Have you ever liked something so much that it made you sad? It’s that weird moment when your emotional swingset goes over the handlebars, passing joy and turning into a strange version of regret. I’ve had this happen with movies I caught years too late, when finally getting a decent pair of headphones, or after learning that cool trick to instantly remove the stickers and plastic on a CD case. The sensation is something along the lines of, “I would’ve turned out differently as an adult if I’d had this sooner.”
That’s how I feel about the new virtual reality game Demeo. You can see it in the above gallery: This Dungeons & Dragons-styled video game recreates the franchise’s tactile, turn-based battles with friends. And it’s awesome.
I can move clunky, fantastical miniatures around a board, then watch them come to life to do battle while nearby friends scream in delight and/or agony when a dice roll changes everything at a moment’s notice? And all of that happens on-demand within a genius VR implementation? Yes, please. I love this stuff—a blend of tabletop and digital co-op gaming with a dash of real-life presence—and I wish I’d had it earlier. (Specifically, I wish I’d had it for the past 15 months.)
This recent VR game, available on SteamVR and Oculus Quest for $30 as of May 6, is absolutely not perfect. In fact. it’s arguably missing a critical “early access” tag. Getting through a session of this D&D facsimile without inventing a wish list of additional features may be a challenge, especially if you and your adventuring party have an established regimen of tabletop co-op adventure games.
Even so, Demeo is the game I’ve been dreaming of—nay, screaming for—since I first strapped into the earliest Oculus Rift prototype in 2012, and its arrival at the tail end of COVID-related quarantine is certainly bittersweet. “D&D with online friends inside of VR” finally exists, better late than never. And Demeo’s mix of smooth controls and clever design principles makes it an absolute gas to play, all without requiring a “Dungeon Master.”
Stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight
Every session of Demeo begins with an adventuring party of up to four real-life players, and each player’s first decision is to pick from four archetypal, RPG classes. Tank, rogue, DPS, AoE: the gang’s all here. (There’s no restriction on class choices; if you and your friends want to play with four of the same class, that’s up to you and your dark gods.) The first major differentiation from the classic D&D series is that each session is a one-and-done board game experience instead of part of a persistent campaign. Thus, when you pick a figurine to represent yourself in battle, it always comes preloaded with that class’s special abilities.
With your character choices locked in, your adventuring party lands in a randomly generated dungeon, and the dungeon’s full shape appears as a blacked-out series of rooms (hidden by a “fog of war”). Your mission: find a key, find a door, and kill whichever monster is defending said door. You might want to kill other monsters along the way, as well.
Demeo‘s first VR catch is how it positions its players around a virtual table. You don’t play as the figures on the table, after all; you’re the overseers and lords hovering above, hands and heads visible to each other. Everything you do resembles hanging out in a friend’s basement. The designers at Resolution Games lean into this setup by building a virtual, wood-carved table as Demeo’s centerpiece, then they drape the nearby virtual walls in classic nerd-basement fare like posters, couches, old consoles, and CRT TVs.
Whether you stand or sit in real life, each player hovers over the board as disembodied heads and hands, tracked as they move in real life. If you have the real-life space for it, you can walk around the entirety of the board, but Demeo also includes a nifty “grab the board” VR gimmick for simulated movement if you’d prefer to sit. Use one or two hands to move around the board, or pinch to grow or shrink yourself to whatever scale you want. Once you’re comfortable, use your real-life hand to grab minis, pick cards, roll dice, and gesture toward the board as appropriate.
Most VR headsets add native voice chat to this mix, and thus far, this feature works great on SteamVR, Oculus Quest 1, and Oculus Quest 2. Crossplay, meanwhile, lets players from each ecosystem easily chat with each other. (In one test, a cohort had to reboot a Quest 1 headset to get voice chat working, but the players couldn’t reproduce the error.)
No acrobatics needed (unless you’re tangled in VR cables)
The rest of the Demeo difference comes from pulling off a difficult trick: legitimate D&D-styled combat without a Dungeon Master (DM) running the show. Keep this in mind as I describe the game’s mechanical underpinnings, because Resolution Games gets a ton of things right here—just not everything.
Before a campaign begins, players congregate in a safe starting zone to chat and get a handle on how the game works. When it’s your turn, you’ll see a glowing zone around your character’s figurine (aka your “mini”), and its radius varies based on your class. Move your hand in real-life until your virtual hand hovers over your hero, then press a button to pick it up. You can drop your mini anywhere within the glowing zone to move further through the dungeon. This costs one action point, and you get two action points per turn. Each session requires moving minis a few times until they can touch and unlock an opening door. And that sequence cleverly guarantees everyone is up to speed with the basics: “grabbing” the table to reposition yourself, picking up minis, and seeing how movement and action points play off each other.
Once a session begins in earnest, if any enemies are in your glowing zone during your turn, placing your mini near them will activate a red highlight that indicates that you’ll melee-attack that monster. The highlight also shows which side of the monster you’ll stand on when your attack ends. This move-and-attack combo only costs one action point.
Unlike traditional tabletop games, Demeo‘s current version offers very few noncombat options. Players cannot get into conversations that might require “diplomacy.” There are no “dungeoneering” checks to find and disable traps. You can’t even activate “acrobatics” to determine whether or not your character can successfully jump across a gap.