Developer: Ninja Theory
Well, here we are.
Even if you haven't been trolling Youtube and fiercely debating the finer points of white versus brunette hair colouring, you'll almost certainly be aware that DmC: Devil May Cry has attracted major controversy and fan outcry over the last few months. In a brave step, Western developer Ninja Theory decided to stamp their own authority on the franchise and protagonist, creating a game that's very different from its predecessors in many key respects. We've got a new, grittier setting. A younger, more reckless and emotional Dante. Things will never be the same, but DmC: Devil May Cry is very similar to the original games in one important way.
It's a truly excellent hack & slash brawler.
DmC opens with Dante wasting his life in a beachside trailer as a nihilistic and violent delinquent, caring little about a world that cast him aside. However, after being hunted down by a powerful demon (and briefly flirting with the idea of wearing a white wig in an unapologetic dig at some of the more vocal haters), he's sucked into a nightmarish Limbo world that hides just behind the facade of day-to-day reality. After joining forces with his brother Vergil and a capable witch named Kat, the callous menace to society sets out to discover the truth behind his mysterious heritge and eventually bring furious vengeance to the demon king Mundus. Naturally, this involves plenty of pitched battles against hordes of demons broken up with some platforming, exploration and ridiculously OTT cutscenes.
The most noticeable - and most successful - deviation from the original games makes its presence known from the outset. Ninja Theory's new setting eschews gothic overtones for the grit and grime of a sleazy city in the grip of a major depression. Mundus dominates the world through debt and deprivation, enslaving the hapless populace by manipulating banks, advertising and popular culture, cleverly tying into our discontent surrounding the credit crunch and taking a few coy digs at finance departments along the way. You'll see plenty of the miserable grey metropolis, but the action takes place in a twisted parody of the 'real' world: the Limbo dimension.
Limbo brilliantly corrupts familiar settings and turns them into insane (sometimes satirical) bastardisations of reality. The reflection of the skyline on the surface of a lake becomes an impossible upside-down prison. A nightclub transforms into a decadent dimension-defying music visualisation. Something as mundane as a warehouse full of crates turns into a floating industrial playground. Glamorous adverts reveal themselves as cynical propaganda, demonstrating how Mundus uses corporate control to keep humanity enslaved and powerless. Taking cues from Christopher Nolan's Inception, the Limbo City is an enemy in and of itself, often folding and warping in impossible ways in an effort to kill Dante or block his progress. It'll even taunt you with messages projected onto walls and floors, constantly keeping you guessing and wondering when Euclidean geometry will run screaming for the hills next.
Put simply, DmC's world is one of the most visually exciting and unpredictable you'll encounter in a hack & slash game, despite a couple of the later levels not matching the imaginative standards of the rest. You'll often forget that it's basically just a set of long corridors punctuated by pitched arena battles.
A new world needs a new protagonist, which brings us neatly onto the subject of 'New Dante.' Ninja Theory's brunette brawler is still as superficially arrogant and relaxed as his namesake, but whereas the deliciously campy Old Dante would feel at home in an Opera House or lavish cathedral, our newcomer wouldn't look out of place in a dark alley brandishing a switchblade. He's younger and edgier at the start of the game, more reckless and dangerous, a bona fide bad boy with barely-contained rage and confusion bubbling just under his self-assured veneer. Being less experienced, he's also more willing to let his guard down, showing some surprising compassion and emotion as the story plays out. Strong voice acting and motion capture make for some believable performances (along with a few notable howlers) and plenty of laugh-out-loud moments when hilariously silly lines are belted out with earnest gusto.
Though his motivations and characterisation become rather shaky in the late-game (more on that later), he's a viable protagonist in his own right and the man for the moment.
Now that's out of the way, it's time to focus on the real meat of the game. The combat. The delicious, wonderful combat.
DmC is one of the most responsive and versatile brawlers to have released this generation, empowering the player with a truly enormous menu of moves, abilities, traversal methods and weapons. Dante's traditional Rebellion sword and pistols provide an enormous of ground-based and aerial attacks (yes, the Aerial Rave is back in sensational style), along with ways to close the gap with enemies, but holding the left or right trigger turns the familiar blade into a daemonic or angelic weapon with its own set of moves and combos. An enormous hammer can crush shielded enemies, oversized burning fists can stop foes mid-charge while a scythe or glaives herd them into the air for brutal counters. Each weapon has a different tempo to learn, not to mention situational advantages and move lists. On top of that, a small range of firearms dish out some nasty ranged damage or even deploy a collection of manually-detonated explosive stakes. Though you'll face a stiff challenge on anything but the easiest difficulty setting (which is basically designed for abject newcomers), there's a range of combos for every situation.
By far my favourite new tweak to the formula is the Ophidian Whip and Angel Lift, which give you the choice of whether to pull enemies towards Dante or pull Dante towards them. This might seem like a minor addition, but in practice, they expand your combat options tenfold. Do you yank an airborne enemy down to the ground, or effortlessly zip up to their position and launch an airborne assault? There are very few games that give players so much choice over the rampant, visceral brutality.
Wonderfully, you're free to chain this enormous smorgasbord of moves together into some of the longest and most intricate freestyle combos to ever grace the genre. Every encounter is an opportunity to experiment with new techniques and new ways of linking them, creating new strategies on the fly and adapting to suit the situation. Battling is an utter joy, and if I'm honest, the combat is probably the best in the entire series from a mechanical standpoint. It's just so smooth. So versatile. So satisfying. So... well, Devil May Cry.
Replayability has always been a cornerstone of the Devil May Cry experience, and DmC isn't he exception that proves the rule. Most of the twenty levels feature plenty of hidden secrets and lost souls to find, with some areas only accessible when you return packing new abilties. Addictive level rankings, numerous difficulty settings and persistent character levelling give players a compelling reason to revisit stages several times over, making for a seriously good value purchase. Note that the 100-level Bloody Palace mode will also be made available as a free download post-launch.
Capcom freely admits that DmC runs at 30 FPS, but you wouldn't know it during combat. Indeed, you'll probably be too involved in the action to notice. That said, once things have calmed down and you're free to run through corridors to your next big fight, it's sometimes a little obvious that the floor and walls aren't quite slipping away behind Dante as smoothly as you'd expect. Thankfully the consistently strong Unreal-powered graphics, complemented by imaginative artistic flair, gives us plenty of gorgeous and bizarre vistas to ogle at.
I encountered a single cutscene triggering glitch that forced me to restart a boss fight, but the generous checkpoints made this a relatively painless affair.
Unfortunately, DmC: Devil May Cry suffers from a handful of issues that stop it from becoming a truly exceptional example of the genre. The gritter Westernised setting has forced Ninja Theory to stick to a relatively small selection of drab regular enemies designed around traditional demonic imagery, many of which are palette swaps. They're much more fun to fight than to look at, contrasting with the amazingly-designed and enormous bosses that are more engaging as eye candy than antagonists. Sporting limited attack patterns and painfully obvious weaknesses, they're easily a low point in the proceedings. Once you've worked out the knack to defeating each one, which will only take a couple of minutes, they tend to be an exercise in simple repetition rather than desperate combo-driven improvisation.
There's also a lot of padding in the campaign, which stems from over-use of the whip & pull mechanics. Several of the later levels feature more jumping and grabbing between floating rings than fighting, which is practically a quick-time event with colours instead of overt button prompts. I'd go as far as suggesting that the latter few stages actually feel rushed and anticlimactic, though this is only in comparison to the full-on outrageousness you'll have gotten used to.
Finally, we come to the storyline, which manages to squander several excellent twists and brave surprises during the first five hours. The climax clearly attempts to make Dante a more sympathetic and human character, but falls spectacularly flat by shoehorning in some staid conventions, a half-baked love story and truly unconvincing motivations for a major change of heart. Dante's reasons for deciding to defend mankind make little sense due to the fact that he only interacts with a single human throughout the campaign, and I can't help but wish that Ninja Theory had been just a tad more adventurous when it came to the latter third of the game.
Mind you, I'm not convinced that strong storytelling has ever been one of the series' major strengths. Considering the strength of DmC's combat mechanics, I'm finding it impossible to care about a few narrative missteps and the change in its protagonist.
Oh, and if you let your love of an increasingly obtuse series stop you from enjoying one of the best brawlers of this generation, that's not Ninja Theory's fault.
- Gloriously versatile, responsive and tactical combat that arguably surpasses its predecessors
- Inception-esque game world is stunning, gritty and unpredictable
- Excellent value, lengthy campaign, massive replayability potential
- 'New Dante' is fine, actually
- Issues with platforming padding, bland and repetitious enemy designs
- Bosses are much less fun to fight than look at
- Story and characterisation falls flat after a strong start
The Short Version: DmC: Devil May Cry is an utterly superb brawler, both in terms of its supremely versatile combat mechanics and gorgeously-realised game world. Despite a few hiccups, Ninja Theory's controversial effort is more than worthy to bear the name and a nigh-essential purchase for genre fans.