Wot I Think: Devil Daggers

Devil Daggers [official site] is a mystery to me. It’s an arena of grinding bones and rattling insectoid limbs that I experience in 30-60 second bursts. I probably average around 45-50 seconds. That’s survival time for an entire playthrough, which is also the metric by which the game ranks players on its leaderboard. Alice has topped two minutes, which leads me to believe she has sold her soul to the devil daggers. How else to explain such longevity?

I can’t pick apart the more eldritch horrors of Devil Daggers but I can tell you about some of the things that are definitely 100% A+ good. These are the things that I understand rather than the dark secrets that are my undoing.

First of all, I need you to look at this video. You may have seen it already but watch it one more time. It lasts about as long as I do when I jump into the infernal arena.

When I first saw that trailer, I wasn’t convinced the aesthetic qualities would translate into an enjoyable or legible experience. Happily, they do. Visually, it’s a horrorshow of grotesque skittering nightmares, but the audio is the star of the show.

Everything that moves makes an appropriate sound. Giant centipedal terrors approaching from the left? You’ll hear a sound like a fingerbone tapping and scraping at the inside of your skull. Horned hunter-skull pursuing at the rear? Repetitive laughter like a crypt’s cough on the back of your neck.

You could almost play the game with your eyes closed (keep in mind, this is coming from someone who can barely play the game with his eyes open), tracking enemies by listening for their audio cues. In fact, cues isn’t the right word – the sounds are constant, shifting around the gamespace as the creatures flow through it in waves.

It’s a game of few individual elements but of many moving parts. I’m sure that every situation is predictable, given the rote behaviour of the bone-spawn that hunt you, but in the thick of the action groups of enemies become entangled and then tiny glowing insects burst through the mob that you’re herding (or that are herding you) and nothing is certain.

Devil Daggers only has one mode and one structure within which to fling your weaponry and dodge the onslaught of osseous matter that chitters, clatters and curls toward you. It’s a flat arena, a platform suspended in an abyss.

For the first few seconds of each attempt, towering structures of blood and bone loom out of the darkness and send avalanches of skulls in your general direction. Some of the skulls will roam, avoiding conflict. The majority roll and tumble toward you, creating a trail of death that follows you, moving faster than you can move but with one of the least effective turning circles of Hell.

After twenty or thirty attempts, I started to think of those first seconds as the opening round. Immediately, in that concise time and space, various tactical options emerge. Is it better to keep the arena as clean as possible, bursting every skull before downing the tower that spawns them? Or perhaps you should concentrate on strafing and dodging, bunching the enemies into a mass that you can then remove with a burst of fire?

Every second counts and every second is host to a multitide of decisions. You’re always trying to find breathing room, whether by ducking in between waves of death that have been carefully corralled or by using your daggers to clear a space. The daggers themselves are projectile weapons, fired either in a continuous stream by holding the left mouse button down or in shotgun-like blasts unleashed by clicking once.

The only time I stop shooting is in the miniscule gap between a flurry of fire and the up-close burst of a single click when an enemy comes close enough to eat every piece of shrapnel. I understand how to time my approach to the early enemy types. Bouncing skulls can be grouped together fairly easily, although problems begin when they’re coming from various directions at the same time. They pop after a couple of shots. Easy. In principle.

But the towers that spit them out rotate slowly and have a weak spot on just one side. I usually time my attack for the couple of seconds when the trajectory of my fire is aligned with that weak spot rather than trying to move into a position that gives me access to it. Waiting to see that pulsing red target can take an age when you need to clear the tower out of your way lest you collide with it as you dodge the horde behind you.

An age in Devil Daggers lasts around 1.5 seconds.

These brief eons haven’t led to frustration. Like Hotline Miami, the game doesn’t really differentiate between one life and the next though. You die and you live, over and over, with no loading screens or delays. Death isn’t even an inconvenience – it’s a chance to reset and apply new learning.

In case it isn’t clear, I’ll come right out and say that Devil Daggers is a brilliant game. It’s small but perfectly formed, tough but rewarding, and it reminds me of my favourite elements of nineties first-person shooters without mimicking their structure. It’s like the final battle, when every boss you faced through the game’s running time appears in the same room and raises hell.

I have no idea how many creatures I’m likely to meet if I continue. This is where the mystery comes in, along with my ignorance. I can’t even cope with the second tier of enemies very well at the moment and when I watch videos of top-ranking players, I’m mesmerised.

Brilliantly, I can watch those videos from within the game. There are global and ‘friend’ leaderboards and you can click a little eye next to any entry to watch the run that earned them their spot. I can watch Alice’s improbable feats right now.

It’s been a long while since I’ve wanted to climb a leaderboard quite as much as I do right now. That’s partly because I see it everytime I die and can’t help but notice that only a second separates me from the position above. It’s also because I can watch that person’s best effort and know that I can beat it. Weirdly, even though I’m becoming competitive, I can’t watch a video without rooting for the person playing. The millions of deaths in Devil Daggers shouldn’t happen to anyone. Survival seems so unlikely but it’s always within reach

Some of those high level players have actually figured out how to farm enemies to unlock brief psychedelic powerups. I’m learning from them, just as I’m learning from my own research trips – those briefest of attempts in which I study enemy behaviour like a doomed zoologist rather than killing everything in sight.

This is a game in which I’m trying to spin out just a few more seconds and in doing so I’m likely to spend a couple of hours at a time. I have no regrets.

Devil Daggers is out today on Windows.

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64 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    The aesthetics are just outstanding. I’m concerned at the lack of soundtrack- this kind of game seems built to be played to music (a la Hotline), but the sound effects seem great without it.

    • TΛPETRVE says:

      I’d say the soundtrack is pretty much procedurally generated, by the grating sounds of the on-screen action. It’s like listening to an Abruptum or :STALAGGH: album.

      • Faults says:

        The guy who did the sound design for this game dropped a couple of electro-industrial type albums under the pseudonym Vprojekt. Check him out. Should probably disspel any doubts as to whether the lack of any tangible music would affect the atmosphere.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Thulsa Hex says:

    Wow, this seems terrifyingly ghoulish, and positively brilliant!

  3. Al Bobo says:

    72 seconds is my newest high score. I have to stop playing for today or I will have trouble falling asleep. That game puts me on the edge of my seat.

  4. Zankman says:

    I was just browsing the new releases on Steam and the aesthetic in this game is so horrid (aka bad) that I instantly clicked on “Not Interested”.

    • Sulpher says:

      And yet, for me, this game electrifies the Quake-centers of my brain.

    • wishforanuclearwinter says:

      I feel the exact opposite. Score-attack bullet hells aren’t really my thing, but I’ve been waiting for the zeitgeist of retro-indie style to finally move on to mid-90’s 3D.

    • hamilcarp says:

      Are we looking at the same game? There is just no accounting for taste is there.

  5. kwyjibo says:

    This abstract hellscape is closer to what Doom is than the new Doom is.

    • deadly.by.design says:

      I thought about that, too. It almost seems like someone recreated Doom content on the original Quake engine.

    • Alien says:

      My preferred combinations:

      Doom (gameplay, levels) + Devil Daggers (graphics and sound)
      Teleglitch (gameplay, levels) + Devil Daggers (graphics and sound)
      Diablo 1 (gameplay, levels) + Devil Daggers (graphics and sound)

    • Unsheep says:

      Are you kidding ? this is a friggin’ Duck Hunt game: just point and shoot. This is as simplistic as a shooter can possibly get, and is far removed from the complex level design and tactical thinking represented in Doom.

      • TΛPETRVE says:

        Check the game before you start vomiting up bullshit. This is a highly skill-based game that’ll get you nowhere without employing the whole bunnyhop and rocket-jump kaboodle. Has nuffink in common with Duck Hunt.

      • Kamahlk says:

        You have no idea what you’re talking about. This game requires extremely quick tactical decision making much in the same way that DOOM requires, except you have much more of a 3d space going on and more enemies all around you.

      • scannerbarkly says:

        Before jumping in with thoughts about games it is, arguably, important to actually play the game first.

    • thelastpointer says:

      Last time you people were complaining about how the new Doom should have much more color (and posting stupidly photoshopped screenshots).

      • Premium User Badge

        Llewyn says:

        If “you people” is RPS commenters (or the subset, RPS commenters on FPS games), then bear in mind that you are also part of “you people”.

  6. C0llic says:

    Well I knew I suppose I knew I’d buy this. 60 seconds so far :D

  7. Premium User Badge

    Thulsa Hex says:

    Noooo! Am I blind or is there no way to reverse the Y axis on the mouse? There’s no way I’ll be able to play properly unless it’s added :(

    • Premium User Badge

      Thulsa Hex says:

      The dev said on Twitter that they didn’t think of it and it’ll be added soon! Cool.

      • deadly.by.design says:

        Good to know! I literally cannot play an FPS without an inverted y axis.

        For some odd reason, I’m the opposite for third person.

        • Premium User Badge

          Thulsa Hex says:

          Yeah, I’m the same for essentially all first person games, though it tends to vary for me with third person cameras.

        • ZippyLemon says:

          What era in gaming do you people come from? You boggle my mind. Were you playing 90s flight sims with a mouse or something? What slew of games conditioned you into such a disorder? I MUST KNOW

          • Premium User Badge

            Thulsa Hex says:

            Playing flight sims (mostly WWII air war) and Tie Fighter, in the early 90s when I was 8 or 9 years old, probably did it to me. I used a flight stick, as far as I can recall, but that seems to have been influence enough. It was Half-Life that finally taught me the wonders of “mouse look,” in 1998 (I’m sure I soldiered through Quake without it), and I was immediately far more comfortable and capable when I checked that “inverted” box — although I still used arrow keys to move!

            As an aside, it wasn’t until Ghost Recon in 2001 that I finally used WSAD for the first time. Those early Tom Clancy tactical FPS games were ruthless and the fractions of seconds lost by moving my hand half-way across the keyboard to hit certain keys meant the difference between life or death, even in the first mission! The logic of default FPS key-bindings suddenly became clear, after years of snubbing them for them arrows.

          • Waltorious says:

            I always find it odd to see surprise when some people like inverted mouse controls. It’s always felt more natural to me to play with inverted mouse; looking down feels like a forward motion, looking up feels like a backward motion. I guess it’s because I think of mouse movements in terms of forwards and backwards rather than up and down.

            In truth, of course, both standard and inverted mouse controls are equally arbitrary, but there are clearly many who share my preference and I don’t see why it should be considered odd.

            Having said that, I did try to play TIE Fighter with a mouse as a kid before I got a joystick, so maybe it’s all from that. But even then, my fuzzy memory implies that the inverted controls felt natural there.

          • mynicksaretaken says:

            In truth, of course, both standard and inverted mouse controls are equally arbitrary

            No. You’re odd.

          • Premium User Badge

            Thulsa Hex says:

            Absolutely!

          • Premium User Badge

            Thulsa Hex says:

            Whoops! That was meant to quote Waltorious: “…looking down feels like a forward motion, looking up feels like a backward motion.”

          • Premium User Badge

            Qazinsky says:

            I can only speak for myself but I use inverted mouse because back when I started 3D games, there wasn’t this massive amount of titles there is today. While today, I can just focus on very specific genres (like FPSes, RPGs, FPRPGs and the occasional dip into interesting parts of other genres, like XCOM2) back then I was limited by the few games I could get my hands on, so could go from flight sims and Descent to Duke3d. As a pilot, you need to pull your control device downwards to fly up and that led to controlling shooters the same to avoid confusion.

          • Dare_Wreck says:

            If I recall correctly, the first FPS I played where I used mouse+keyboard controls was Dark Forces, and (again, if memory serves me correctly), it’s mouse controls had the Y-axis flipped as its default and it messed me up for a long time. It took me many years to finally shake the habit of flipping my y-axis in FPS games, but after I switched to what we now consider the normal orientation for the y-axis, I never went back.

    • Premium User Badge

      JiminyJickers says:

      I taught myself to stop playing FPS games inverted. It took me a couple of weeks but it makes things so much easier. It seems that these days so many devs forget to include invert options.

      • Premium User Badge

        Thulsa Hex says:

        Honestly, I’ve never felt like this as it seems to be essentially universally supported — even on console. One thing I loved about the Xbox 360 was being able to set your profile to invert look by default and never having to think about it, again. The only game I can remember having issues with was Beyond Good & Evil on GameCube. I got used to it, eventually, but it was a pain at the start (the HD re-release also doesn’t have the option, unfortunately).

  8. Premium User Badge

    oWn4g3 says:

    So close, Adam!
    link to i.imgur.com

    • Premium User Badge

      oWn4g3 says:

      I actually just skimmed the review as this was definitely one of my must buys and after some attempts I end up behind this weird RPS guy and went back to double-check for the author of the review.

  9. Unsheep says:

    Meh, this won’t keep me playing for long, I want more in my shooters than just boss fights with no actual level design.

    • Sulpher says:

      I think of it more like a FPS bullet hell. Though speaking of levels, maybe the dev is open to user made maps? Which raises the question of demon mob pathing and wall collision; ie, there might be none since the action unfolds on a single mote of rock floating in a hypogean abyss.

    • Stevostin says:

      I totally agree. Then I played it. Then I was instantly addicted.

      It’s not a boss fight IMO. It’s more like playing an intense old school shoot them up. At a point you reach an half conscious state of mind, everything becomes blurry, yet you dance in the middle of hell giving it hell back and nothing else matter.

  10. Sarfrin says:

    Isn’t it a little early for April Fools?

  11. Juppstein says:

    This sounds like an endless Dark Souls bossfight. In a good way.

  12. Premium User Badge

    john_silence says:

    “Crypt’s cough” should be a death metal band. The kind who’d do the soundtrack for Devil’s Daggers if having a soundtrack was compatible with the game. I just checked on metal-archives.com, turns out there are 50 bands called Crypt (50!) and just one called Cough.

    The next best thing would be Grave Miasma, an actual Occult Death Metal band from England, I mean they’ve even got a song aptly called Seven Coils. It’s over 8 minutes long so almost no one would be leet enough to hear it to the end. Cue Steam achievement.

    • Aeongrave says:

      Obscure reference alert. That Ancient Barbaric Assault demo is still one of the greatest things I’ve ever heard. Even shamelessly emulated the production a couple times.

      • Butts says:

        I’m glad you made this reference, because now I know a band called Goat Molestör exists.

        • asmodemus says:

          There’s also a fairly well known old Australian band called “Lubricated Goat”. Poor old goats…

      • Premium User Badge

        john_silence says:

        Man, Grave Miasma is one of my favourite DM bands and I didn’t even bother to check and find out they had, like, a past! Got to check out that demo, thanks for the unholy heads-up

  13. Jack_Empty says:

    Kinda looks like an FPS Geometry Wars.

  14. GWOP says:

    Glad to hear it plays as well as it sounds and looks.

  15. haldolium says:

    The way they did the “watch replay” is rather awesome.

    Also great game but sadly too little mouse options.

  16. padger says:

    This looks fantastic, picking it up now.

  17. Geebs says:

    I rather like this. It’s like an old-school FPS, but instead of constantly running backwards, you have to keep running forwards.

    About 50 seconds, but I play inverted. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

    • scannerbarkly says:

      Backwards is important too! Burst at the ground plus jump plus 180 turn has saved my booty a few times.

  18. Stevostin says:

    Bought it, played some, 85 sec or something after 108 minutes. Had to unglue myself for the game cause, you know, real life. But seriously, GOTM 100% and GOTY possibly. It’s a bit like Hot Line Miami’s vibe, with much tighter gameplay but less story to discuss.

    • Tacroy says:

      I love how the game has so few mechanics but they’re all deeply interlinked – red crystals spawn as you kill things, collecting them makes your shots more powerful / plentiful, but they’re not attracted to you while you’re firing. And those bug things at the edge of the screen eat power crystals and turn them into the nasty hard to see green skitterers.

      also you can rocket jump by shotgunning at your feet

  19. C0llic says:

    You couldn’t be more wrong. I suspect the top players on the boards are old quake players. You can just tell by how they move. It is just a ‘survive as long as you can’ single arena, so if that doesn’t appeal this isn’t the game for you, but your put-down is nonsense.

  20. Zhnigo says:

    Is there a way to stop these articles from appearing in my steam game update feed?

  21. xaphoo says:

    This game is fantastic, one of the only recent games to channel that precious adolescent mid-90s heavy-metal-Lovecraft thing that Quake did so well.

    A youtube comment said it best: “this looks like a game messed up white kids will play lol”

    Also the gameplay is beautiful. I can’t get past 90 seconds, but I played that same minute and a half for almost two hours with great pleasure.

  22. xcopy says:

    Great Quake aesthetic and fantastic sound!
    I recommend anything from Merzbow as a soundtrack for this. I will not sleep well tonight.

    Could someone please make a surreal corridor shooter out of this?

    • isailing says:

      Merzbow and this game were made for each other. Also goes quite well with some Igorrr or Meshuggah.

  23. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    Man, this game is some sort of weirdly appealing/enjoyable constant stress stream for me, but a friend who’s long been better at FPSes than me described it as more of a “zen” experience.

    I’ll definitely be back because it’s awesome, but I had to go play Squarecells before bed. :P

    • Tacroy says:

      Games like this tend to be a constant stream of stress until they work themselves into you, at which point you transcend and it becomes a zen experience.

      See also: Super Meat Boy, Binding of Isaac, Spelunky.

  24. Bweahns says:

    Daggers reminds me of round42 for some reason. link to youtube.com

    • Buzko says:

      Wow. I felt sure that had to be a modern de-make. Thanks!

      That and Devil Daggers remind me of Thumper. Such aggressively uncomfortable games. I’ll never play them, but am entranced.