Devil Daggers is brutally, gleefully hard. As the ceaseless waves of enemies stack, the seconds stretch into weeks; each one a living nightmare in which you're only just able to stay ahead of the pack. Reviewing your score at the end of a run is like coming back from another dimension in which time runs at a different pace - was that really just 58.4539 seconds?
Those four decimal points weren't included for comedic effect, by the way - Devil Daggers really does give you that exact a time at the end of each run, because it knows full well you're doing to end up obsessing over every single millisecond. As you pore over the two leaderboards - Steam friends and global - it's difficult not to develop an intense, roiling hatred for the person one step ahead of you. I know this because I spent a good hour getting increasingly resentful of fellow Eurogamer staffer Ian, who was just 0.1501 seconds ahead of my best time. You start to wonder how they managed it - what fiendish pact did they make with Devil Daggers that helped them luck into a score they patently don't deserve?
You can download and watch the replay, if you like, but it doesn't make you feel any better. If anything it only confirms what you already know - that person is an impostor and a charlatan and they don't deserve to be ahead of you. The only logical thing to do, naturally, is to throw yourself back into the hellscape and try again. The anaemic glow of your daggers greets you like an old friend. Before you know it, you're flinching your way through now familiar waves of hellspawn, your ears filling with shrieks and snapping bones.
The basic premise of Devil Daggers is fiendishly simple. Placed on a small stage in the middle of a black abyss, it's your job to fend off innumerable waves of hellspawn for as long as possible. You achieve this simple goal by firing the eponymous Devil Daggers from your fingers, circle strafing for your life, and (in all probability) by swearing your head off. Here's a gameplay clip - sans swearing - to give you an idea of how a typical game goes.
If you can't watch a video right now, here's what happened: it started fine, I panicked, I died - all in less than a minute. While not my best work, it's a fairly good example of the kind of treatment you can expect while learning the ropes. See, Devil Daggers is like that one snot-nosed kid you knew at school - it's deliberately obscure and very hard to get on with. It's a game that plays its cards very close to its chest, forcing you to work things out for yourself while trying its best to kill you before you get the chance. In your first game of Devil Daggers, your reflexes might carry you through an admirable 40 seconds, but make no mistake: you are very much a babe in the woods. It takes time to figure out what your strategy is, how the different enemies behave, even what you yourself can do. For instance, I didn't realise you can jump for almost an hour; even now, I still don't feel like I know why jumping is important.
But while Devil Daggers is like that snot-nosed kid from school, it also does a tremendous job of making you want to be its friend. The rough and ready visuals, for one thing, are really nice. The sound design in Devil Daggers, while we're at it, really is something special. At times it seems as though you're playing under about three feet of water, lending a dreamlike quality to the menacing cacophony. At one point, Devil Daggers' soothing and horrible soundscape had me admiring how well they'd captured the sound of skulls knocking together underwater - a thought that genuinely unnerved me once I realised I have no business knowing what skulls knocking together ought to sound like.
Startling personal revelations aside, Devil Daggers' soundscape only becomes more important as you get used to the game. While the screen is frequently obscured by enemies floating mere inches from your vulnerable, panicked face, the audio is a steady stream of reliable data. Each enemy has its own, distinctive sound, letting you know what's spawning and where. This, in turn, helps you judge how close you are to being swamped, decide where to direct your fire next, or even dodge from enemies you can't see. Listen carefully to Devil Daggers and it will whisper all its secrets.
How well you interpret that stream of data, however, relies heavily on your ability to marshall yourself - something that rings true in every aspect of Devil Daggers. It's an exacting game at all times, but it's in the brief moments of panic or indecision that it shows how unforgiving it can really be. You need to be with it at all times - underestimate Devil Daggers for an instant, and it'll put you right back to the start. It's in this exacting nature that the heart of the experience truly lies.
Like other games of its ilk, getting good at Devil Daggers is a process of repetition and refinement. Currently, I'm unable to beat my own high score of 86 seconds. Watching the replay, I'm not even sure how I managed to get that far - it's a glorious aberration that I am currently unable to replicate. Frustrating as that might be, however, there is hope yet, because the 60-70 second times I'm now averaging are looking slicker and slicker. The endless repetition has taught me to read the game better; allowing me to move more confidently and decisively. It's not been easy; at this point I'm not even sure it's been fun, because sometimes playing Devil Daggers is a lot like skinning a knee over and over again. I'm now very good at skinning my knees, but I'm at a loss as to what exactly that means.
What I'm getting at here is that, as with similarly repetitive games like Dark Souls, you need to be in the right frame of mind to play Devil Daggers. If you're not in the mood, it can be hopelessly frustrating. Get into the swing of things, however, and it becomes a soothing, almost meditative experience - even with such a heavy focus on twitch gameplay and screaming hellbeasts. The opening 45 seconds of Devil Daggers have become almost an incantation - a necessary rite that must be observed, without exception, before you really start to test yourself. Playing Devil Daggers is, essentially, the closest thing to an 80s training montage you're likely to find on Steam this year.
In short, Devil Daggers manages a beautiful job of being a very short experience and setting a very long road out ahead of you. The instant reloads make it so easy to play just one more, but it also demands so much of you if you really want to excel. Maybe too much. At this point I'm not sure how much fun I'm actually having with Devil Daggers but, all the same, it's a difficult game not to love.