Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Devil's in the Details

Game: Devil Daggers
Sorath, 2016 (PC)

I used to be one of the worst Devil Daggers players in the world. Now I’m just bad. I know this because it tells me every time I die. (I’ve died a lot of times.)

It’s tough at first to know what to make of Devil Daggers. Best described as a first-person bullet hell (literally set in hell) with mechanical and aesthetic similarities to an early 90s shooter, Devil Daggers probably shares a closer relationship with Geometry Wars in my brainspace than it does with Doom or Quake. You stand on a flat floor over an empty chasm (whose edges you can will repeatedly fall off) and fight off increasingly swarming hordes of nightmare creatures for as long as you can, using fiery projectiles shot from your hand. A single collision with any foe means instant death, so even the first and easiest enemies you face - a cluster of floating skulls spewed out of a Hellraiser spire - are a constantly growing threat to be managed as the seconds tick along.

Alone in the dark...

And my do they tick slowly. A minute is a hell of a long time in Devil Daggers; it took nearly an hour of play before I first survived past the 60-second mark and graduated from uber scrub to plain old mittel scrub. Like any good bullet hell, Devil Daggers is brutally difficult, but the short duration of each round and the immediacy with which you can tap R to restart keeps it from being remotely as frustrating an experience as many of the ones I’ve had with the genre. Making it just shy of your former high score then getting bitten in the back by a laughing skull demon is actually much more energizing than it is infuriating; you made it that close, after all, and the knowledge that you could do it again in a matter of seconds means it’s easy to keep your eyes on the prize.

...but not for long.

The problem came for me when I took a moment to ask, but, uh, what prize, exactly? It was easy to remain engrossed in Devil Daggers when it was all about the thrill of discovery. Its faux-retro, pixelated horrors are a beautiful work of imagination, and it’s always a thrill to hear the unfamiliar sound - and what thrilling, viscerally chilling sound design it is! - of a new demon approaching behind you. But those moments grew further and further apart as I reached my skill cap and I found myself adding fewer and fewer seconds to my top time with each hour of play. Getting off the bottom of the leaderboards was enough additional incentive for a while, but the knowledge that I will never have the skill or motivation to make it within spitting distance of the global high scores quickly removed that motivation fairly soon after I passed into the mid-leagues.

Ah, bloody chunks of demon viscera. The best kind of viscera.

Since binging hours of the game over the release weekend, I honestly haven’t had much interest in returning, other than to briefly watch the replays of the new high score breaking players. And you know what? For a $5 game, that’s A-OK. There’s also something to be said for a game model that sucks you in long enough to learn the basics, then appreciate the Twitch and YouTube appeal of pro playthroughs for years to come. Sure, a part of me wishes there were either a checkpoint system or random-enemy mode that made it more varied and interesting to play through the same ___ seconds of the game over and over, but there’s an argument to be made that those would undermine the competitive and Let’s Play appeal I just pointed out. The fact that I also wish the engrossing gameplay and fantastic aesthetics could be applied to a feature-length narrative game really just goes to show how much love went into this little thing, and is no way a mark against what it is. I may have already had enough of Devil Daggers for a lifetime, but I don’t for a second regret my time spent with it.

Hell is other people's skulls.

Liked it.

1 comment :

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