Prolific publisher CIRCLE Entertainment’s latest eShop effort takes players down into the world of demons, where the once mighty Demon Lord now sits boxed up and bodiless. Unable to reconquer his kingdom alone, he enlists the help of several of the underworld’s finest fighting spirits; that’s where you come in. While it’s billed as an RPG with real-time strategy elements, in reality Demon King Box has little in common with either of those genres — and though that’s not why it’s ultimately disappointing, in the end, it doesn’t quite live up to either premise or promise.
When the curtain lifts on Demon King Box, players find themselves in control of the demonic pig Poohdark, the first of many generals tasked with helping the recently transmogrified Demon Lord take back his kingdom. Told through talking-heads dialogue exchanges before and after each battle, Demon King Box’s story is over the top and odd, and while it doesn’t make a great deal of sense it does feature some interesting characters, providing plenty of context for the linear action ahead.
More than anything, that action feels like a streamlined tower defense game, where you field moderately mobile units instead of static sentries. Battles — the sole substantive part of the gameplay — take place on a course composed of three parallel lines, with your general on the left side of the playing field and the enemy on the right. A deck of cards representing your available unit types sits on the bottom of the touchscreen, and by selecting a unit and then tapping one of the three tracks you can summon one of the corresponding creatures to fight for you. As soon as they appear (always at the extreme left end of the line) they’ll march automatically to the right, engaging any enemies they meet along the way. If they make it to the other side, they’ll start attacking the enemy general — or teleport back into your reserves if there’s no big bad to beat.
You’ll begin with only a few humble hell-hogs at your side, but each new mission brings new troop types to send into battle, from undine archers and milk maids to rogue cats, monsters, and dozens of demonesses in various states of undress. There’s a good variety of units, and fresh faces join your stable at a steady pace, though we wish the differences between them were explained more in-game — aside from some unexplained statistics and a vaguely descriptive bio, there’s very little indication of what each character actually does once you let them loose, so trial and error is key.
It’s not just your infantry that can change either — you’ll be able to field several different commanders throughout the course of the game, and each officer has a special power that can help turn the tide in battle. Poohdark’s ability, for instance, helps power-up any porcine commandos on screen, while another early recruit’s Jetting Assault skill sends your units into turbo mode, letting you rush down your foes with ease. These abilities can be used over and over — after a brief cool-down period — and each general learns several powers as they grow, helping to make playing with each one feel like a different experience.
Along with selecting your units and commanders, part of the strategy portion of the game comes in the form of resource management: each unit requires a certain amount of ‘spirit’ to spawn, and while the meter refills on its own it does so slowly enough that you won’t be able to simply spam soldiers into the trenches willy nilly. Victory isn’t necessarily a matter of having the stronger army, but rather of getting the right troops on the right tracks at the right time — that said, with so little time to plan, it can often feel like a bit of a crapshoot.
If you do manage to eke out a win, Demon King Box’s spoils of war are delectable dishes — from sushi platters to puddings — that can be used to upgrade your units individually. This calorie-based system works a bit like experience points in a typical RPG, except that you’ll need to level everyone up manually — a process that quickly becomes tedious. While it does let you focus your force-feeding on only the fighters you really like, it’s slow and poorly balanced; rarer eats make a significant difference, but more common consumables give only a few XP per bite — and when levelling up requires thousands of points even early on, mealtime becomes a bit of a buzzkill.
Demon King Box’s basic hook of recruiting and placing units is fun for a little while, but unfortunately gets repetitive very quickly. Whether your objective is to wipe out a certain number of enemies, defeat a boss or recruit a new ally, it all boils down to the same routine: tap, tap, repeat. With so little control over individual units — choosing which of the three lines they occupy as they spawn is the only direct action you get — most of the strategy comes from picking the right set of warriors ahead of time, and though there’s plenty of visual variety among the units many of them feel remarkably similar in battle. Worse, the high-speed onslaught of most stages leaves so little time to think or react that thoughtful strategizing is almost never as effective as simply tapping away as fast as you can, hoping you’ve managed to bang out a higher grunt-per-minute rate than your AI adversary. The sheer physicality of it all makes winning immensely satisfying, but perhaps not in the way you’d hope — it’s a game of lucky breaks, rather than carefully considered strategies.
While it might not be the most engrossing game around, to its credit Demon King Box is certainly nice to look at — beautiful, distinctive character art kept us excited for the friends and foes we’d meet next, and the battleground backgrounds are awash with colour. The music is also a pleasant part of the package, with the menu screen’s music box melody a particular highlight.
Elsewhere, the presentation shows a bit less polish; there’s no 3D effect whatsoever, for instance, and as appealing as the artwork may be the nature of the gameplay means you’ll spend very little time actually looking at it. Aside from quick checks to see what kind of units our enemies were fielding, we spent the overwhelming majority of each battle staring solely at the touchscreen, where all the tapping takes place, and where the action is reduced to a simple — and far less interesting — schematic representation.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Demon King Box is one of a worrying number of recent eShop releases to feature a seriously subpar translation. While the script doesn’t reach the laudable lows of Collavier’s Mysterious Stars trilogy, there are plenty of unnatural sentences, internal inconsistencies, and incoherent head-scratchers on display here. Dialogue exchanges often disintegrate into surreal strings of successive non-sequiturs, and in some chapters, it makes the plot genuinely difficult to follow — if it’s within your reach, the game’s Traditional Chinese language option may clear things up a bit.
A mediocre, modified tower defense game dressed up in a gorgeous art style, Demon King Box is tough to recommend. While plenty of unit types and different commanders give the illusion of depth, the shallow, repetitive gameplay loop at the heart of it all holds the experience back considerably, and careful strategy takes a distant backseat to furious, random tapping. Players with a fondness for the genre — and patience for poor translation — will get some enjoyment out of wading into the world and fielding the diverse set of characters, but for most this box is best kept on the shelf.