Have you ever wondered what it would be like to fall into a black hole? If so, Hyper Demon is a game for you. Playing it is like dancing on reality's edge. Perspective, time and space all break down as you push past the limits of conventional shoot ‘em ups, leaving their corridors, cover and combat in the dust. It's fundamentally about chasing high scores and slaying monsters, something games have done since their inception, but like best-in-class high score chasers Thumper and Tetris Effect, its execution transforms this template into something dreamlike. Edge magazine might never have bothered to ask "if only you could talk to these creatures" had the violence in 1994's shooters felt as transcendent as it does in Hyper Demon.
What is it? A score based first person shooter
Expect to pay: £11.39 | $14.99
Reviewed on: Intel i7-4790k, Nvidia GeForce GTX-970, 16GB RAM
Link: Steam (opens in new tab)
Hyper Demon's menu alone was enough to get me excited about it. The electronic, angelic music and oil sheen colours swirling within the title, stylized "HYPER DEMON," declare the intensity at which this game will operate. And yet it starts in a little patch of light where birds gather around a twisted dagger. I love this moment of calm before each run: a little ritual you must perform to summon your powers for what's ahead.
Sorath's last game, Devil Daggers, distilled Doom and Quake into a pure and spooky shoot-'em-up with responsive, simple violence in a stripped down but evocative audiovisual landscape. No chasing keycards, no flimsy narrative… nothing but shooting and surviving an unending dark full of undead spectres. All echoed growls and screams, bones scuttling against stone. Firing a stream of hot knives out into the skulls emerging from the shadows.
How far could you go in the face of it? Most only last a few seconds on their first go. The world record is 20 minutes.
Unlike Devil Daggers, Hyper Demon isn't about surviving. It's about thriving. Scoring this time around isn't based on how long you can live but about how quickly you can put down ethereal beasts. The more you can cut down in the shorter amount of time, the higher you score. The bigger the monster, the better. Some of my best runs have lasted mere seconds. Devil Daggers felt like being trapped in a nightmare basement with unending horrors, but the vibe in Hyper Demon is very much: "I'm not locked in here with you, you're locked in here with me."
To that end, the arsenal at your disposal is a bit more extensive than it was in Devil Daggers, although the games are very similar. In first person you shoot daggers from your ethereal hand with two firing modes, a machine gun and shotgun blast, now complemented by special laser beam attacks executed by sucking up gemstones and other powerups (alternatively, they can be absorbed for special effects). Moving around involves more than hopping; you can fire yourself into the air with a blast to the ground and dash to dodge out of the way of foes.
Mastering these skills is made a lot easier with a tutorial mode that runs you through each element in isolation. Hyper Demon seems an unmanageable cacophony at first, but a fine level of control is possible if you can seize it. Pointing and shooting alone will leave your runs in the negative score. Mastery requires eking out the minute variables in every action, like being able to pull pickups towards you like a vacuum or delaying a pick-up by continuously firing, saving a laser or bomb for when more enemies emerge.
The best players are conducting this demon kaleidoscope like Beethoven’s Fifth symphony, but with shotguns.
Your abilities are only the half of it. After enough runs you realise that manipulating each monster is the key to taking control of fights, turning your enemies into steps on your path to god-like prowess. Some can be thrown on their backs and used as launch pads to get into the air, while others will spawn minions that can essentially be farmed for ammunition.
The dizzying heights you reach with each powerup and each foe overcome are virtually, and visually, euphoric. The entire dark landscape of the world literally wraps around your vision, and as your field of view folds on itself you can funnel every creature into the sights of your wrath. One small misstep can still end you, but for a few, fleeting seconds you are unstoppable.
The graphics will strike you as alluring or off-putting, but Hyper Demon is not as impenetrable as it seems in screenshots. When you're in control, that storm of colour and light is yours to wield. Once you've deciphered it all, you can scrutinize replays (a feature seamlessly baked in so you can watch any player on the leaderboard's best run) and see the beauty in the chaos. Each dazzling visual effect or grizzly audio cue is specific, an explosion only caused by one kind of pick-up or the wail only that of a particular enemy dying. Learn them and you can grasp control from the abyss.
That's the challenge at the core of the game: Learning how to go from flailing helplessly in the dark to a destroyer of worlds. Chasing ever-increasing power is the hook of so many action games, a fantasy so baked-in it barely even registers anymore. It's expected. Hyper Demon makes it feel unexpected.
You're not gathering better weapons or trading in pistols for rocket launchers. You are simply learning. The only thing that makes you better is knowledge. There are no tools that can be taken away, because you are the Hyper Demon.
It's this distinction from many other action games that keeps me in the void. The moment I die I click and put myself instantly into the next run. I cannot be stopped. Each little bit of progress shows me there's still more to see, and knowing there's more to learn and master is its own reward. That and kicking my friends down the leaderboards.