From the hate-scorched sky,
With righteous anger in our hearts,
We draw forth the sword that smites Evil!
Thou art the innocent blade!
This is one of the most iconic, regularly-occurring quotes from Nitroplus’ visual novel Deus Machina Demonbane, and it doesn’t get any less thrilling each time you hear it — even as the game stretches on and on well past the 20-hour mark. By the end of the game, you’ll be triumphantly bellowing it along with protagonists Kurou and Al as they prepare, once again, to smite Evil with the titular metal monster.
For those unfamiliar, Deus Machina Demonbane (more commonly shortened to just Demonbane) is a visual novel that combines the seemingly disparate elements of romance, mecha combat, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, horror and a splash of light humor together to make a surprisingly coherent — and lengthy — whole. Although it originally saw the light of day in Japan back in 2003, it took until May of last year for genre specialists JAST USA to bring it to Western audiences — but as dated as it is in a few places, you should be very glad to have the chance to play through this rather wonderful story.
Deus Machina Demonbane is the story of humanity’s struggle against impossibly dark forces. At the center of everything is our protagonist, reluctant hero and private investigator Daijuuji Kurou, who is hired by local business leader and “princess” Hadou Ruri to find a certain grimoire — a magical book that has the power to bring the steel giant Demonbane to life and battle against the evil forces of the Black Lodge sorcerers. Over the course of the 20-ish hours through which the story unfolds, Kurou discovers said tome and, with its help, learns to tap into his latent magical abilities and control Demonbane, eventually culminating in some truly epic conflicts that will help decide the fate of the universe.
Demonbane is a particularly noteworthy and influential visual novel for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the fact that it’s not a “dating sim.” Many visual novels that make it to Western audiences focus on the protagonist’s pursuit of one (or more) of the game’s female cast members and treat the unfolding narrative as a backdrop to the love story; Demonbane, meanwhile, primarily focuses on the overarching plot and just happens to incorporate romance subplots into the grand scheme of things. Sure, the three “routes” through the game focus on the three leading ladies, but in particular if you follow the game’s “true” path, the romance side of things is well-integrated into the story as a whole rather than acting as the main “goal” of the game. Similarly, the erotic scenes in Demonbane are not a “reward” for the player — in fact, more often than not they are at best mildly uncomfortable or awkward and at worst pretty disturbing. A few “tentacle” scenes make up the worst of the content, though it’s worth noting that these are not visually depicted as graphically as similar scenes in some anime — though the text gets pretty explicit — and generally act in service of the plot rather than existing for titillation.
The other noteworthy aspect of Demonbane is its narrative structure. Rather than taking place entirely from the perspective of a male protagonist telling his story to the player like most visual novels, Demonbane isn’t afraid to switch viewpoints, and does so regularly. While Kurou is still obviously the “player” character, the game frequently cuts to scenes that are happening elsewhere, allowing the player a greater understanding of the “big picture” than a purely first-person narrative would allow. Given the complex, expansive nature of Demonbane’s universe-threatening plot, this is something of a necessity, but rather than pulling the player out of the experience, it is actually incredibly compelling. The player is given a much greater sense of Kurou’s context in the wider world of the narrative, and this helps make it all the more impactful when his actions have a noticeable effect on the balance of power, particularly as the scope of the game gradually expands from its initial setting of the fictional Arkham City.
It helps, of course, that the game is actually very well written. It doesn’t explicitly tell the player when it is switching perspectives from Kurou to another narrator (be it another character or the authentically Lovecraftian third-person omniscient narrator) but through noticeable, clear shifts in tone it’s never anything but obvious. The third-person segments in particular are impressively composed, featuring a clear understanding of Lovecraft’s style of prose; there’s a lot of repetition for effect, bringing a sense of uncomfortable familiarity to some of the game world’s locales and characters, and there’s a wonderful sense of the omniscient, ever-present narrator constantly teetering on the brink of madness. At the same time, the game knows exactly when to drop in something silly or a humorous, self-referential comment — despite all the chaos unfolding over the course of the game’s narrative, the image of the Necronomicon’s avatar on Earth using a shoggoth as a water bed never stops being endearing, for example.
Despite its hefty length, Demonbane is pretty well-paced, too, with Kurou growing and changing as a character as the scope of the conflict between Good and Evil gradually expands from a single city to the whole universe. He begins the game as a weak, somewhat pitiful character barely able to support himself against the darkness of the everyday world — let alone otherworldly horrors — but through dedication, love and a sense of what is right, he goes through an awe-inspiring personal journey to become the hero he is at the conclusion of the game’s “true” path. He’s not the only one, either — several of the game’s secondary characters also evolve and change considerably as the narrative progresses, though there are also a few who remain a little underdeveloped throughout — or in some cases, their presence never really being truly explained in adequate detail.
This is a relatively minor matter on the whole, though. Demonbane as a whole is an enormously atmospheric, well-written and thrilling visual novel sure to delight fans of both Lovecraftian horror and giant robots kicking the snot out of each other. It is a well-regarded and influential title for good reason, and if you have the slightest interest in participating in an interactive story a little different from the usual “here is a selection of girls, pick one” formula then it is most certainly worth your time and money to pick up a copy.
Deus Machina Demonbane is available now as a physical copy or digital download for $39.95 direct from JAST USA. A hearty thank-you to Phil at JAST for providing the review copy to Games Are Evil.
READ.ME is Games Are Evil’s weekly delve into the world of visual novels, a genre of interactive entertainment primarily developed in Japan which has carved out a small but dedicated niche in the West. Follow this column’s author Pete Davison on Twitter here.