Platforms: PS3 | Xbox 360 (previewed)
Developers: Ninja Theory
It's easy to forget that the old guard responsible for our early memories of the Devil May Cry series are of doing other things now. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to make the connection with Bayonetta and see that a large proportion of the talent that work on the first three games wound up at Platinum. Change was fundamentally necessary for this fifth game in the series, and it should be noted that such change has been coming for a while. DMC 4 was more about new kid Nero than Dante, after all.
But the loudest gamers are often the most conservative. Early pictures of Ninja Theory's reboot met with cries of dismay and disappointment. Where was the iconic white-haired quip-master of the previous games, and who was this pencil-thin Shoreditch emo teen in his place? When people write off this industry and its consumers, sometimes we only have ourselves to blame.
But Capcom's fans should perhaps have a little faith. Devil May Cry is a franchise with a long legacy and plenty of fans. You don't mess about with that unless you really have to, and whatever comes out from Ninja Theory will have been rigorously scrutinised by their publishing partners. So let's dive straight in to deal with the most important aspect to the game, and ignore the game's aesthetics and its story or setting: how does Ninja Theory's reboot play?
The answer, as the less hysterical amongst you might have guessed, is that it plays rather like you'd expect a Devil May Cry game to play!
Mixing the action up between light and heavy melee attacks, and riddling demons full of bullets thanks to Dante's trusty Ebony and Ivory pistols form the basic template for enemy encounters - always remembering, of course, to dive out of harm's way when necessary. It's an accessible system that encourages creative exploration to begin with, and demands incredibly precise timing and the ability to think a couple of steps ahead when the difficulty curve starts to climb.
Crucially, everything is incredibly responsive. Nudging the shoulder triggers will swap in selected Angel or Demon weapons for Dante's Rebellion sword - modifiers that will be essential in chasing after those coveted SSS-rankings, and in taking out certain enemies impervious to the aggressive attentions of other weapons. But doing so is a cinch, and these powerful armaments can be slipped into the middle of combos as well as used individually. The Arbiter is a slow but earth-shakingly powerful battleaxe that can shatter the shields of Dante's foes; the Osiris is a giant Angelic scythe that Dante can wield with balletic grace and use to attack in furious flurries of rapid slashes; the Eryx clads Dante's forearms in Demonic stone, turning his fists into gauntlets of immense power.
Augmenting the attack chains and combos, as well as providing a basis for a spot of entertaining platforming fun, are the push/pull grapple abilities that Dante's Angelic and Demonic powers lend to him. Working in a similar fashion to Nero's claw, an Angel grab will send Dante hurtling into the air towards his target (particularly useful when it comes to aerial combos, of which there are many), whereas a Devil grab will pluck enemies out of the sky and bring them in close for a good slashing. Pulling enemies in for a helicopter-esque flurry of slicing attacks, tugging platforms out of thin air to scale new heights, wrenching demonic camera eyes from their positions above, all of these things and more may be done with Dante's grapple as Ninja Theory enourage you to explore the world around him..
And what a world it is. Limbo is a seemingly sentient city that parallels our own modern day Earth, and in many ways provides a grim reflection of Dante's reality. The early tutorial level is set in amongst jagged streets with wailing screams piercing the air, and smoky shadows lining the pavements - the spectral echoes of unaware creatures in our neighbouring realm. The new level demonstrated behind closed doors at Gamescom threw up a cyberpunk metropolis turned on its head; an upside-down world filled with television screens that implore its citizens to "Obey". Things are never quite what they seem in Limbo, and at any moment the landscape is likely to rupture and crack, forcing you to take evasive manoeuvres. Playing that early level wherein Dante sprints through a cathedral that's coming apart right beneath his feet is a thrilling experience, his "That dragged on forever. Church!" a quip that belies his age as well as the rebellious image in which this "new" Dante has been crafted.
The transformation will grate for some, sure, but to be honest, this is a Dante that makes far more sense than his predecessor. The snippets we've seen have been all too short, his rage given little context, and his youthful flippancy less impactful for that same reason. It's all too easy to write him off as a prickish uncouth youth, but his wisecracks, self-aggrandisement, and withering sarcasm are all rooted in the sense that though powerful, he's still got something to prove. Unpack the meta in that!
He's incredibly honest as a character, though. This is a game all about delivering massive combos, taking down demons, and looking really good while doing it - and Dante realises this. He's a teenager - he's concerned with being cool, even if the way to do that is to outwardly eschew everything stereotypically "cool", and situate himself as a perennial outsider with a punk mentality. If you were a nineteen year-old with the powers he's got, you'd be a bit of a dick too.
Aesthetically, to watch him carving up monsters in mid-air is a delight. Smacking foes with Rebellion before unleashing a massive blow with the Arbiter is supremely satisfying, as is diving and rolling a split-second before a powerful strike comes in from that enemy you forgot about behind you. Better yet, as your ranking climbs, the music intensifies. If you're not being stylish, the game is going to reflect that to a certain extent - Dante is nothing if not something of an egotist, and this is certainly his game. But start mixing up the combos and special weapons, and the guitars kick in. Launch a foe into the air, batter them about, smack them into next Tuesday before Angel grabbing them again, and pounding them into the floor. There are the drums. And then the vocals. Suddenly you're rocking out with everything turned up to 11, and the colour of Dante's hair doesn't matter for a second because you're kicking some serious ass.
Devil May Cry 3 fans may complain that the combat system isn't quite on the same technical level as that third instalment in the series, and they'd have a point. But Kamiya and co. took their legacy to games such as Bayonetta - a gloriously hardcore action title that delivered one of the finest combat systems ever seen in any game ever. Did it sell? Perhaps not as well as it should have. But the point is that Capcom have a chance to try to snap up new players with a game that respects and pays homage to this fantastic series, and if players can stop judging a game by its cover, they might just find a game that has far more in common with the original DNA of this series than they ever expected. Yes, it's more accessible, but that doesn't have to be a dirty term, and you can bet the subsequent difficulty settings will be hair-tearingly fiendish.
There will be purists who would still love for this game to suck, and there'll probably be plenty more whining to come about Dante's look and attitude. It's all too easy to retreat into a lead-lined shell of conservatism about these things, but the truth is that this is a series that needed to evolve or die. From the looks of things, Ninja Theory have created a game that might just do everything that it sets out to do - update a classic series, provide a new twist on a fan favourite, widen the point of entry - in a manner that increases the fanbase, and yet still provides an awful lot for returning fans to sink their teeth into. That this game manages to refresh whilst delivering a fantastic actin experience might yet prove too much for those purists to handle, but then that'll rather be their loss, won't it?