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RPS Advent Calendar, Dec 24th: Devil Daggers

2016's best game

Here we are at last. What was the best game of 2016? What was the best hell of 2016? It's the same game. It's behind the final door of the RPS Advent Calendar, which lists our favourite games from across the year...

It's Devil Daggers!

Graham: I don't care what day it is, this is the best game of the year.

It's Id's early aesthetic (eg. skulls) boiled down into an arena shooter. It's also cribbed Id's early weapon design (shotgun and lightning gun, specifically), merging them together into the player's hand, which sprays red death at a growing mob of enemies (eg. skulls) that are chasing after you and the strange obelisks that birth them.

An interesting novelty, short on 'content', or so I keep reading. But I went back and back and back and I started to survive longer, because I started to notice its nuances. How you can turbocharge the sprayed projectiles from your hand using red gems dropped by those obelisks, for example, and how timing the moment of that turbocharge can help you to reach further which in turn prompts you to let those obelisks live for longer. How there are more enemies to be discovered than I initially realised, once I could live long enough to meet them, and how each disrupts my established movement patterns and forces me to re-jig my enemy priority list again and…

I love everything about it. The way it looks, the way it feels, the way it sounds. The sound! I don't normally much notice or care about audio, but the worble of your sprayed projectiles, the tinny tinkling when you hit an enemy, the splorch when you pop them, the low discordant hum which underscores the entire game, the chittering of those giant arena-adjacent bugs, the way everything seems to be screaming…

I keep trailing off because I feel like I could go on and on about every detail.

I play Devil Daggers for 5, 10, 15 minutes at a time, but it's the game I've played most this year. It's a game I play in the same way I play N, Trackmania and Spelunky. It is the Those Games of the first-person shooter, and it deserves to be a classic in the way those games are classics.

Alec: Wait, come on. The game of 2016? Be serious.

Devil Daggers has always existed. Long after the world is only ash and bone and a shatter'd visage, whose weave and jutting lips and short fingers tell that its sculptor well that greed read, there will still be Devil Daggers. Proud and evil and wonderful and eternal. It's simply that 2016 just so happened to be the year that Devil Daggers first tore a fissure into our reality and poked an immortal tendril through it.

I confess, I can only only dance with the devil in the pale moonlight for so long until I reach the upper limit of what my reflexes can do. Nonetheless, I consider Devil Daggers to be an essentially perfect game. It knows exactly what it is doing - nothing is wasted, nothing is an accident, nothing is distraction. Clear-eyed focus beyond focus. The very essence of game: you vs the machine, dancing the endless dance, pursued not just by things but by audio that openly states the dark unreality of what we do when we play a game about shooting things.

Doom became Quake became Half-Life became Call of Duty became everything that is story and DLC and new graphics cards. In that other universe, the one Devil Daggers was born in, before it created its own eternal life in its pocket hell-dimension, Doom became Quake became Devil Daggers. Purity and darkness and demons and sound. The hero 2016 needs, not the one 2016 deserves right now.

Brendan: I didn't put an ‘X' next to this on our mysterious internal games of the year spreadsheet. I've only played it for about 15-20 minutes. It's good, I can tell it's good, but I don't feel compelled to return. The Devil holds no sway over me. Sorry, guys.

John: I'm delighted Devil Daggers is our GOTY, despite its being a game I wouldn't even have considered including. I absolutely adored my very brief time playing this idiotically hard game, yet would never have played it if Pip and Alice hadn't forced me to.

It's exceptionally good, and that it manages to be exceptionally good in a minute and a half (haha, I'm lying, I've never survived 90 seconds) is a huge part of why. It captures the complexity and brilliance of hardcore FPS, and titrates it into a concentrated plip of purest game.

But it didn't capture me. I completely get why it's captured others, and that's why I'm so pleased it's topped our Calendar. For me, this is being on the other side of the fence from 2013, when Jim and I argued hard for Teleglitch to be behind Door 24, and were (very reasonably) pipped by Kentucky Route Zero. Devil Daggers is very much 2016's Teleglitch, and an honourable winner. Stunning game, and I'm terrible at it.

Pip: I'm with Brendy – I can see why you lot love it and I can see why it's ended up at the top of this list – but it's not for me. I don't have the yearning for a better score, nor the particular skillset to make my fumbling in the dark with demons particularly enjoyable. I remember seeing most of RPS sneaking into Steam for bouts of Devil Daggery over the year but I was off in AdVenture Capitalist, spending those short bursts of time between news stories and whatnot investing in my imaginary business empire. In terms of highly streamlined games which are extremely polished I'd say I align better with Thumper this year. Oh. And I'm also going to use this entry to remind you that I'm still angry AND disappointed that no-one else got into Subnautica. I hope Horace continually kicks you out of the Devil Daggers high score tables for this. SUBNAUTICA FROM A FEW PATCHES AGO: GOTY.

Adam: I always write too much, or more than I expected to at any rate. So I'm going to be brief here.

I've been reading a lot of reviews of and thoughts about Super Mario Run recently and all of them make me think of Devil Daggers. Not because the games are similar but because I wish every game attracted the same level of analysis. How exactly does Mario run, how does he jump, how are the levels designed to make a game in which you don't have control of the direction you're going very much a game in which you control the direction that you're going?

Some spectacularly designed and refined games fall through the gaps of critical analysis because people don't take the time to appreciate them. Devil Daggers is lean and muscular (though there's still room for plenty of boney scaffolding as well), and at a glance it might feel slight. It doesn't have a name like Mario, Doom or Quake attached to bring the attention of a boatload of players and critics on board. It could have passed by unnoticed, except in passing, with barely a thought given to precisely why it works so well.

And yet here we are, naming it our game of the year. That makes me extremely happy because it's a game that gets every detail of its design just right. I might prefer the messy character work and mathematics of a grand strategy game long-term, but I've never come across one as perfectly crafted as Devil Daggers and almost certainly never will. Aesthetically, it's creepy, artistically distinct, and painstakingly legible, in both audio and visual departments, and the pace of every projectile and enemy is exactly right. It's challenging and life is brief, but it never wastes your time. It's leaderboards are both the carrot and the stick, promising improvement (and showing how to achieve it through accessible replays of other peoples' best attempts) and showing how much is left to do.

It could have been full of unlockables, rewards in the form of new weapons or skills, and punishments in the form of new enemies and layouts, but instead it is precisely what it appears to be. It's a whole thing, without end.

Alice: I've not peeked - hey, I like to be surprised too - but I assume we've awarded Devil Daggers prizes for Bestest Best Sound and Bestest Best Best-Looking as well as Bestest Best Game. Great job, everyone. We really nailed this. I adore Devil Daggers.

I was taken at first glance, falling for its satanic take on early 3D with wibbly-wobbly models and unsmoothed textures building creatures far more complex than was possible Back in the Day. Good juxtaposition, that. Then I heard the floobling gun, the groaning skulls and... ah, I adore it. This is all backed up by the thrill of weaving backwards through a swarm of skulls by sound alone while blasting at the gem-filled guts of a vast skullsnake winding overhead.

It took me ten hours to survive five minutes in Devil Daggers. I adore the experience of surviving to reach a new wave (especially if it introduces new enemies), being startled, dying, learning to survive it, then later coming to actually understand it. Devil Daggers is full of careful timings and opportunities that only become clear after hours. At first, it seemed to simply spawn more - and nastier - skulls when it pleases. But the better I got, the more I appreciated its patterns. What seemed like an impossible situation two hours before is, I'd realise, actually the game feeding me power-ups before it kicks difficulty up a notch. Waves work with and against each other in lovely ways, and roaring through them with my wibblegun is a treat.

Lay down a good time, challenge some chums to do better, and away you go for hours of fun playing the same few minutes.

Here's a cool skulltip: slow-mo Devil Daggers is an amazing soundtrack if you enjoy warbling groaning. Press , to slow replays down (. to speed up, / to reset) a few notches, alt-tab, and enjoy groans that I find mighty useful for blocking out distractions while working.

Oh, and one of the coolest things I've seen this year was Devil Daggers projected onto the bare stone wall of an underground chamber at a pal's event.

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The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.