Champions Online's second adventure pack, Demonflame, is currently available on the Test Server, and over the last couple of weeks I've done a few playthroughs at various stages of its development.

Demonflame is a new take on an old organization from the Champions lore. DEMON (which is strangely not an acronym) is a magic-themed group of devil worshipers and one of the most powerful factions in the Champions universe. Prior to the adventure pack, DEMON was pretty poorly represented in CO. The villain group starred in a small series of arcs in the level 20-25 range, and the core members of DEMON's inner circle were not even given "Super Villain" status. It has been sort of a common theme for mystic roleplayers to downplay the significance of DEMON because the group is so poorly characterized.

Demonflame also represents the newest surge of content for CO superheroes, and in many ways it has excelled where Serpent Lantern was lacking.
As I did in my run-throughs of SL, I'm relying a lot on input from other users. I'm only one person, and I only ran through DF on one character; I found that the boss fight difficulty and strategies vary widely from character to character. In particular, my character was not well-suited to the Jack Fool and Left Hand boss fights. Fortunately, I have the theory fighting superpower and can guesstimate how other heroes and teams of heroes would fare in those battles.

For my DF runs, I used a Shadow Form-focused Avenger build and played on normal difficulty. If you have a more defensive build than I did, you will probably have an easier time.

Just starting out and already something to complain about

The mission intros and the promo video on the Demonflame page bothered me a little. The mission reveals right from the get-go that Luther Black, the leader of DEMON, is behind the problems we'll be dealing with. Luther Black is a largely unknown and secretive character in the Champions universe, one who hasn't surfaced from his lair in 25 years. How exactly does UNTIL know that Luther Black is involved?

I also kind of struggle a little with the Qliphothic zone you travel to. Technically, exposure to Qliphothic environments kind of slowly corrupts people; this has been established in existing CO lore. Our heroes, Witchcraft, and a squad of UNTIL agents are all exposed to this stuff for hours (it takes one to three hours to complete the pack). It would have been nice to see some handwave magic spell to protect our characters or a cool bubble effect made by Witchcraft to at least protect the UNTIL guys, who are normal humans after all.

The DEMON cultists and the various Qliphothic monsters are not particularly challenging and die in droves to AoE. The biggest trouble is that none of the enemies is particularly distinct or dangerous. Only the higher rank enemies (master villains and up) are even sort of noteworthy.

The adventure pack flows into a number of established MMO tropes, including NPC escorts, hostage rescues, defeating bosses and gathering items. While the execution is very, very good, I can't help but wonder what other creative tasks we could be doing. This is a very minor grievance, though. The AP's pacing is so good that only the biggest whiners can really complain about this.

Pretty in purple

I think the CO devs are massive fans of the color purple. Vibora Bay is painted in an ambient purple glow, and many of the coral reefs and enemies present in Lemuria also bask in the regal color. Demonflame beats them all; instead of seeing a slightly purple sky and some purple decor, you travel into a dimension of deep, menacing purple.

I'm not really complaining. Almost everything in Demonflame looks awesome. The minions are kind of bland-looking due to their monochrome color palette, but the environments look stellar. I like the look and feel of a lot of the maps in CO, but DF really looks impressive.

I can't spoil the coolest visual effect, though. When I first played through DF and made it to the Dementia tower, an enemy hit me with something that instantly wowed me with its awesomeness. It's something that has probably never existed in a MMO before now. I practically jumped out of my seat and it's something that really needs to be seen for yourself. The effect is tied to the enemy's Force Eruption-esque power; for extra awesome, getting hit by the Force Eruption causes you to get launched through the air while the effect is in place. It's super awesome.

Words don't do it justice

One of the issues I have with DF is that it's hard to actually explain what you do in the pack without sounding boring. The basic outline is that you do a short preliminary mission, then fight off a bunch of bad guys attacking a familiar place. You follow after DEMON to stop its members and are tasked with guiding a NPC to five different map locations to complete a series of objectives. Lastly, you go to the final map and engage in an epic confrontation with the best DEMON has, including Luther Black himself.

The five objectives, for instance, sound really boring. I would argue that they could have been, but they are fast-paced and each one is over long before it could stretch into something tedious. If you compare this set-up to the Serpent Lantern bunkers, the difference is really night and day.

Each area you travel in during Demonflame is also really well-presented. The plot elements given in each area make rational sense and make fighting through each tower an enjoyable experience. Each of the plot segments flows really well into the next, and the visuals in each area work really well with the kind of hellish environment you'd expect to be in. The coherence between what you see on the screen, what the NPCs tell you about the place, and what your character is doing is just flawless. I don't give out glowing praise to games often, but DF really is quite an artistic piece of work.

Art and all that aside

I'm not a super visual person, so when I notice visuals something must be up. But is DF interesting to play through?

For the most part, DF is just too easy. The henchmen aren't that big a deal, but the villain-level enemies could use a lot of improvement and are much less interesting than the normal DEMON villains. Some of the master villain tower bosses should probably be ramped up in difficulty. There's a particular master villain who is much tougher than the others, with strong defense and some life drain to make him a much more resilient opponent. I think that in general, master villains should approach his level of difficulty.

The Super Villains are also just too easy. The Jack Fool fight is probably the best, because there is an extremely high chance you will die in that fight unless you know the trick, and I'm pretty sure that he is virtually impossible to tank on Elite. I think even his fight is a little too simple; his minions are kind of weak, and Jack himself is too easy to kill. His trick killed me several times though before I realized standing in my ritual circle instead of kiting was a really bad idea.

While the other Super Villain fights feel extremely epic, they lack the gameplay punch to go along with that epic feel. This is exacerbated by the addition of party members. The fights don't get tougher with more players, and that's a big, big problem if you're looking for a challenging experience. I think that the feeling of accomplishment is diminished significantly by bosses that get steamrolled by a pair of heroes and utterly demolished by full team. I'd like to see these battles toughened up, especially against multiple players.

One thing that is really great about DF is its vastly improved experience rewards. Before Serpent Lantern was launched, I predicted that SL could be used to soften some of those level gaps in the early 30s, when higher-level content starts to run dry. Unfortunately, SL's experience rewards are terrible -- especially for low-level characters -- and even running lower level missions is more efficient. For high-level characters on Elite, SL isn't awful, but Demonflame is worlds ahead. Each of the mission objectives (except for the first two preliminary missions) grants experience equal to a "hard" normal mission, and the final mission complete also gives a "hard" mission reward. The towers are relatively short, so it's an incredible way to level with friends.

The rewards themselves seem inferior to Serpent Lantern, but I see that as a good thing; I think that SL grants far too many high-quality blue items in too short a time. By comparison, DF is a little sparse, but it grants far better experience, is more fun to play through, and is more rewarding to play through as a lower-level character.

I'm hoping that the challenge gets raised a little, and possibly that the rewards are adjusted somewhat, but even if it stays the way it is right now, Demonflame will be the bar for future adventure packs. It's a good (if easy) adventure and it's fun to do on teams.

If you have a mystically themed character, you owe it to yourself to check out Demonflame when it hits the Live servers. Even if you don't, it's a pretty engaging ride.

When he's not touring the streets of Millennium City or rolling mooks in Vibora Bay, Patrick Mackey goes Behind the Mask to bring you the nitty-gritty of the superhero world every Thursday. Whether it's expert analysis of Champions Online's game mechanics or his chronicled hatred of roleplaying vampires, Patrick holds nothing back.

This article was originally published on Massively.