lest you don’t know, is a fictional book that appears in a number of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. Choosing to represent herself as a skinny teenage girl with long purple hair and a sour expression on her face, she quickly latches on to Kurou, and the growing, changing and evolving nature of their relationship is one of the most compelling things about Demonbane.
The first time we see Al, she’s very much the one in control. With over a thousand years of world-weary experience behind her sparkling emerald eyes, she takes the initiative and binds herself to Kurou with a kiss signifying a covenant. In doing so, she technically becomes subservient to him as a magus’ grimoire, but it’s clear that she is the one wearing the pants. (Even though she’s not wearing pants. If you see what I mean.) Forcing him to become his best, berating him when he gets it wrong and encouraging him when he gets it right, Kurou begins to change under Al’s tutelage. She helps him tap into his latent magical power and over the course of the story he learns how to channel his abilities into various forms, overcoming the fear he once felt at the prospect of working with sorcery.
As the two share in a number of devastating battles within the titular steel giant Demonbane, their bond grows ever closer and transcends the “master-grimoire” relationship into something much more. The player sees what is happening between them well before they realise it themselves, which makes it all the more tragic when a disastrous event in the latter third of the game sees their blossoming relationship apparently cut short by the “death” of Al. It also makes it all the more powerful when we see Al struggling to regain herself and fight her way back to consciousness — something which Demonbane’s unconventional narrative structure (for a VN) allows for, since it isn’t afraid to cut away from the protagonist and depict other events happening elsewhere from a third-person perspective.
More than the interesting characters, though — and we’ve not even touched on one of the most impressively loathsome collections of villains I’ve ever come across — arguably the best thing about Demonbane is how it shows a clear love for its Lovecraftian source material while maintaining its own uniquely original identity. The game acts as a “Who’s Who” of Lovecraftian legends, taking in everything from Dagon to Yog-Sothoth and Nyarlathotep via Cthugha, Ithaqua, nightgaunts and Shantak. It’s also not afraid to bring in elements from other mythologies, however, such as a rather memorable sequence involving creatures from Alice in Wonderland, and also incorporates elements from writers who either expanded on or wrote works inspired by Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos — including Brian Lumley’s Mirror of Nitocris and Clark Ashton Smith’s spider-like Old One Atlach-Nacha.
The disparate elements that make up Demonbane — Lovecraftian horror, giant robots, big-eyed animé girls and a dash of humour — really sound like they should clash horribly and create a completely unworkable mess. But you have to give some credit to developer Nitroplus for taking these concepts, mashing them together and creating something that absolutely works. It feels both Lovecraftian and “anime-ish” at the same time, absolutely nailing the darkness and sense of teetering on the brink of madness of the Cthulhu mythos while being totally unashamed to continually raise the narrative stakes as the story progresses. Any game that deems all of humanity struggling against Cthulhu to be not quite epic enough for its finale deserves a certain degree of respect — particularly when the whole finale sequence (at least, in the “true”/Al path — I haven’t played the other two as yet) is handled as well as it is here.
In short, then, if you think you can handle 20 hours of Lovecraftian horror, giant robots yelling things like “Lemuria Impact! Sublimate!” at each other, some astonishingly massive breasts (plus an equally monstrous penis) and the tale of a broken man rebuilding himself to become far more than he ever imagined he could be, then Deus Machina Demonbane is well worth your attention.