The oddest complaint I’ve heard about Ninja Theory’s luminescent Devil May Cry reboot is that the new Dante is “angsty”. Angsty? Really? I could buy “angry”. I could see where you were coming from if you’d said “cocky”. You could go for brash, confident, overconfident, cocksure, self-assured, self-obsessed, self-important, audacious, smug, insolent, conceited, or cavalier, and that’d make sense to me.
What’s bizarre is that Dante has elements of all of the above, and yet he’s actually quite likeable. If old Dante was a rockstar – all glitz, glamour, flashiness, and a supernatural level of sheer presence – then new Dante is a wee bit more relatable, which is perhaps an odd thing to say about someone who pretty much eats demons and shits unfeasibly large weapons, and who is still essentially a swagger with a face. Yes, okay, he’s a walking prick who oozes disdainful rebellion and rabid sexuality, and his first appearance on screen shows him seducing and bedding a pair of exotic dancers, but that’s sort of the point.
See, while the plot deals with Dante trying to take down Mundus – the demon king who has secretly enslaved the world through debt and soft drinks (no, really) – the story is about a callous, self-serving arsehole growing into someone who cares about and fights for people other than himself. It’s not a great story, but it’s told entertainingly and the characters are rather more likeable than the trailers and demo might have led you to believe.
The story and plotting aren’t really things I’m that eager to talk about, though, because they’re a backdrop to the two things the absurdly-named DmC: Devil May Cry does really, really well. First: the art, animation, and general presentation. I’m not sure who the art director was (despite sitting through the credits to try to catch it) but the entire art and animation team deserve big fat medals, because DmC DMC is visually stunning.
The majority of levels have Dante in Limbo, a sort of hellscape version of the city the game is set in, which explains why he can swoop about like a blind pigeon and hack at demons like an ADHD butcher without anyone actually noticing. While the real world is grey and barren, each of these Limbo levels have a visual motif of their own: the city streets are bathed in gold and blue, making everything look a bit Mediterranean. There’s a psychedelic club with a neon background pulsing in time to the music. There’s an upside-down version of the city with Dante charging along ceilings. There’s an amazing visual twist in the game’s closing quarter, which I’m not going to spoil. Everything looks unique. Everything looks lovely.
Interestingly, the Limbo version of the city is to some extent alive, and as much of an active opponent as the fanged monstrosities that are trying to flay, tan, and wear Dante as a set of trousers. Words flash up on walls, apparently visible on some subconscious level to the citizens, telling them that debt is good and obesity is fine. They also flash up “KILL DANTE” as demons teleport in, or “NO ESCAPE” as the walls judder and start to pulltogether in an attempt to smoosh our protagonist. The way the city rearranges itself to try to murder Dante is an effect that remains impressive right to the end.
All of this is underpinned by some fantastic animation. The motion capture in cutscenes is sterling, lending a huge amount of personality to each of the characters, and going a long way to making them characters rather than stereotypes spouting dialogue. One fantastic moment has Dante respond to another character’s question with a breezy one-liner and his typical cocky smile; when the other character indicates the ramifications of what’s going on, the camera lingers on Dante’s face just long enough for you to see the smile freeze and start to falter. It’s a remarkably human moment in a game that looks to be purely based around testosterone and angry rebellion, and it’s far from the only one.
This even ties into the general combat animations, too, with Dante’s swings tending towards the wild end of things, occasionally overextending and unbalancing himself. But more impressive is that the flow from move to move appears to be seamless: each of Dante’s movements, rolls, charges, and attacks segue neatly together. This is made slightly more impressive when you consider the amount of moves Dante has at his disposal.
Now, let’s be clear: DmC DMC isn’t a hack-and-slasher focused on technique, exactly. It doesn’t really demand combo memorisation, precision button inputs, and hours of study put into each weapon to figure out how to use it effectively. Instead, Ninja Theory opted to focus the combat on mobility, which is about a billion times more accessible.
By the end of the game, Dante has access to eight weapons. All of these are available at the touch of a button. To attack with Dante’s jack-of-all-trades sword, Rebellion, you just tap the face buttons. Hold down the left trigger and the face buttons switch over to attack with whichever angelic weapon you have equipped instead, usually doing some light area damage. Hold down the right trigger and you’re instead using your demonic weapons, which tend to be slower, more powerful, and more single-target focused. And if you want to equip a different angelic or demonic weapon, you just tap the d-pad. And that’s not all, as Dante’s weapons can also morph into a sort of magic grappling hook that lets him yank enemies over or pull himself towards them.
In short: you’ve got eight weapons that you can access by holding down a trigger or tapping the d-pad, which makes swapping between weapons mid-combo frighteningly easy, and you can get around the battlefield by using almost any enemy as the far end of a zipline. If you want to pull a group of enemies towards you, start hitting them with angelic weapons to deal some light damage to all of them, evade a stronger enemy’s swing with a roll, pull him over to you, cut him in half with a huge axe, hurtle towards a flying harpy, blast it with your pistols and smack it away with Rebellion, and then rocket fist-first into a ground-based enemy, you can. In one continuous combo. And it’s really easy to do.
This means that combat is a visual spectacle no matter your skill level, but attaining an SSS-ranking is still fairly tricky to do and requires a good knowledge of enemy positions and the strengths of each weapon. In short, the combat works rather well.
But it also means, unfortunately, that combat is a bit on the easy side for most of the game. The hardest of the starting difficulty levels – Nephilim – isn’t much of a challenge if you’ve played this sort of thing before, even when you’re still learning the controls. Things do get trickier on the higher, unlockable difficulty levels, which remix enemy waves and give them new attacks and abilities (culminating in the utterly absurd “Hell and Hell” difficulty, in which Dante dies in one hit) but it rarely feels as though mastery is something that you’ve seriously earned, which in turn makes the game a bit less satisfying.
But the biggest disappointment easily comes from the bosses. There aren’t too many of these around, but with two exceptions, these fights have all the impact of a balled-up wad of tissue. One exception is a mid-game battle against Not Fox News’ Not Bill O’Reilly, which takes place in a bizarre cyberspace newsroom – as well as in various CCTV cameras – and gets a pass purely for sheer visual spectacle and inventiveness. The other is the game’s final battle which, while not outstanding, does a bloody good job of getting the blood pumping and actually testing your skills, which somehow makes it even more disappointing that it’s the only one of its sort.
The rest, unfortunately, are bottom-of-the-barrel affairs that have you dodging hugely telegraphed attacks and hitting glowing red weak points. In any other game I might not mind so much, but Devil May Cry is a series renowned for impressive and tricky boss battles, and this lot simply don’t come close.
It’s also a shame that the game occasionally forgets that its crux is the high-octane combat. There’s some light platforming thrown in (generally using your magic grappling hook) which is reasonably entertaining, and the plot is enjoyable enough – but both of these only really work the first time around, and this is a game that demands to be played multiple times in order to get the most out of it. The most egregious offender is a mid-game mission which is essentially one lengthy, unskippable cutscene, and this – incongruously enough – ends with one of the most enjoyable arena battles in the entire game, so it’s one you might actually want to repeat anyway.
I should also quickly mention that the port quality is rather high, and that if you’ve got the option, the PC version is certainly the one to plump for. The graphical options are a little sparse but it looks lovely, it’s well-optimised (running at 1680×1050 resolution on high detail even on my computer) and – unlike the console versions – it runs at a full 60 frames-per-second, making the action even smoother and more visually impressive, which makes such a difference to a game like this I can’t overstate its importance. You will need a gamepad, though; you could theoretically cope with a multi-buttoned mouse, but you’d need to be an Olympic-quality finger gymnast to survive with a basic mouse and keyboard setup.
DmC: Devil May Cry is likely to upset a great number of long-term series fans with the changes it’s making to the old formula, and it’s certainly not perfect. There are pacing issues, it’s a bit on the easy side, the bosses are rubbish, and the weapons don’t have the technical depth you might demand.
But you know what? I really don’t give a toss, because it’s just fun to play. I’ve played for 20 hours. I finished it twice in two days. I’m still popping back to it every couple of days. And it’s very, very hard to give two shits about a couple of irritating levels when you’ve just wiped out an entire room full of demons in one fluid combo, while weaving in and out of enemy strikes, culminating in you punching a giant chainsaw-wielding monstrosity in half just as that coveted SSS rank finally popped up in the upper-right of the screen. It’s unlikely to be a game that’ll pop into my head when people are talking about GotY 2013, but in terms of sheer entertainment and spectacle, it’s got things nailed and I’d love to see more. If you’re one of the old fans who dislike everything DmC DMC then I can understand your disappointment, but I pity you a bit because this is really good anyway. It’s just different.
But anyway, to get back to the point I was making at the start of this review – angsty? I’ve seen more angst-ridden dormice.