It’s easy to make a video game hard. What’s truly challenging for the developers is making a hard video game fun. Any game can have enemies with a million health point and protagonists who die when the wind touches them, but that’s just not enjoyable. A difficult game that’s truly great will present you with seemingly insurmountable odds, but give you the tools to adapt and overcome what’s put before you. Hell is Other Demons is a shining example of these design principles, crafting a tough-as-hell and endlessly entertaining experience.
At first glance, Hell is Other Demons looks like an alternate reality version of roguelike hit Downwell. You play as an indistinct pastel white character who’s tasked with hopping around and blasting baddies in a minimalist, pixel-art world. While Downwell was designed as a vertical roguelike shooting experience, though, Hell is Other Demons veers into the left lane as a side-on arena-based shooter with levels and progression. You load into a tight environment full of platforms and traps, and proceed to blast away at enemies until you’ve cleared every wave of the level.
Things might seem simple at first, but they very quickly open up into a wide world of cruel possibilities. Even your movement options initially seem rather simple. A jump button, a shoot button, and an invincible dash. Very quickly, though, a microcosm of other tools reveal themselves to you. You can do a quick double-jump, hold down the jump button to glide through the air as you fall, or alternatively slam yourself into the ground for a quick getaway. All of this feels as snappy and responsive as any of the best platformers you’ve played in recent years, leading to a combat experience where the reason for your death is never poor controls.
Instead, you can blame the insane difficulty and relentless enemies for your many, many, many untimely deaths. Within a few levels the difficulty spikes astronomically and it’s up to you to keep up. The challenge is appreciated, but the sudden jump in difficulty definitely threw me for a loop. Almost immediately, you’re expected to have perfect movement and flawless aim inside tight arenas filled with traps and enemies galore. If you don’t, it’s a swift game over.
Thankfully, the game gives you an abundance of tools to use to tackle this lofty challenge. There’s a variety of upgrades, abilities, weapons and ultimate attacks available for you to spend your hard-earned gems on. There’s a different weapon for each kind of play-style, and having a suite of customisation options available for you to buy and try at will rather than randomly procure in roguelike fashion was a breath of fresh air. Whenever I was stuck on a particular level, I often found that switching up my weapons and upgrades was just the thing I needed to put a fresh spin on the battle and claw my way to victory.
The duality of the two modes available in Hell is Other Demons also helps add some variety to the package. You can dive into campaign mode if you want to navigate a grid of levels and boss fights, progressing naturally as you obtain new upgrades and explore a series of demonic environments, or you can hop into arcade mode where you’re provided a handful of pre-kitted characters to play as and blast through a non-stop playlist of challenging levels.
Both modes have a different kind of addictive fun about them, but I preferred campaign mode for the steady progression and the jaw-dropping boss encounters. Every boss in the game is gorgeously illustrated and massively intimidating, and it was a blast to encounter each of them as I made my way through the campaign. Some of them were refreshingly easy battles, but others were scream-inducing tests of my reflexes.
All of this is wrapped up in a gorgeous pixel art experience that looks unlike anything else on the market. Except, well, Downwell. Like that game, Hell is Other Demons has a great aesthetic that combines pixel art with unique enemy designs and gorgeous minimalist colour palettes to create a style that never comes across as lazy or unoriginal. You can even customize the colour palette the game uses with different options as you progress through the game.
The atmospheric and electric soundtrack, meanwhile, keeps your blood pumping through every level, and your hair tingling in every menu. The soundtrack goes for a full suite of synth sounds and instruments that creates an incredible contrast between the art and the audio of Hell is Other Demons. The haunting synth-heavy soundtrack is complemented by crunchy sound design from VVVVVV veteran Magnus Palsson that would sound right at home in a classic arcade cabinet.