World of Demons Preview: Bringing Classic PlatinumGames Design to Mobile
World of Demons is an Apple Arcade exclusive title from one of the world’s finest developers of action games: PlatinumGames. After beating the first chapter of this title, which had a surprise release today, I’m already intrigued by its setting and art design, which lean heavily on traditional Japanese folklore, as well as its surprisingly complex gameplay mechanics. It stands out as a must-play title on Apple’s gaming service, and more than justifies the cost of a month’s subscription if you’re not a member already.
The story follows the trials of Onimaru, a samurai antihero with a dark past, as he battles to save the world from destruction at the hands of demon king Shuten Doji. This fearsome oni (demon) has cast his evil influence over the yokai, a collection of curious creatures based on real-life Japanese legends, and tasked them with impeding Onimaru’s valiant efforts. Along his journey, Onimaru must defeat and then recruit over 100 varieties of yokai and expand his party of samurai, gleaning clues from each major encounter that lead him ever onward through ancient Japan and otherworldly realms in pursuit of Shuten Doji.
In gameplay terms, this is a PlatinumGames experience through and through. Onimaru and other playable characters deploy an ever-expanding collection of extravagant combos, while your performance in each skirmish is graded on the usual Platinum scale, encouraging you to improve your skills and chase those S-rank scores. And while it is fairly easy to pick up and play – and quickly makes you feel like a badass – World of Demons can be punishing on its advanced difficulty.
Basic attacks and combos are mapped to a single button on screen or on a controller, depending on whether you choose to play on iOS (which supports both touch and controller input), Apple TV or Mac OS. The developers have achieved a surprising amount of variation in what seems like it should be a limited attack scheme. As you progress, your collection of combo attacks grows; you can also unlock heavy blow attacks, unleashed with a long button press, and these can be mixed into combos.
An additional button allows you to dodge or block, depending on the character, and, in similar fashion to Platinum classics like Bayonetta, dodging at just the right moment when an attack is incoming allows you to automatically parry, inflicting a much heavier attack that can stunlock tougher enemies. In this way, World of Demons rewards players who observe enemy patterns, while leaving button-mashing as a perfectly viable option if that’s your bag.
Meanwhile, once each weapon reaches a high enough level it unlocks an Ultima attack, which allows you to land super-devastating instant combos each time the Ultima gauge is full.
So far, so Platinum. But what really opens up the combat options is the use of yokai. These creatures are plucked from Japanese folklore, and you can see that the art team have had a lot of fun rendering eccentric critters such as the mischievous kappa water sprite, the long-tongued aka-name (which translates as “scum licker”), and the nure-onna, an oversized serpent with a woman’s face and a broken heart.
Beating certain yokai designated by the story allows you to unlock it as a minion, which you can then assign to one of two slots to take into battle. Each yokai has its own attack on a cooldown timer – for example, the kappa launches enemies skyward with a blast of water, allowing you to juggle them if you’re quick, while others such as the umbrella-like karakasa have projectile attacks that you can aim manually. Each yokai minion can be leveled up by collecting materials littered throughout the stages.
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Meanwhile, dispatching regular yokai in combat allows you to collect their “soul”, which can be mixed into your arsenal for a weaker, single-use attack. Some yokai souls can be combined with a yokai minion for a stronger Merge Arts attack – for example, if you have equipped a kappa minion and collect a kappa soul, their powers can be combined for a more powerful attack. Finding and leveling your favorite yokai makes for an engaging diversion, while an elemental designation for each yokai (and each weapon) lends World of Demons a deeper level of strategy. Oh yeah, and the character designs are wonderfully grotesque.
It’s impressive that PlatinumGames have managed to cram so much depth into a deceptively simple control scheme. Playing on iPhone with touch controls, everything is activated via a collection of discrete icons on the screen, while movement is handled by swipes on the left side of the screen and camera control on the right. Even as the pace of the action heats up, the touch controls do a convincing if imperfect job of recreating that classic Platinum feel. The lock-on system can be a little fiddly, but aside from that, the touch controls are deftly polished.
Hook up a controller and you’ll notice your grades increase. While World of Demons’ relatively lenient inputs allow you to pull off very cool moves without too much effort, combat becomes smoother and more efficient once you can achieve perfectly timed attacks, dodges and parries. Certain skirmishes that had me throwing my phone in frustration became much easier to beat when I connected a DualShock 4, and my performance was more graceful to boot.
There is one caveat: the frame rate. Playing on an iPhone 12 Pro, I found that the action was fairly smooth most of the time, but when it dives, it really dives. Trying to beat a group of aggressive yokai or oni while the action drops to a chug is a punishing experience. Those moments are rare but severe, and it feels like World of Demons is pushing against the limitations of the hardware. And that’s on a high-end iPhone – your mileage may vary on older devices. I haven’t tested it yet on Apple TV or Mac OS, but I would expect the experience is smoother on the latter at least.
Still, it’s evident that World of Demons has been extremely thoughtfully designed for mobile. As with all Apple Arcade games, there are no microtransactions at all, and while the stages are not exactly densely populated with enemies and activities, the flow of its missions allows you to engage in one or two battles to kill a few minutes, or if you have a bit more time to put in you can search for hidden areas, treasure boxes or special yokai with bigger loot drops, or tackle a stage all the way through to the boss battle.
Each stage has bite-sized achievements to aim for, such as finishing within a set time, using a certain weapon or attaining a specific number of combo hits. These clear gameplay goals provide an easily understandable path to improve your own play skills.
Play it again, samurai
There also seems to be a large amount of replay value. Clearing each of the four stages within Chapter 1 unlocks a selection of smaller challenges set within the same location, such as repeating the boss battle or undertaking themed skirmishes. You can play these in any order you like, allowing you to grind for XP, unlock weapons and gather crafting materials, which can be used to level up your weapons and yokai.
During the first chapter, I unlocked the second of four playable samurai – the Foxfire Shrine guardian Sayo. While Onimaru uses a sword for close-range attacks, Sayo has a glaive, which not only has the longer physical range you would expect from a polearm but also fires out a projectile, allowing you to take out enemies at a distance – albeit making close-quarters combat more difficult. Playing as Sayo changed up my strategy completely, and left me excited to find out how the remaining two characters’ abilities will affect gameplay. You can take a party of two samurai into the field at a time and switch between them at will, and you can equip each with a choice of weapon variants and yokai minions, meaning that every stage can be played and replayed in a wide variety of ways. This highly customizable nature promises to lend World of Demons a lot of depth.
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At the end of Chapter 1, I also unlocked intermediate and advanced difficulty levels, and a quick attempt at the higher one confirms that it offers a much harder challenge.
It’s also a delightful world to explore. Similar to Okami, its rich and colorful art style looks like it was pulled straight from an ukiyo-e or sumi-e artwork, and comes accompanied by an atmospheric soundtrack performed on traditional instruments such as shamisen, shakuhachi and taiko. The cool hero characters and bizarre yokai and oni designs lend a style that is both instantly familiar and uniquely Platinum.
In terms of presentation, World of Demons is a scaled-back experience with smaller, less densely populated stages, static cut scenes and a simplified control scheme. But after spending a few hours with Chapter 1 and still having a ton of challenges to complete and options to try out, I’m invested and intrigued to play more of this strange, beautiful game. It may be a more compact experience than PlatinumGames’ console games, but its ambition is far larger than the tiny hardware it was meticulously designed for.
Daniel Robson is Chief Editor at IGN Japan.