Devil Daggers Review
Quake Done Slick
Have you ever played a Doom slaughter map? They're not for the easily intimidated, let's put it that way. Like many of the modding community's niche products, they're a result of taking one facet of the old-school shooter formula and distilling it into something so pure and singular that it works as a standalone experience. No level to explore, no pacing or progression; just a cavernous room, enough monsters to bring the engine to its knees, and enough ammunition to reduce every single one to economy-brand dog food. What matters here, more than anything else, is the horde; the swarm of targets that outnumbers you a hundredfold, lashing out constantly, complex patterns momentarily surfacing from its depths before disappearing back into the roaring chaos. You can only retreat, massacring opportunistically, and hope that somewhere deep in those hardened neural pathways is the necessary skill to somehow unconsciously keep track of every possible hazard coming towards you. It's utterly overwhelming and tremendously stressful, like playing tag with a tsunami, and chances are you know how you're going to end up: staring at the red-tinted death screen as an endless procession of monsters wade through the corpses of their brethren, arms aching, nerves frayed, wondering lightheadedly if the last five minutes of panicked screaming were audible or just confined to the inside of your skull.
And yet Doom, along with its contemporaries, is an imperfect platform for this kind of hectic, arena-based survival; it was designed for chains of smaller skirmishes distributed throughout tight, corridor-filled levels, not heroic last stands in otherworldly colosseums, and it shows. Why can’t somebody refine that experience? What if people stopped trying to blindly remake the old id Software shooters and instead started to look intelligently at their legacies, picking and choosing specific elements to expand upon? Those games were about so much more than running around E1M1 blasting demons in the face; they were about deathmatch, obscure mods, ugly maps, engine exploits and forbidden techniques. They were melting pots of ideas that turned the basic formula over and over so many times it was sometimes barely recognisable. There are hints of true brilliance lying there, forgotten in favour of vague happy memories of The Slipgate Complex, but maybe, just maybe, there’s somebody out there willing to reach into the muck and pull out a diamond. Maybe that’s what happened with Devil Daggers; a game so tight and elegant and pure in its design that I can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief for the future of old-school shooters. “Finally,” I want to say. “Somebody who knows what they’re doing.”
Don’t die. That’s the only objective: to survive as long as possible. It’s unclear what cruel fate trapped you on this rough-hewn stone platform suspended in a suffocating pitch-black void, but you have only a few moments to contemplate that question before the creatures born in the yawning depths begin to encroach on your haven. All you have is your wits, your agility, and your weapon, the titular Devil Dagger: click once for a scattered shotgun-like blast, hold click for a narrow stream. Out of the dark come the monsters, slowly at first, then quickly, each one blessed with an instantly lethal touch. Collect the gems that they drop to power up your weapon, if you can. All that matters now is that you fend them off long enough to push past your high score, and climb a precious few ranks on the enormous self-operated torture rack that is the global leaderboard.
It’s easy to see Devil Daggers being influenced by shmups in parts of its design—the single weapon with a wide and narrow shot, the instant fail state upon brushing pretty much anything, the all-consuming obsession with making a number go as high as possible and then showing it off to your mates—but if you, like me, buy all your video games from the wormhole in your closet that leads to an early-2000s EB Games, then what you’re going to be primarily impressed with is the first-person shooter part of its design. It’s no big feat to create roughly the kind of experience Devil Daggers embodies—the classic bunnyhopping, rocket-jumping, circle-strafing, backpedalling slaughter-fest replicated in games like Serious Sam or Painkiller—but while plenty of games have integrated those elements into their design, few have taken the extra step that Devil Daggers does and intelligently refined them to the point where they feel like part of a cohesive design, rather than tacked-on features designed to pay lip service to a cabal of ageing Quake III Arena enthusiasts. Bunnyhopping, for instance, is not just an automatic advantage for people who know how to bind the mouse-wheel to ‘jump’; it has been very clearly tweaked to within an inch of its life to add more depth to the experience. The engine is fairly forgiving on when you have to jump to maintain a bunnyhop, so actually pulling off the manoeuvre has a relatively low skill floor, but deciding when to use it is another matter altogether. It’s a trade-off, letting you cross the arena in graceful, arcing strides, each jump boosting you forward, but saddling you with the inertia of a cannonball rolling down the Royal Mile. It’s dangerous to hamper your manoeuvrability like that, even for a second, but sometimes it’s the only way to stay one step ahead of the swarm. Remember, this platform has edges. Don’t fall off or anything, alright?
And just in case everything up to this point didn't give it away, Devil Daggers' aesthetic absolutely rams home where its inspirations lie. Normally I'd probably be a wee bit annoyed, given that the game's penchant for Gothic monstrosities sprinkled with Lovecraftian horror seems purpose-built to stick an oiled-up finger into the part of my brain that never stops thinking about Quake and wiggle it around a bit, but you can't help but be impressed with the lengths it goes to to achieve that primitive, shaky, early-3D look. Anybody can put together some lo-fi assets and force you to look at them through a resolution low enough for the fruit flies to play hopscotch on the pixels, but Devil Daggers has an eye for the details so minor that I'm not even sure what to call them: the cruddy 16-bit lightmap projected onto the rough-hewn flagstones below; the way the models warp and undulate as the polygons suffer from Quake-2-esque jitter; the choppy animation on the rotating power gems, barely noticeable unless you take a moment to gaze longingly at them from your death camera. Half the techniques are there to add artificial rough edges while the other half are there to sand them down again, creating an end result that—thanks in part to the art direction—actually looks pretty slick.
Not everything about Devil Daggers' presentation is unabashedly retro, though; the sound design is as functional as it is slightly unnerving, apparently crafted entirely from the kinds of noises one would expect to encounter if they were trapped in a medieval oubliette. It's a soundscape of grinding stone and slimy flesh, chittering insects and groaning spectres, all overlaid on top of the kind of deep, booming, crushing ambience that makes it abundantly clear that you are but a tiny intrusion in a world of ancient, unknowable nasties. Normally I’m the sort to play a game like Devil Daggers while listening to music, or half-watching an old Let’s Play of a phenomenally boring adventure game, but I’ve made an exception so far because—quite apart from what an aural treat it is—the game’s directional sound is such a crucial factor when you’re looking to add a precious few seconds to your high score. The thing about first-person shooters, especially ones as blisteringly fast and unforgiving as this, is that try as you might you really can’t see everything that’s going on at once, and must instead learn to recognise and pinpoint the distinctive sound of a spawner disgorging its contents behind you, or the shallow, laboured, eager wheezing of a horned skull closing in for a surprise bite to the backside. Almost everything that enters your ears is as informative as it is atmospheric, and if that isn’t a reason to pile on breathless, sweaty praise for a paragraph or so then I don’t know what is.
Another way that Devil Daggers refines the formula of the old-school backpedal-em-up is in its enemy designs, which seem to have been specifically tweaked to make each and every one an equally viable target. Prioritising which participants in a chaotic melee need to die first is a time-honoured integral part of this sort of game, but if this was, say, Serious Sam, you would absolutely put the hitscan chaingun-wielding giant scorpion above the lone dive-bombing harpy on the murder list, because the former can tear you to shreds from across a football pitch while the latter just sort of swoops at you occasionally. Devil Daggers makes prioritisation a much more nuanced and difficult task because pretty much everything poses an equal threat. Spawners are stationary hazards, no more aggressive than a mischievously-placed rake, but lose track of how long they’re on the field and they’ll rapidly escalate the situation to unmanageable levels with a fresh barrage of floating skulls. The wee skulls travel in flocks, easy to outrun in theory, but if you don’t take time to thin them out then they’ll start blocking your shots—or your escape route. Their bigger, faster, horned brothers initially seem a lot more apathetic, bobbing aimlessly around overhead, but take your eyes off them and they’ll rush in for the kill. Eventually you’ll get giant, bloated, chitinous insects lurking on the edges, but fail to pump enough shots into their soft underbelly and they’ll suck up all the power gems on the field, vomiting out eggs full of their ravenous children in return. Are there more enemies out there? Of course, if you make it far enough, but you don’t want me to spoil things too much, do you? Deciding which ones to dispatch first when they can all theoretically wait is tricky, and only grows easier through slowly refining one’s strategy.
In one way or another, most of Devil Daggers seems to have been designed with slowly refining a strategy in mind; getting to know the subtle ins-and-outs of its mechanics enough to confidently make split-second decisions that could otherwise go either way. It’s vital that you collect power gems, for instance, to upgrade your weapon to deal with the escalating hordes, but of course the game barely gives you time to inhale and exhale, much less break off to run around scooping them all up, so instead you must rely on the fact that they passively home in on you whenever you’re not firing. When’s the best time to stop firing? If you ask me two minutes into a playthrough, I’m liable to hoarsely shriek “never!” and elbow you out of my line of sight, but you’ll nevertheless have to decide when it’s worth the risk, or end up like that bloke on the 6 o’clock news who tried to fend off a bushfire with the garden hose. You can also eventually develop an overarching routine of sorts, over the two minutes or so that you might survive; enemies appear in random positions, but their order and timing is exactly the same every time, so with enough practice you can anticipate exactly what’s coming next, and prepare accordingly.
That’s maybe the only part of Devil Daggers’ overall design that I feel a little bit iffy about, to be honest; facing the same sequence of enemies every single time smacks heavily of rote learning, forcing you to face challenges that will almost certainly doom you to a quick and embarrassing death without the necessary foresight granted by previously experiencing them. Even if the resemblance isn’t blatant, it’s very much in the spirit of the old coin-munching arcades that gave birth to the high-score philosophy Devil Daggers subscribes to. Still, let’s be fair about this: if the entire point of your game is to pit everybody who plays it together to see who can go the longest without carking it, it pays to have a level playing field, and there’s enough of the inherent random nature of chaos in the way things play out to stop it feeling like you’re just going through the rehearsed motions. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like a crack at something that’s a bit more ‘think on your feet’, though.
Unfortunately, no matter how hard I wish, I can’t, and that drives home my biggest sticking point with Devil Daggers: there simply isn’t enough of it. I don’t mean that in some entitled, whiny gamer, ‘value for money’ way either; it costs an insignificant five bucks, and is worth at least three times that in terms of sheer craftsmanship, but no matter how many stolen firstborn I present to Sorath in the dead of night, it won’t make Devil Daggers any less feature-anaemic. You get one gamemode, one arena, one weapon, one challenge. To be reasonable, everything has been minutely crafted to suit that particular experience, but it’s not as if you couldn’t play with the formula a little bit, even if the end result is about as competitively viable as a game of professional dice-rolling. It’s all very easy for me to be the oblivious ideas man, sprawled on a chaise lounge, dangling grapes into my mouth as I’m presented with the end result with no knowledge of its inner workings, but even something as minor as a differently-shaped arena would inject some colour into Devil Daggers’ sallow cheeks. Even the options menu feels more than a little sparse; Devil Daggers is apparently so retro that it won’t even run in windowed mode, and if it’s not going to give me a FOV slider then the least it could do is let me bring down the console and type it in myself.
Let’s return to the real world for a second. Devil Daggers is not a game for an especially widespread audience: it’s tougher than tangoing in a hurricane, it never holds your hand, it’s repetitive to the point of being entirely one-note, and it’s built to replicate an experience that for many—even most of those who genuinely grew up with the likes of Quake—must seem inaccessibly alien and archaic. Nevertheless, I won’t apologize for liking a game that has been aimed squarely at me, especially not when it so masterfully finds its mark. Devil Daggers is a first-person Fabergé egg; miniscule, but glimmering from every tiny, detailed facet. There are more complete and fulfilling Doomlike experiences out there, of course—some of them are even this side of the millennium—but if all you’re looking for is a beautifully-sculpted score-attack game willing to ram its hardcore first-person action down your throat in the most ungentlemanly way possible, submit yourself to the excellence that is Devil Daggers.