AKA Circle-Strafe Simulator 2016.
On the face of it Devil Daggers is a really, really simple game. When you boot it up for the first time and start a round, you’ll find yourself surrounded by darkness and staring at a floating, ethereally glowing dagger. You move forward to pick the dagger up – this is the only thing you can do – but this is, existentially speaking, something of a mistake since doing so lights up the platform/arena that is going to contain the entirety of your short and exciting life from this point on, and also starts spawning in various hellish creatures that do their very best to make physical contact with you. If they touch you, you die. And you are going to die, make no mistake about that; there’s no explicit win condition in Devil Daggers. Your goal is simply to survive for as long as possible.
Fortunately the spectral dagger gives you some rather interesting powers. Holding down the left mouse button fires a constant stream of red dagger projectiles from your outstretched fingers; these unfortunately have quite a slow travel time and there’s no crosshairs in Devil Daggers to help you aim, so they’re best used for dealing large amounts of damage to stationary or point-blank targets heading straight towards you. (Fortunately most targets in Devil Daggers are point-blank targets heading straight towards you.) When you do want to shoot things at a distance, or which are moving at an angle to you, you resort to tapping the left mouse button instead. This fires a shotgun-like spread of daggers that move more quickly than the stream, but they’re less good for sustained damage to groups.
These two attacks are your core abilities in Devil Daggers1. They’re all you’ve got to face off against an actual, literal horde of demonic beasties that unceasingly chase you around the arena. The game starts you off lightly, with a single spawner that vomits out 8-10 regular skulls and a single horned skull. The regular skulls just chase you; they seem to be a little faster than you on straights but they don’t corner well, which is why circle-strafing is the order of the day in Devil Daggers. The horned skull meanwhile just patrols in a circle, only coming for you if you get close. Once you get good at the game you can kill all of this first group of enemies before they even hit the ground, and follow up by taking out the spawner by shooting the large red gem embedded in its side.
If you do manage to do it that quickly, you’ll have a brief moment of respite – one of only three in the game where you’re waiting for things to spawn rather than backpedalling hell-for-leather away from them. Only a moment, though, as another spawner shows up quickly, and then two more at the same time, each of which deposits a group of skulls/horned skulls on the ground to chase you. Cleaning these up quickly is critical, and not all that easy; the spawners rotate so that their weak spot is periodically facing away from you and the horned skulls have an annoying tendency to dodge your shots. You want to get the horned skulls, though, since while they may not be all that threatening on their own you will find yourself backing into them time and again when the action gets more frenetic, and also they drop red powerup gems just like the spawners. Get ten red gems and your attacks become more powerful, with both the stream and shotgun attacks firing more daggers.
And you want this upgrade as soon as possible, believe me, as this gentle opening with just the four basic spawners gives way to the real Devil Daggers about forty seconds in. This is when the first spider appears. Spiders are huge skulls with eight legs that float off the edge of the arena; if you see a spider you should kill it ASAP because it’ll suck in the red powerup gems that the tougher enemies and spawners drop and use them to create egg sacs which it’ll deposit somewhere inconvenient. If left unmolested, the egg sac will burst and spawn multiple small spiders which will usually kill you. Fortunately it’s not all that difficult to kill the big spider before it can do anything nasty – but only if you were prompt in clearing up those first four spawners. If you’re still chasing skulls/the skulls are still chasing you, your game will quickly spiral out of control as either the skulls will get you while you’re concentrating on the spider, or the spider will get you while you’re concentrating on the skulls. This is entirely leaving aside the fact that a big spawner also appears at the same time the spider does; this has two gems that need to be destroyed in order to remove it, and it also spawns serrated skulls which are far more dangerous than the other two varieties since they’re a little faster and turn a little quicker. If your attention is occupied at this point dealing with the spiders and the skulls from the first spawners, it’s likely that the last thing you’ll hear is the laughter of a serrated skull before it runs you over.
The game escalates quickly from here. More big and small spawners pop in at regular intervals, and your efforts shift from cleanup to crowd control as you desperately sprint around the arena alternately trying to thin out that horde of skulls chasing you and taking out spawners as quickly as possible. You can’t concentrate on just one; the spawners will always spawn at least one pack of skulls, so you have to turn around to blast the pursuing horde every chance you get before it grows too big to handle. Meanwhile new spawners appear just as fast as you can remove them, so if you get distracted and try to remove all the skulls first you’ll end up with eight spawners on the platform belching out more skulls – there’s no coming back from that. You have to do both, constantly hosing down the skull pack with daggers while tracing a route around the arena that allows you to kill spawners every so often. Eventually a dragon turns up along with another spider; this is a repeat of the situation with the first spider, as if you haven’t done a good job of killing the skulls and spawners you won’t be able to kill the dragon and spider in time before the next wave of spawners appears, and you’ll die in pretty short order.
This target prioritisation is a key part of Devil Daggers, and it has to be balanced with the reflex shooting and situational awareness required to stay alive. You can’t just go “Oh there’s a spider, I’ll kill that now,” without knowing where everything else in the arena is at all times, otherwise you’ll get cold-cocked from behind by a skull before you know what’s happening. Some of this is experience — after seven hours and god knows how many runs I’ve developed the ability to intuitively know where the skull pack is (right behind me) and when I need to turn to evade it (right the hell now) — but mostly it’s achieved through some excellent sound cues. Every monster makes a different sound, from the belch of the spawners to the skittering of the spiders to the infernal laughing of the serrated skulls, and since the arena is so dark it’s imperative that you use this to inform your movements. If you hear a spawner off to your left, for example, you should move to your right as that means there’ll be a pack of skulls incoming from the left. You don’t need to actually look at it to know it’s there and what you need to do. Equally the reliance on sound cues is another one of the reasons why staying on top of enemy numbers is important, as too many enemies will drown out the useful signal in the surrounding noise and you’ll eventually be dragged under.
Through experience and the sound cues you eventually stop dying at the 45-60 second mark, and you can start to enjoy Devil Daggers for what it is: a first-person bullet hell shooter rendered in an excellent Quake-in-software-mode graphical style that evokes id software during their golden years — which is appropriate given the theme of the game. Still, while it is undeniably well-designed I don’t think it would have much longevity without two core features: Steam leaderboards that show you how your time places globally (I’m 1537th in the world!) and against your friends, and the ability to download a replay of everyone’s top times to see what they did right to beat you – and where they eventually screwed up. This replay feature is especially important given that Devil Daggers does absolutely nothing to teach you how to play it; as the game is so simple this isn’t a huge problem, but as experience and learning enemy patterns are a key part of the game the replays are incredibly useful for seeing how the top players prioritise and defeat certain enemies. I really like games that do this, and it makes Devil Daggers a much softer experience than its hellishly unforgiving nature would suggest – it does actually want you to succeed and gives you the best possible tool to help improve your runs and beat your friends.
Devil Daggers is an almost-perfectly designed micro-experience; it only supports individual round times of 1-3 minutes or so, but you can play six or seven of them in a row without getting bored at all. If I have one complaint it is that there is a difficulty wall at 190 seconds that I’ve been unable to breach despite hours of trying; I logged my best time of 197 seconds after four hours of play, and have yet to better it despite an additional three hours of attempts. I’ve come close, but I consistently die at 193, 194, 195 seconds, and this is because 190 seconds seems to be the point where the game shifts from something designed for ordinary human beings to something that’s targeted squarely at the twitch gamers of the world. It’s the point where there’s so much going on and so many enemies around you that the sound cues I mentioned earlier get drowned out by noise, and so you’re left solely with your reflexes – and it seems that 190 seconds is as far as mine will carry me. It’s not like there’s a slow ramp up to this point either; it’s a genuine step change, with 3-4 spawners, 3 spiders and a dragon all spawning in at roughly the same time. It seems that if I want to see the game past this point I’ll have to be content with doing it via the replays of the top players. Since Devil Daggers has a pricetag of just £4, though, I can’t complain too much; it is very appropriately priced for what is ultimately a simple idea, but it’s an incredibly well-executed one nonetheless.
- There’s also a homing dagger attack, but this requires you to power up the daggers to their maximum level which is something I’ve only ever managed to do three times since it requires you to survive for 190 seconds plus. ↩
You know, PS1-era graphics deserve a little love. Like pixel art, when it’s well-done it can have a very nice look. I’ve got no interest in this game from a mechanical perspective, but every time I see a screenshot it looks lovely. In a hellish way.
It takes a lot of effort to do pixel art well, and I’m sure it takes just as much effort to do this sort of dated 3D style well. And Devil Daggers does. It’s exactly the right art style for the game, and I think it’d actually lose a lot of its charm if it had gone for higher graphical fidelity for the sake of it. Maybe it’s just me, but I do wish games with deliberately retro style went for periods other than the early 90s SNES RPG.
I think part of it is that 3D graphics were so often sold as “realistic,” so people don’t really remember how stylized a lot of 3D games were. We remember the ugly world sprites of Final Fantasy VII and the ugly textures of Ocarina of Time, but forget the sketchy comic-book look of Vagrant Story and the vibrancy of Chrono Cross.