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.