The best way I can explain the difference between Devil Daggers and its surprise sequel is comparison to another pair of goth-o-ramas: Devil Daggers is Dark Souls to Hyper Demon's Bloodborne. Both first-person score attack shooters are dressed in similar beautiful cloaks of skulls and gurgling industrial soundscapes, but while Devil Daggers nudges you into cautious survival, Hyper Demon shoves you into aggression. In Hyper Demon, a long and cautious run will likely score lower than a short burst of ultraviolence. What glorious ultraviolence it is!
When I first saw Hyper Demon's trailer, I felt excitement, wonder, and fear. Here's the important thing to realise: the unearthly and incomprehensible violence you see in that trailer is genuinely what the game looks like to play. That's how it feels to play, too.
I am delighted that the best-looking game of 2016 has been followed by the best-looking game of 2022. Its many skulls have a crystalline makeover, glimmering like citrine and shattering the spectrum into rainbow highlights. Devil Daggers meets Skate Story. And when the action picks up and the screen becomes a fisheye view of unfathomable violence navigated by sound and intuition more than sight, god! Screenshots can't capture it.
Hyper Demon has the same setup as our favourite game of 2016: you're standing atop a barren plane in a void where hovering skulls and other skeletal horrors will spawn to getcha, a broad range of beasties with different behaviours. Bony pillars burp swarms of little skulls, skeletal snakes squirm and charge you before retreating into defensive coils, wyrms drift through the skies, greedy big beasties suck power-up gems towards their many maws, and so on. You'll die if even one touches you but luckily, your hand fires unholy knives. In both, you dodge, shoot, grab gems to gain stronger attacks, and just try to record a good score.
In Devil Daggers, you're there to survive as long as possible, a timer serving as your score. In Hyper Demon, the timer works against you, your score ticking down with every passing millisecond (even down into negatives). Murder is what earns you points here. Lots of murder, and fast, fast enough to outpace the clock. Hyper Demon puts you on the offensive. The faster you murder, the faster enemies spawn, the more difficult it becomes—but the greater your potential violence output.
You're encouraged to get right up in the action with new abilities and opportunities. A dodge move works like Bayonetta's Witch Time, offering a short burst of slow slo-mo if you hit space right when a nearby enemy's eyes glow. You can now follow the 'dagger jump' (look down and shoot to launch upwards, like a rocket jump) with a downward stomp which makes enemies more vulnerable to damage. One irksome teleporting enemy can be baited into descending onto its little legs and chasing you. You can also air-dash, glide, and slide to close distance. Power-ups and skillfull murder send the game into slow-motion too. Hyper Demon wants you deep in the bone zone at all times.
In Devil Daggers, there comes a point in a run where I, as a middling player (my best time is 283 seconds), know a run is lost. All I can do then is run and dodge in the hope of surviving a few seconds longer. At the most intense moment, I focus on fleeing. Hyper Demon forces me to fight against that. With the timer eating into my score, it's better to go down fighting than run out the clock. Who knows, maybe I'll even survive! At the most intense moment, when hope is thin, I lean hard into the game and push back. That's a good twist.
The game even offers a rear-view mirror to increase spatial awareness. Enemies which are close behind will appear on the screen before you as a translucent crimson reflection. I was surprised by how quickly this felt natural, not to mention invaluable. I still strongly recommend headphones to understand the sonic reflection of the battlefield, of course, not to mention to enjoy the awful noise.
Hyper Demon sounds great again. It has a few bits of (good) composed music but mostly it fills your ears with an emergent soundtrack of weird ambient industrial formed from the sprays of daggers and the groaning and gurgling and shrieking and wailing of foes. It all sounds so good that after dying in intense runs, while I take a breather to fortify my constitution, I've happily alt-tabbed out and continued listening to critters circling my corpse. It's a real mood. I mean, the mood is mostly dread. But what dread!
Here's a problem: I am quite bad at Hyper Demon, and improving is not intuitive. It does have tutorials, offering 13 short playable bits introducing key aspects of movement, monsters, and murder in a controlled environment. But there's a huge gulf between learning the tutorial's lessons and learning the flow of an actual successful run. Practising movement, tricks, and constant aggression is a process of throwing yourself against an instadeath wall over and over. While I'll never improve without experimentation, daring can become tiresome when failure results in a restart. That's just the type of game it is.
Even more than Devil Daggers, playing Hyper Demon is submitting to a murderous challenge filled with failure. I understand many people will find that wildly offputting, and I get it. I am persevering because I have glimpsed what Hyper Demon can be, and I ache to reach that more.
In my best runs, I have come to a point where near-permanent slow-motion kicks in, the field of view pulls out, the sound muffles, and the screen fills with wild effects as I bounce and blast and dash and dodge. I stopped seeing and thinking, and become a conduit for instinctual murder. That's the game I am fighting to see more of.
It does have an ending, you know. You can beat a final boss and finish this game. It's one achievement is for that. I suspect most players will never reach the end. I doubt I will. But the satisfaction comes in pushing myself to do better, to commit wilder and weirder violence, and to beat my Steam Friends on the leaderboards.
Speaking of leaderboards, Hyper Demon brings back an excellent Devil Daggers feature: watching replays of other players' runs direct from the leaderboards. I do enjoy seeing what the best manage, though I can barely understand their moves even with playback speed turned down. Hyper Demon also lets players clip sections of runs, like Twitch clips, which everyone can watch in-game or as videos on its website. That's nice.
While I am bad at Hyper Demon now, I aim to become okayish with time. Or at least, I aim to crawl back ahead of former RPS resident young person Matt Cox's best time. I can hardly wait for him to grow old and wizened like me. He'll see. Memento mori, Matthew. Contemplate the skulls.
Back to that questionable opening comparison. Like Dark Souls and Bloodborne, Devil Daggers and Hyper Demon might look the same at a glance but the differences are enough to make it an exciting new experience.