My Mercurial romance with virtual reality just got a dungeon‘s worth of kindling to relight the flame.
The game’s called Demeo and it was developed and published by Resolution Games. It’s a dungeon crawler that’s played from a first-person perspective. The player oversees the movement of miniatures (think: 3D models made to look like the physical figurines people use to play tabletop roleplaying games) in digital dungeon that sits on top of a virtual table.
That might sound complex, but the best thing about Demeo is that the only thing you need to know how to do to dive right in is how to pick up a toy with your hands and play with it.
The premise is simple: pick from one of four characters and move your token around the dungeon. You’ll encounter treasures with items and spells you can equip. And when it’s time for combat, you’ll fling out card-based magics by hand and roll virtual dice to resolve conflict yourself.
In essence, it’s a VR game that tries to emulate the experience of playing a tabletop roleplaying game (TTRPG) with a few of your buddies. You take turns, roll dice, laugh, and try to win.
It’s so simple that it’s brilliant. I can only swing a weightless sword or wield an unsubstantial assault rifle so many times before my ability to get lost in a virtual world butts up against the very real limitations of the current generation of VR hardware.
Those full-out experiences that try to blitz the player with action like a Hollywood blockbuster have their place – sometimes living out our Rambo or Neo fantasies in VR can be a cathartic experience.
But, ultimately, they’re pale imitations of popular console/PC games that simply play better on a 2D screen.
The VR experiences I’m most interested in are those that only work better in the real world. Demeo is one of those experiences.
- 4 playable classes (Guardian, Sorceror, Assassin, Hunter)
- Random dungeon generation
- Monsters and bosses to fight
- Spell cards
- Cosmetic upgrades
Okay, glancing up at that feature list doesn’t make this seem like the most robust game ever made. But we’re not talking about Skyrim here. We’re talking about something arguably better for fans of old-school tabletop roleplaying games.
Demeo feels like the start of a beautiful friendship. I spoke with Revolution Games’ CEO Tommy Palm and he told me the game was very much based on the developers’ shared love for early tabletop roleplaying games.
VR, Palm says, is the perfect medium for this kind of game. Having made a deep impact in mobile gaming (ever heard of Candy Crush Saga?) he’s decided that VR is the next big thing.
I asked him why the mainstream still seems reluctant to fully embrace VR and he told me it had a lot to do with making good on the promises of virtual worlds:
VR has been one of these technologies that’s stuck in the future. It’s always five minutes away … I think we’re going to see a very exciting time going forward as people experiment with genre.
And that’s exactly what Demeo does: it experiments with genre. Decades of RPG development has taken us from early RPGs such as Atari’s Adventure, a startlingly good representation of TTRPGs for such an early console:
All the way to modern era games such as Skyrim that attempt to place you in the shoes of an adventurous character in a seamless world.
Rather than try to imitate 2D games in a virtual reality environment, Resolution Games decided to recreate the experience of playing roleplaying games with dice and figurines with Demeo and it’s a clear winner.
Palm told me the game had sold half a million dollars in the first 48 hours after launch and they were experiencing an average play time that far exceeded the VR-baseline of 30 minute sessions. This is incredible, but it’s not hard to believe once you’ve played the game.
The act of reaching out with your gloved hand to physically pick up your pieces and move them around fixes a lot of problems with VR. You can resize your game table and dungeon environment to view the action from nearly any angle, so this helps with neck fatigue, eye fatigue, and makes it easier for old people with failing vision such as myself to see what’s going on.
Furthermore, it solves the “too much happening at the same time and I don’t know where to look issue” because you’re physically initiating everything that happens. Nothing sneaks up on you or happens when you’re trying to figure out how to use your abilities – you don’t need a pause button because you control the action.
And, finally, because your head is the camera and your hands control the zoom, rotation, and angle of view, this is a very comfortable game to play. Without hesitation, I highly recommend this game as the first VR game you ever play if you’ve never donned a headset.
That being said, Demeo is a bit of a thin experience. If I hadn’t spoken to the developers’ CEO personally to confirm they planned on supporting the game with a lot of additional content, I might be tempted to withhold my enthusiasm for a sequel or the inevitable clones that’ll run away with this idea. But Palm seemed pretty excited at the prospect of continuing to develop Demeo and expanding its world.
Currently, there’s a single-player skirmish mode that’s a ton of fun for a few hours. The game’s very much focused on the fun-factor of playing what’s essentially a very well-made board game. But it’s really only scratching the surface when it comes to roleplaying.
First off, there is experience and progression, but levelling up only unlocks new cosmetics. That’s pretty cool for a while, but essentially you realize you can’t “grow” in this game – you just get new toys.
Where things get cool is in the multiplayer. You can link up with up to four of your friends, or you can try to match up with randos for a group experience if you’re looking to get social. It feels like you and your friends are gathered around the old kitchen table chatting and strategizing, and that’s pretty awesome.
These experiences are fun – to the game’s credit it’s very smooth and suitable to multiplayer and the community seems to be quite friendly. But the only thing that keeps me coming back is the novelty and nostalgia of it all.
I can’t believe I’m going to write this, but: I kind of wish there were some carrots or at least a repetitive grind that slowly pays off to keep me slogging forward. Cosmetics are nice, but the TTRPG player deep inside of me wants to unlock new abilities, skills, and titles that make me feel more and more powerful as I play.
Still, even with a rather shallow overall gameplay experience, this is one helluva game. There’s a reason why reviewers such as ArsTechnica’s Sam Machkovech are gushing over this game in weird ways, such as proclaiming it’s so good it made them sad.
That’s not an insult, I get it. It’s the best version of something I didn’t know I wanted, and now I want it to magically have four-decade’s worth of D&D or Rifts baked in.
I want to make my own Demeo levels. I want to collect figurines to debut inside the game and dive-in for full-on campaigns. I want this game to be more than it could possibly be right now because, at the end of the day I’m so excited it exists that I’ve fallen back in love with VR.