Three days ago, I saw a game called Devil Daggers on Steam. The name appealed to me, so I watched the promo video and looked at the screenshots, as one does. It was immediately obvious that this game was built for me and others like me. Software rendering at low resolution was an advertising bullet point, with polygon jitter circa 1996 built right in, and the game looks as if somebody distilled Doom to its base visual essence and shoved it into a Quake-era nightmare. It cost a measly five bucks and looked fun, so I thought I’d play it for a few minutes when I took a break from work.
2 hours passed by the time I stopped. At the end of the evening, that number had turned into 5. As of this writing, Steam informs me I’ve invested 25 hours, and while I’ve fallen out of the top 50 of the global leaderboards since yesterday, I’m still in the top 75.
Needless to say, Devil Daggers is more than I expected it to be. Yet I have to qualify that by adding that it’s also less—profoundly less—in a way that makes it different from what it first appears to be.
Devil Daggers presents itself as a simple first-person arena shooter from the ground up. If you’ve ever played Quake 3, you already have a solid grasp of the way it moves. Keyboard bindings are configurable, but the menu is almost austere: you’ve got the usual WASD-style movement, you can jump, and there’s a single button for both regular and alternate fire. Holding the fire button will spray a constant stream of the titular daggers, while tapping it will launch shotgun-style bursts. There’s a final control for “homing”, which will fire homing projectiles you can gain access to if you survive long enough.
And that’s it. These are the tools you’re given to defeat a constant onslaught of demonic opponents that spawn at regular intervals into the game’s single arena, which is itself no more than a floating island in the middle of a black abyss. While the game does track your kills, collected pickups, and hit percentage during a given run, the only score of consequence is time. It’s one hundred percent about survival. There are no other modes, no other maps, no other configurations to mess with.
This lean mentality extends to other areas of the game as well. It doesn’t have any music outside of a fantastic industrial composition that plays over the menu. There’s no tutorial, no cursory attempt at explaining who your character is, where they are, or what they’re doing there. When you start a new game, a glowing dagger floats in a circle of light before your on-screen hand. Pick it up, and you’re immediately thrust into a frantic battle through whatever hell dimension you’ve found yourself in.
You may be sensing a theme here. Devil Daggers could be called limited, or even spare; but I think the better term is pure. While there isn’t a wide breadth of content, everything that is there fills a specific, vital role, coming together in an exquisite balance that takes time and experience to appreciate. “No music” sounds like a huge misstep until you realize that survival often hinges on using positional audio to locate your enemies without seeing them, and their cacophony forms an interesting sonic profile on its own. Similarly, “only one arena” sounds like it would get boring until you begin to understand that the real joy of play comes from learning sequences of enemy spawns and how best to deal with them, almost as if the whole thing were some kind of crazy action puzzle. Solve part of the puzzle, live a little longer.
Like other difficult games that have become cultural touchstones over the last decade, this sense of learning is a large part of what makes Devil Daggers so satisfying. As you discover how enemies operate, the orders they spawn in, how to best prioritize targets, and the nuances of your character’s movement, you’ll watch your survival times jump up incrementally. Before you know it, hours will have passed and you’ll have gone from death in 30 seconds to being able to last several minutes with reasonable consistency.
Yet you have to play well to experience these improvements beyond a certain point. Devil Daggers demands high technical skill and accepts no compromise. Picking up red gems dropped from enemies will eventually get you new tiers of weapon power, but getting those improvements exactly when you need them requires precision play. If knowledge is one side of the coin, ability is the other, and players who will be most attracted to the game likely already have a lot of the requisite skills. When I said the movement would be familiar to Quake 3 veterans, I meant it. Bunnyhopping and rocket jumping to gain speed (or in this case dagger-shotgun-jumping?) are skills necessary for succeeding in later stages, and while those are things anyone can learn, the game doesn’t even tell you they’re possible, let alone explain their usefulness. As with everything else roiling around its mysterious core, these nuances are something Devil Daggers asks you to learn through experimentation, turning what initially seems to be just another score-based arena shooter into something that demands—and rewards—a more substantial investment than you might have planned to give it.
Thankfully, it’s an investment the game makes easy on willing players. The audio presentation is impeccable, with unique, anxiety-inducing sounds for every enemy, and it’s surpassed only by the deceptively simple, arguably flawless visuals. These work to breathe life into a grotesque menagerie of demonic entities that are as impressive as they are fun to shoot. The universality of skulls as a motif seems almost absurd, which makes it all the more amazing that so many distinctive personalities emerge as you play. Squid-armed monoliths tower over the landscape, launching flocks of flying skulls. Gargantuan spiders lurk at the edges of the darkness, using gems against you by filling the arena with broods of skeletal parasites. Giant bone-worms, gems lining their bellies, erupt from the ground to writhe through the black sky. The complete package never feels as one-note as its narrow design constantly runs the risk of being.
In addition to the audiovisual feast, the game has clean menus, no load times, and instantaneous restarts after death (think Super Meat Boy). Every game on the leaderboard, including yours and those of your friends, has a downloadable replay you can watch at adjustable speeds within the game engine itself, useful for both entertainment and as part of the learning process. Indie developer Sorath has doubled down on little touches like this which again illustrate how surprisingly thoughtful Devil Daggers turns out to be.
Many games bring arsenals of features and gameplay types to the table, while others choose to do just a few things really well. Devil Daggers falls squarely into the latter category, but still distinguishes itself through being narrower in scope and more finely balanced than most of its peers. It’s as comparable to Quake as to Geometry Wars, yet is on par with those venerable titles precisely by being less than either of them. Its potential weaknesses become its greatest strengths, offering a profoundly difficult, immeasurably satisfying experience for the specific breed of player it aims to appeal to. It’s a shame that this inherently restricts the audience that will likely be willing to give it the attention it deserves, but if you’re part of that audience, this could be the best five bucks you’ve spent in a very long time.