First Impressions: DMC: Devil may Cry

In DmC, Dante is the son of a demon father and an angel mother. Outrage!

DmC, oh DmC. Ever since its grungey announcement at E3 2009, the Ninja Theory-helmed reboot of the beloved, stylish action franchise has stirred such a tremendous hurricane of backlash you’re starting to wonder whether there is actually someone left who likes the game. To the surprise of many a gaming journalist – who did not expect the admittedly not very story-heavy franchise to be such a sacred cow – a very vocal group of opponents gathered to tear apart every single element of the game, ranging from the colour of Dante’s hair, over the frame rate to the substantial changes in backstory.

I have been a fan of this reboot from the get-go, as you may already know, but even as a staunch defender of the game’s new “misfit” story, look and feel, even I have to admit that its true merits will be determined by how it plays. Will Ninja Theory’s changes to the franchise’s infamously fine-tuned combat lift DmC up to the heavens, or cause it to burn in hell? After more than two years of arguments that would make Aristotle roll over in his grave, this will become clearer as ever, as a demo of the already doomed new entry in the series has been made available for download on Playstation Network and Xbox Live.

The Osiris is Dante’s quickest melee weapon, and incorporates many Swordmaster skills from DMC3 and 4.

The DmC demo is a surprisingly meaty one, giving you access to one whole mission, and one boss fight — both of which can be played on one of four difficulty settings. The Son of Sparda setting is unlocked after beating the demo once, and is only the fourth of the whopping seven settings the final game will consist of. Most of what you’ll play in the demo are scenes you have probably seen before in gameplay videos released during conventions, but there is still a surprising lot of new facts about the game to be discovered in this sneak-peak.

In “Under Watch”, Dante has to make his way through the city, accompanied by his short-shorted, spray-painting companion Kat, only to get dragged into Limbo. As you may already know, Limbo is a dimension hidden under ours, which completely changes the environment and houses hordes of demons. While Dante fights his way through the demons, the city itself will try to kill him, shifting walls, crumbling floors and having demonic CCTV cameras keep an eye on him at all time. The added focus on the environment adds a healthy dose of exploration and platforming to the once strictly linear franchise, and gives you a surprising lot of fun things to do aside from beating up demon scum.

In “Secret Ingredient”, the second half of the demo, Dante faces off with a “twelve-hundred years old” demon responsible for creating an energy drink poisoning the masses. Given the fact that this is Dante we’re talking about, slaying the shrill-voiced embryo is a piece of cake, but vomit, horrible dialogue and swearing are all involved. Especially swearing. Lots and lots of swearing. Fuck. But how does all of this play? How does DmC fare with a reputation so deep down the gutter it doesn’t have anything to lose anymore? Has it become a lost cause? Is the crew of down-voting YouTube frat boys right for once? Or are Ninja Theory the brave knights of game design who do just what the hell they want to, against the odds?

With only a few individuals — many of which who happen to be game journalists — on its side, DmC is very much like its protagonist: shunned by most, looked down on with disgust, and aware of its downfall being imminent, but still cocky, confident and stubbornly determined to do things its own way. Is this party getting crazy?

Ebony and Ivory are female now. Betrayal!

Writing

Aqua’s ThoughtsThe demo showed very little of the actual story. Given their reputation, Ninja Theory seems to be doing their best to keep most of it well-hidden, although it remains difficult to see just how much this story will divert from the previous canon, especially with Date’s now apparently good evil twin Vergil being involved. This demo is all about Dante, though, and while I am a fan of the game’s overall direction, the quality of the dialogue can vary.

In general, I am of the belief that as the original Devil May Cry smacked all that was cheesy and unconventional back in 2001 together in one game, DmC: Devil may Cry is trying to do the same. The new Dante is a hedonistic chav with a filthy mouth rather than a cold-hearted, grumbly hardass with a crew cut or a bumbling Nathan Drake, just like how the old Dante was a witty, too-cool-for-school goth in an industry full of cartoonish animals or spikey-haired navel-gazers.

There has been a lot of backlash about the increased amount of swearing in the game, with the usual outcries of how Dante would be “too cool to swear”, but I think that this is rather irrelevant. The new Dante is not intended to be the very epitome of awesomeness more than he is — as Ninja Theory has already stated on multiple occasions — what the Dante character would act like if he were placed in a more contemporary, realistic setting. This, alongside the game’s general intention to incorporate all that is considered cheesy and pulp nowadays, justifies the Tarantino-esque vulgarity more than enough for me.

Cheesy one-liners were part of Dante’s schtick and while the “new” Dante has just as big a mouth, it often seems as if he is desperately trying to be witty, while he actually isn’t. Some of the lines are so appallingly lame they become memorable on their own (see his swear-off with the Poison demon), but it is odd to see the usually fantastic Ninja Theory writers approving of drivel like this, especially with fun little gems like “I never knew my mother, but if you called me a son of a bitch you wouldn’t be the first!” being part of the game just as well.

Rating: Brutal!

Zigg’s Thoughts: Contrary to the blinkered views of many fans, the writing in Devil May Cry games has never, ever been good. What it has been is bad in exactly the right way. I didn’t get any of that with this game, and I absolutely refute Aqua’s suggestion that this game is trying to be cheesy and unconventional. What it is, is in fact super conventional, an edgy, ‘dark’ play towards the new console generation. That’s not necessarily a bad thing of course, as darker reboots can work given enough care and balance, but the sense of interest or fun is palpably lacking from this demo’s writing.

It’s not just new Dante (for the record I actually quite like the design) but an absence of any of the knowing, 80’s action movie cool which powered the best narrative moments of previous games. This game is in contrast very serious, which in my opinion is not really the right tone to go with. Dante’s quips fall entirely flat and his dialogue is generally banal and rather unimaginative. Compare his cringeworthy swear-off with the Slurm queen boss with this masterpiece of multiple entendre from Devil May Cry 4. They’re both silly, crass and juvenile, but the difference is only one of them makes me laugh, and it’s not DmC.

I’m not super keen on whoever new Dante’s voice actor (Aqua’s Note – Tim Phillips) is either – he certainly doesn’t project the cockeyed swagger that Reubon Langdon brought to the role. I know Ninja Theory have explicitly stated they wanted a different, more realistic Dante, but guess what – that’s not as interesting to me as the pizza eating, enemy surfing superman we saw in previous games. Doesn’t the videogame world have enough tortured young men already? It’s not as if the writing is egregiously bad or offensive, it just does nothing for me.

Rating: Cruel!

Eryx and obnoxious speed lines are not included in this demo.

Design

Aqua‘s Thoughts: DmC is surprisingly open. Just like in the old games, the adventure is split up in “missions”. At the end of every mission, you will still get a screen showing you how well you did, but DmC adds an extra column to the traditional list of evaluation factors: completion. The new DmC is not a strictly linear experience, as roads will often lead to different ending points. Dante needs to keep his eyes open for hidden staircases or grappling points which will lead him off the predetermined path.

Hidden throughout the levels are keys, which give access to the series’ trademark challenge rooms, as well as “Lost Soul” collectibles, which often require a bit of thinking to be obtained. Gathering all the collectibles in a mission yields you health and Devil Trigger upgrades, as well as a red orb multiplier at the end of the mission, but this feat is impossible to achieve on the first run-through.

DmC extends the series’ usual replayability with Metroidvania-esque bonus areas that can only be accessed with weapons or skills you do not yet possess the first time you pass there. Combined with the countless difficulty settings and their promised changes in where and when which enemies spawn, DmC seems to be trying its very best to keep you entertained for as long as possible.

Rating: Savage!

Zigg‘s Thoughts: It’s pretty difficult to gauge the structure of a game from a two level demo, but then there’s only so much spin you can put on the action fighting game template. I do like the increased verticality of the levels, which combined with the heavier platform elements make this feel a bit more like an actual environment and not just a series of pretty backdrops you’re running through. The empahsis on multiple types of collectible elements seems neat also, and the ever present bonus challenges are a staple, but still nice to see back.

Rating: Anarchic!

“Who the FUCK are YOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOUUUUUUUU?”

Gameplay

Aqua’s Thoughts: Combat has been radically altered, that much has to be said. For starters, lock-on has been removed, though this is hardly an issue unless you are trying to shoot breakable objects in the environment. Dante can now wield three weapons at the same time, and doesn’t have to dive into the menus to change them around anymore, but the most substantial change is the removal of the styles. The same button is now used to grab enemies, or launch Dante towards them, which is in se very reminiscent of Nero’s Devil Bringer in DMC4.

Does the removal of styles crank back Dante’s arsenal of moves, though? No. Royal Guard — you know, that style you never used — may be entirely gone, but most of the Trickster and Gunslinger moves have now become standard part of Dante’s arsenal. Despite the radical change in combat, almost all of Dante’s signature moves are still intact. High Time, Helmbreaker and Stinger are still well where they should be, and Swordmaster moves like Prop Shredder have been delegated to new weapons such as the Osiris scythe.

These new weapons are by far the most disappointing part of the game for me, though. The generic scythe, axe, throwing stars and boxing gloves that have been revealed for DmC already pale in comparison to awesome and versatile toys from older games like Nevan (a guitar that summons lightning), Lucifer (an odd shoulder-mounted device that summons exploding laser swords) or Pandora (a suitcase that can transform in 666 different firearms) (Zigg’s note – It couldn’t actually do all 666 in game, but it compensated by transforming into a giant floating weapons platform you could pilot). Let’s hope DmC is trying to keep all the original weapons of mass destruction a secret.

Rating: Savage!

Zigg’s Thoughts: My biggest worry about this game was quickly assuaged as the combat is tight, well put together and feels very much like a Devil May Cry game. Ninja Theory’s previous stab at the genre, Heavenly Sword, was ruined by a slow, lethargic combat style, but clearly Capcom’s expertise has bled over here. I’m a huge fan of the triple style combat and of putting the two styles on shoulder buttons. It’s a much easier way to get people to play around with the mid-combo stance shifting that formed the bedrock of high level DMC3 and 4 play while at the same time streamlining the controls. Juggling is easy and just from an hour or so slicing dudes there appears to be considerable depth in the system and I was managing easy 25-30 hit combos with good air control.

I’m also a big fan of the increased platforming elements on show, and how the game manages to have its cake and eat it by tying a lot of your platforming abilities to the same angel/devil style duality that the fighting system is based on. It not only provides a thematic link between all of Dante’s abilities but also gives you options to both pull enemies to you, or to pull yourself towards them. As a result combat is faster, combos can go on longer and everything is generally more balletic and less piecemeal – good things all. The loss of lock-on is annoying when you’re trying to take down specific enemies (and I’d imagine this will be a big deal later in the game when they throw much more powerful enemies out surrounded by cannon fodder) but the implementation of a one-button dodge was smart and essential.

The game feels very well balanced difficulty-wise. I ploughed through without dying on default difficulty, but was presented with a noticeably tougher challenge in Son of Sparda. I can easily believe the talk that this will be as tough as any previous DMC at the higher difficulties. The default weapons are fine, though as Aqua says I do miss some of the slightly wilder contraptions of old. Given the stylistic shift I’m not sure we’ll see anything quite on the level of what we had before. Overall though, this feels very much like a Devil May Cry game – high praise indeed.

Rating: SSadistic!

Platforming is a lot more prominent. Good thing it is also a lot more fun.

Graphics

Aqua’s Thoughts: DmC is beautiful. It may not be Uncharted or Halo, but the art style and vibrant colour palette give it a unique identity of its own. Gothic architecture is less prominent but still present, and presented with lush, but menacing vivacy. From the ink blots Dante’s sweeps leave behind to the black goo demons explode into when you finish them off, DmC‘s chiseled, grunge art style is a true lust for the eye. Even the much-maligned character designs are nothing but pure genius to me. Any game that gives its all to star a gaunt punk wearing a wifebeater and a hipster chick who looks like a Hot Topic store exploded on Alice Glass gets the maximum of my respect.

As usual with Ninja Theory, the motion-captured animation is stunning, with cutscenes being both realistic and oozing with style. Tim Phillips’ Dante still evokes many of the classic demon slayer’s movements and poses, and the world crumbling and morphing before your very eyes stands out as a character on its own. Walls with menacing graffiti moving closer, floors crumbling and disappearing into the void below, lamp posts twisting as you approach them… surprises lurk around every corner and even when there are no demons around, you’d be well off keeping your eyes open at all times.

Rating: SSadistic!

Zigg’s Thoughts: Environmentally this is an utterly gorgeous game. Ninja Theory liberally spray around their by now trademark ultra heavy bloom, which works amazingly well and fits perfectly with the game’s rich, oversaturated palette. I’m in love with the way the world ‘explodes’ and deconstructs, which has the dual purpose of serving up interesting level design and looking utterly incredible.  Like I said earlier, I have no issue with new Dante and the mocap is smooth and effective, while the Devil Trigger gives us a nice shoutout to his roots and some crazy graphical effects that sell the whole ‘super mode’ thing pretty well.  It’s really nice to see a game that doesn’t shy away from a strong colour scheme.

My issue here is largely with enemy design, which is dull, unimaginative and bland. The enemies are boring, amorphous blobs that could be from any vaguely horror themed game of the past four or five years. Evil babies? Never seen that before! Except in Dead Space, and Painkiller and…you get the idea. The boss is the worst, a giant sack of claws, pipes and rippling flesh who could have been ripped out of Gears of War or Resident Evil (and that’s no longer a compliment).  I very much miss the ‘ripped from a heavy metal album cover’ aesthetic which defined earlier DMC enemies and there’s nothing here as instantly memorable as the Hell Prides from 3 or the Angelos from 4. Hopefully better enemies will crop up later on, but I’m not super optimistic from the design choices I saw.

Rating: Savage!

Arial combat is pretty much the standard in DmC.

Sound

DmC marks the first time a Devil May Cry game considers music than more than just an obligation since… well, Devil May Cry. While the first four games in the series mostly consisted of either silence or cheesy repetitive industrial metal, DmC brings in some professionals to create a variety of badass tracks for the game’s soundtrack. Searching all corners of the musical spectrum for the most grizzly and extreme genres around, the only thing most of these tracks have in common is that they are all things you really shouldn’t make your grandma listen to.

Helmed by Noisia and Combichrist, two bands even I have never heard of, the DmC soundtrack is extremely versatile, encompassing a plethora of douchey genres like nu-metal, drum-‘n’-bass, glitch, Prodigy-eque rave, EBM that sounds like Pretty Hate Machine-era Trent Reznor in an especially bad mood, noise and, of course, dubstep. While dropping the bass in your trailers usually means instant scorn, the music in DmC is surprisingly fitting and daring, no matter how inherently crappy and cheesy it may be on a strictly qualitative level.

Just like the art style and writing, the music in DmC lifts everything spat upon by modern society to a divine level of worship, and just like the original game, it has to be congratulated for that. Besides, if you liked the old music and hate the new, you’re most likely just lying to yourself.

Rating: Anarchic!

Zigg’s Thoughts: The music here is no better or worse than the old music was – that is, it’s a mindless mishmash of rock, thrash metal and roaring into the microphone. (Aqua’s Note – You need to brush up on your genre-ology, young Padawan.) Terrible, in other words and therefore perfect.

Rating: Anarchic!

Lock-on is gone, but even in large groups of enemies, combat remains intuitive.

Aqua’s Conclusion: My fate in DmC: Devil may Cry grows all the bigger. Not only is it a great game, it is also a great reflection on the game industry itself. Ninja Theory’s stubborn refusal to let the often harsh words of conservative fans get to them, has led me to belief that DmC has turned into a provocation, a middle finger of epic proportions. Fans feel offended and humiliated by every single change? They brought it onto themselves. Anarchy and rebellion against society are major themes in the game, and just like their protagonist, Ninja Theory seems to intentionally keep kicking fan demands in the face, just to prove that different can be cool. Who says that you can’t change something if it apparently isn’t broken? Who says that over-the-top cocky coolness is the only coolness? Who says that wearing a hoody and too much eyeliner is ugly? Who says that dubstep is always shitty? Do you? Or do you only because you’re expected to? Because other people told you to? Think about that.

Zigg’s Conclusion: I couldn’t care less about what DMC‘s overgrown manchild fans think – this reboot was a necessary step in the evolution of the franchise. Sure, I’m more down on some aspects than others, and it does feel much of the cheesy charm of the original series has been drained away, but at the end of the day what we’ve got here looks to be an extremely well playing, fine looking fighting game which has some interesting ideas of its own. What I hope to see from the finished game is perhaps a slightly lighter, more self aware tone – the essential corniness of the DMC games has always been a huge part of their appeal, at least to me.

Perhaps more worrying however is the threat to Dante from his very creator. In the  four years since the last Devil May Cry, the series’ father Hideki Kamiya and his new team at Platinum Games have unleashed Bayonetta, taking every one of DMC’s core concepts, and sharpening them to a razor’s edge to produce the greatest action fighter ever made.  With Anarchy Reigns and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance both bearing down on us, DmC may find itself under severe pressure from a far more experienced and established team.

Nevertheless, this demo gave me huge hope for the finished product. Lost in all the controversy seems to have been a fine game, and one hopes that Ninja Theory can follow through on the promise inherent in this demo – A brave new world and a new Dante, but one who bought the best parts of his history along with him.

Also, dubstep is shitty.

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One thought on “First Impressions: DMC: Devil may Cry

  1. On the topic of the quality of the writing, Ninja Theory doesn’t actually write any of their games in-house. For example, 28 Days Later/Dredd scriptwriter Alex Garland actually handled Enslaved. DmC is NT’s first in-house writing job, and while I’d agree with the popular consensus that it’s kinda terrible, comparing it to their previous work is unfair.

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