DmC Devil May Cry review: Better than the devil you know
14th Jan 2013 | 08:00
Thus far, DmC has been defined by the caustic relationship between Ninja Theory and a vocal subset of hateful fans. At the epicentre of the controversy is a new look Dante; he's not the Dante these fans want, entirely because he doesn't look like the Dante they know. This is the fire smoke blowers are fanning to obscure the greater ambition, more fool them.
DmC is bold and brilliant; a glorious union of East and West that marries deep and responsive gameplay with high-quality production values, vivacious environments and engaging characters. From here on out, DmC will be defined as the game that pulled the franchise back from the brink.
Got the Devil's Haircut in My Mind
The irony of it all is that, beyond the visual differences, Dante is the same cocksure rogue. In fact, most of the returning Devil May Cry cast aren't all that different, they've just been reinterpreted through a modern lense, bringing them in line with the contemporary setting and giving them some much needed texture.
Dante is humanised, and is a more interesting character because of it. His story is charted from the very beginning, from orphaned infant to rebellious teen growing up on the mean streets. A lost soul searching for his humanity and struggling with his inner devil, who becomes an alcohol guzzling, sexually promiscuous loose cannon.
Of course, he plays the brazen bad boy too, and in that respect Ninja Theory has turned him up to 11. He curses up a storm, filling our ears with F-bombs at a frequency we've not heard since playing Bulletstorm. His one-liners are as corny and as crass as ever, but delivered so well that it's impossible not to chuckle.
Mundus, DmC's prime antagonist, is no longer the abstract threat looming over the player until the closing moments. Instead he's an ever-present manifestation of modern fears and anxieties: a fat cat bureaucrat commanding an Orwellian world of his creation, controlling the flow of information and crippling it under debt.
New character Kat has a way with witchcraft, making her indispensable to Dante in his quest for revenge and liberation, but she hides a troubled past that touches on some very sensitive issues. As the only fully human main character, she also serves as the moral anchor.
DmC's narrative is nuanced in a similar fashion. In its broad strokes the story plays out similar to the original, but the old angels-and-demons yarn is a little more colorful thanks to the biting social commentary and clever satire woven into it.
The moments in which DmC pushes up against the fourth wall are its most memorable. For example, Raptor News Network anchor Bob Barbas spreads demon propaganda and villainises Dante. He's a creep with a comb over that preaches about "doing God's work". The similarities to a certain Fox News host are obvious, which makes it all the sweeter when you get to smack him around. One of the game's more memorable missions sees Dante forced to compete in 'The Devil's Got Talent', a gauntlet of platforming and combat challenges.
DmC's many hooks into the real world give it cultural relevance, a rare quality in video games.
But the real star of DmC isn't a person, but a place: Limbo, an alternate dimension superpositioned over the human world, the place where Dante gets all his demon-slaying done. The human realm is depicted as a dreary world where the only colour that pierces through the depressing grey is from advertising billboards and the neon signs of squalid establishments. In contrast, Limbo is bursting with colour.
Apparently Ninja Theory's vision of hell is a world so saturated in primary colours that it burns itself into retinas. We can confidently say that DmC is the one of most visually striking games of this generation. As Dante descends deeper into Limbo the environments become more creative and the kaleidoscope of colours intensifies.
In one mission he travels through the the Raptor News Network's digital-blue title screen and into Bob Barbas' news feed. In another he crashes a demon nightclub, its rainbow of fluorescent colours pulses to a hard bass soundtrack provided by Dutch electronic duo Noisia. Strobe lights whip back and forth while one of those fit-inducing Windows Media Player music visualisers nails home the complete sensory overload. It's like the worst acid trip ever, except the hippie music has been replaced with thumping neurofunk.
Ninja Theory's masterstroke, however, was giving sentience to the world itself. Limbo is alive and it doesn't like Dante very much. It's a maleficent world that twists and tears at itself to impede his progress; rooms fold in on themselves, ground is pulled away from him, and buildings jarringly restructure themselves to funnel him towards danger.
Limbo constantly belittles him by displaying spiteful, demoralising messages in his path. It's a fever dreamish world of no rhyme nor reason, just a palpable maliciousness and an intense hatred of the foreign parasite travelling through it.
Strike Hard, Strike Fast
Of course, all the visual flourishes in the world are meaningless if it doesn't play well. Combat has been a stumbling block for Ninja Theory in its previous games, but on the other hand hack-and-slash systems are Capcom's bread-and-butter, which is why it took point on this aspect of DmC.
Combat is a satisfying blend of Devil May Cry 3 and Devil May Cry 4, with the seamless transitions between multiple weapons and abilities carried over from the former, and the ability to grab enemies from the latter.
Dante has more than enough instruments of death to dish out serious beatdowns. Rebellion, his trusty longsword, and dual handguns Ebony and Ivory are the foundation of his arsenal. The sword serving as a reliable all round damage dealer, and the speedy guns suited to interrupting enemy attacks and juggling.
Bolstering these are Demonic weapons and Angelic weapons, each designed with unique strengths and weaknesses to function symbiotically. Arbiter, a giant axe, and Eryx, a pair of fiery gauntlets, are powerful but slow and have a narrow field of damage. These weaknesses can be mitigated with Osiris, a large scythe, and Aquilla, lightning fast shuriken-like blades, both which are fast and have a wide damage radius, but aren't as powerful. An element of strategy is imposed with foes that are impervious to certain weapons, so blindly swinging away with just one won't cut it.
These weapons have a sizeable list of unique abilities, some of which can be cancelled into other moves, used to position targets for follow-up attacks, or to manipulate the spacing and movement of enemies to maximise combo potential. Additional skills can be unlocked using points earned through combat too. A single playthrough won't yield enough points to unlock them all, but the game allows points to be redistributed without any penalty; a nice touch that encourages experimentation.
Adding an additional layer to combat is the ability to yank enemies towards Dante and thrust himself towards them. This is what gives combat its flow and balletic quality; Dante can zip between pockets of enemies on the ground or in the air to hack-em-up. On top of all that there's Devil Trigger, a brief state which pops all enemies into the air and leaves them defenseless against a powered-up Dante.
Like previous entries in the franchise, DmC has a scoring system that grades players from D to SSS based on combo ability. Since players are no longer penalised for repeating moves, the system is much more forgiving than in older editions. Repetition decreases the points value of a move, thereby making it harder to advance grades, but the only thing that will knock you down a grade is taking damage.
DmC's combat systems are intuitive and layered in gently enough that newcomers can get a grasp on them without too much difficulty. But at the same time those with a mind for frame counters and lengthy combos will find a deep, fluid combat that provides plenty of tools to experiment with. Those inclined to put in the time to explore the ins and outs of weapons, Dante's movement capabilities and Devil Trigger will find more than enough room to get creative. We suspect it won't be long before YouTube is filled with jaw-dropping exhibition videos.
Rounding up the gameplay suite is DmC's platforming sections, which are built around the aforementioned lift and grab abilities. These short segments involve using a mixture of jumps, double jumps, glides and grappling to traverse environments. Occasionally Dante will need to manipulate the makeup of the world using the grab too. It's not particularly challenging but a welcome change of pace.
As much as we loved playing through DmC, there were elements that we felt were lacking, and a few technical issues that marred an otherwise outstanding experience.
The first is boss battles, which - unfortunately - more or less amount to staying at a distance and avoiding attacks until the telegraphed opening in the boss's defences appears, then rushing in and spamming attacks; rinse and repeat. This is a shame because in terms of scale, design and presentation they're spectacular, just very ordinary from a gameplay standpoint.
Enemies are a slight letdown too. Although they all certainly serve their function well by forcing players to mix up weapons usage and strategies, their design lacks imagination. There's a normal one, a flying one and some with shields. Eventually a big one is introduced, some feral animals show up and towards the end there's a ninja dude.
Yes, we're being reductive, but they're all pedestrian next to Shadow from the first Devil May Cry, or the Damned Chessmen from Devil May Cry 3. Given the high level of creativity put into everything else, the humdrum enemies are an obvious weak link.
From a technical perspective the auto-lock created issues on occasion, most notably during the more frantic battles where multiple targets threw the camera off track and redirected attacks. In encounters with large groups of enemies this issue can make prioritising threats more difficult than it should be.
Ultimately, these are blemishes that when you step back and look at the complete package are negligible. Certainly, none of it will stop most from diving right back in to finish challenge rooms, hunt down collectibles and replay the game on harder difficulties, where enemies have entirely new moves, behaviours and placements.
Capcom has previously said that, had it continued along the path it was on, it didn't see a future in the Devil May Cry franchise. Ninja Theory has given it new life. DmC is a superb reboot that delivers on all fronts, and does it with aplomb. For the first time in ages, we're excited to see where Devil May Cry goes next.