This is the first of what should hopefully be a few Halloween episodes this month! Transcript to follow:
Yay, it’s Halloween season! Which I’m going to use as a flimsy pretext to look at a bunch of indie games that are maybe not spooky in the traditional jump-scare Five Nights at Freddy’s sense, but still offer some interesting Halloweeny flavor. And first up I figured I’d ease us into the season with a game that is more action horror than straight up spooky: Devil Daggers, which is a game that is pretty clearly influenced by id and Raven games of old. It’s full of skulls, lovecraftian horrors, twisted dark magic, but none of the tongue-in-cheek action movie bravado or empowered fantasy that DOOM or Hexen had.
Devil Daggers merges a lot of mechanics from first person shooters – you know, DOOM style FPS games – with the form and structure of a shoot ‘em up, or shump (which is just the worst contraction). You know shmups: typically top-down games where you blast a large number of weak monsters in an enclosed arena. Okay, in this context I mean multidirectional shmups; I know purists might prefer something that looks like this, but we’re going with this because it’s what’s relevant and wikipedia says it still counts as a shoot ‘em up. We can talk about how genre is kinda fluid some other day. And while the difference is obvious to the genre savvy folks out there, I know “shoot ‘em ups” and “first person shooters” sound awful similar and I’m going to be saying them a lot in this video, so, just so we’re all clear – shmup. Shooter. Shmup. Shooter. Okay? Okay.
Anyways, at first blush Devil Daggers is a game that mixes the aesthetic of early id shooter games with gameplay that’s closer to shmups like Robotron or Geometry Wars. But it’s actually far more infused with that id gameplay style than its arena-and-swarms level design makes it look. For example, monsters have weak spots that need to be hit directly, and since this is a first person game in full 3D space it’s a much more intense test of aiming than most shmups which are generally more interested in crowd control. There are two different firing modes that each have pros and cons given distance and the type of enemy you’re fighting, and since you can always fire both of them weapon choice is an on-the-fly decision like a first person shooter rather than a powerup or level-select option like most shmups. You can rocket jump by firing at your feet as you leap, and it’s often the best way to escape or close a wide distance quickly – a first person mechanic that doesn’t really have an analog in shoot ‘em ups.
Even the gem mechanic, which at first looks like a “pick up the doodad from the fallen enemies” shmuppy thing, results in a mirror of traditional shooter mechanics. As you collect gems you’ll get more powerful weapons and increased visibility with which to fight monsters, but to capture the gems you need to stop shooting. Once you do they’ll be attracted to you, but as you shoot they repel away. This means that periodically you need to revert back to a more basic bobbing and weaving, and is functionally the equivalent of a reload mechanic that prevents the player from holding down fire forever – another marked departure from most shmups, where fire is only occasionally released and usually in exchange for improved defensive movement.
While Devil Daggers might lack the traditional levels of a DOOM or Hexen, the pacing is actually really tightly controlled. You tend to get your upgrades at regular intervals – the first shortly after the initial spider monster, then another after you fight the first snake skeleton thing. Then the final boss shows up around 400 seconds in, and you get the only achievement in the game by surviving 500 seconds (I guess they assume you killed it if you last that long). After that you’ve functionally beaten the game. Devil Daggers has a world record of around 800 seconds, and while you can theoretically go longer there doesn’t seem to be much more than additional bedlam.
And in those 400-or-so seconds of scripted action, there’s sort of a set approach to things. Clear the first towers to get your starter gems, prepare for the first spider-skull while keeping in mind the level 3 skull that’s going to spawn, after that prepare for swarming leading up to the first worm, and so on. Unlike most Shmups these aren’t random enemies; the early game has a deliberate spawning pattern that mimmicks the way levels work elsewhere. And as these monsters spawn in order, choosing which enemy to engage with is a bigger deal here than it is in most shmups – the skulls and tentacles can be casually taken out but other monsters attack more aggressively and still others pose a near-immediate threat. There is a definitely a concrete order to taking on enemies here, and you need to constantly re-assess the situation to make sure you’re doing the right thing.
There’s just so much of that meta-shooter stuff going on at once – weapon selection, enemy focus, your current danger level and the need to move, the need to stop firing and collect fallen gems – that Devil Daggers feels pretty far removed from a Geometry Wars or Waves. Instead it feels like a condensed version of all the usual first person staples under the guise of a retro arena shmup. Like the arena isn’t there to act as a nod to shmups, but to act like sort of a Final Destination No Items Fox Only approach of distilling hard, fast-paced shooter mechanics down to their essence without any of the frills. A lot of the time the game feels like a super concentrated, difficult Destiny strike in a box, and for super quick spats of gameplay that is at once taxing, tense, frustrating, but somehow rewarding when you come out the other end I’d highly recommend it.
So why bring it up for Halloween? Well, the iconography, obviously – it’s a game full of chattering bones and tentacles and demons. But it’s the game’s tale of Lovecraftian corruption that I really think sells it as a Halloweeny game, even if a more action-y one than a spooky one. I feel like it’s kind of a good companion piece to In the Kingdom – which would have been perfect for this month’s coverage if I hadn’t talked about it already. Both are tales of elder evils and players seeking power that leads to their downfall. But where In the Kingdom was a tone piece that worked because of its mood more than the way it played, Devil Daggers is much more systems driven, pretty much to the exclusion of all else. And it’s neat to see how the story that played out in In the Kingdom is kind of also played out in Devil Daggers through these abstracted systems.
A lot of this game’s story is told through mechanics. Take gems – they grant you power (i.e., weapon upgrades) and insight ( the world lights up more with each gem ), but as you collect them you lose your humanity and even your grasp on reality (or arguably, in typical Lovecraftian style, your sanity). This is shown visually with your hand slowly transforming into pulsing energy that hurts to look at, but more interestingly as the game gets more complicated more and more of it has to be played in your head by necessity. Devil Daggers uses synesthesia and that sense of one-ness with the game as a metaphor for attaining forbidden arcane knowledge. By the time you enter high level play that additional insight into the world has turned into a mess of pixels. This isn’t me playing, by the way, but a replay of one of the current high scores. Can you tell what’s going on? I can’t either – yet this player survives because the game is being played in his heads by sound cues and spatial processing almost exclusively. This player is literally seeing beyond what we can, and that’s kind of neat? In both In the Kingdom and Devil Daggers players become nothing more than weapons as punishment for their transgressions, but the two games convey this same concept completely differently. I chose this game to kick off Halloween because when you touch the Devil Dagger you are fated to die, and it’s really only a question about how much of a horror you’ll become along the way.
Anyways, Happy Halloween Season! We’re just getting started.