I was never a fan of Ninja Theory. Kung Fu Chaos was a muddled mess, Heavenly Sword felt like a short tech demo for the first God of War, and Enslaved, although a beautiful and astounding film-esque experience, was a very sub-par video game.
But whatever you think of their history, the time has come to judge Ninja Theory’s work on a much larger stage: the handling of one of the biggest (if not the biggest) action franchises of all time. Given their spotty past, of course I was skeptical going in.
Let’s see how they did.
DmC starts with a bang. I have to say, Ninja Theory did an amazing job with the world that Dante inhabits, and it’s easy to get sucked in. It’s bright when it wants to be, dark when it needs to be, and it looks absolutely stunning. I remember very clearly fighting through some particularly boring parts of Enslaved, while looking at the backgrounds with my jaw open — it’s the exact same thing here. Note that I said “looks.”
The premise is fairly simple, and it works — at first. Demons are controlling the human population through a soft drink that essentially poisons their mind and keeps them docile. The head of the organization, Mundus, is afraid of the one half demon half angel man who can stop him, and sends out a strike squad to assassinate him. As Dante, it’s your job to not only stay alive, but to discover yourself, learn about your past, and earn valuable allies in the process.
Despite the fact that it isn’t the most original idea in the world, it works enough to keep you at least somewhat interested throughout the game. While you won’t get too many “body surfing down skyscrapers while Dante shoots down one thousand missile” moments, Capcom and Ninja Theory attempt to form a cohesive narrative, even if they mostly fail at it. Characters fall flat, their motivations are spotty at best, and there’s no real development, to the point where they just kind of do things just to do them out of the blue.
As a result, the “90s action movie” feel of the series is absent here, which both works for and against the new entry as a whole. My real issue with the narrative in general is that sometimes in the middle of the game the pacing can feel off pretty heavily before it picks up again.
But what about Dante? The main source of controversy himself, Mr. Tall Dark and Handsome?
I never had a problem with Dante’s hair color. What I didn’t like was the presupposition by Ninja Theory that the old Dante “wasn’t cool anymore” and their new direction for him was. The “new” Dante is irreverent as ever, to the point of essentially presenting himself as a demonic varsity football jock (at least, at first).
Simply put, he doesn’t have a whole lot of character to him. He’s just kind of there, cracking wise, and at the beginning of the game, he explains how he takes his frustrations out by sleeping with as many women as he can. If that’s Ninja Theory’s idea of a “cool guy,” they lost me.
He goes through some sort of “developmental” phase where he starts to care about more than just himself, but it’s a heroes journey you’ve seen a million times before, and it’s not all that compelling. While the original Dante may have run his course, I would have taken his insane and “devil may care” attitude (imagine that!) any day of the week over this relatively safe new Dante.
The other supporting characters aren’t much better. Vergil very much retains a backup role in the narrative, only truly coming on stage towards the very end of the game. Kat, Dante’s human companion, has flashes of brilliance in terms of dialogue and the actual motion capture performance of the actress, but outside of a few fleeting moments, she fails to make a lasting impression.
While I’m still not a fan of pretty much any of the characters in the game, as I stated before, the way the world that encapsulates the narrative is presented is near perfect.
In the world of DmC, two parallel universes exist: Limbo (the demon realm), and the human realm. Dante has the ability to shift between the two with the assistance of Kat, and uses this to his advantage when taking on Mundus and his minions.
Not only does the narrative focus on these mechanic in an interesting way, but it also changes the way you play the game as well, due to the fact that the world can sometimes be constantly shifting around you on a moment’s notice. Certain blocks will pull away from you as you’re walking, causing you to think quickly and essentially solve a platforming puzzle.
Although the shifting tile mechanic had the potential to get old very quickly, the way DmC presents subtle little things like textual cues (like neon signs on the ground that spell out the emotion of the scene) is very clever. It definitely stands out in making a statement on its own terms, and doesn’t copy from other action games in that regard, which is much appreciated.
For the most part, platforming works — dare I say better than most of the other games in the series. You’re able to utilize a double jump, air dash, and a whip to traverse the world, and it all works pretty well barring a few camera hiccups.
Another plus is that the game is so different in comparison to the old Devil May Cry franchise, that Capcom hasn’t closed to the door in regards to a Devil May Cry 5 with the old style. Both could exist simultaneously, and either merge stories at some point, or remain separate.
But what about the combat, Chris? That’s the most important part of a Devil May Cry game, right?
Of course it is. So I’ll be straight with you: combat isn’t deep, but it works. I hold Devil May Cry 3 on a pedestal, because I think that the game’s multiple styles allow you to customize the game the way you want it, all while allowing for split-second combat nuances that no other game to date has replicated (except maybe Bayonetta). In essence, it’s combat perfection.
But despite the direct comparison, combat in DmC is serviceable, and allows for a certain amount of finesse. Once you unlock more weapons you’ll find it extremely easy to attain a “SSS” combat ranking, but you’ll have fun doing it.
In addition to Dante’s standard rebellion, there’s a scythe, axe, a pair of gauntlets, a pair of throwable glaives, and three ranged weapons to play around with. Although you can’t change weapons immediately (ie cancelling), you can combo other weapons in by pressing the direction pad.
While a few of the weapons didn’t really interest me (the gauntlets, the scythe, and two of the guns), how they work is interesting. One of my favorite new additions to combat is the Angel/Demon system.
Simply put, pressing the left trigger (L2) utilizes angel weapons (blue), and pressing the right trigger (R2) uses demon weapons (red). Over the course of the game you’ll encounter blue and red enemies that occasionally must be put down with the correct weapon. This isn’t a unique concept and we’ve seen it before.
But some levels are unique, in that the actual ground changes color, forcing you to hold the correct trigger and morph into the matching element, lest you take environmental damage. Add this mechanic into a hectic combat where you have to fight off colored enemies, and you have a pretty action packed situation.
I wish this was explored more honestly, but when it works, it works well. The soundtrack is perfectly done, and gets you sufficiently amped for even the smallest of battles. In fact, there were a few fights that probably wouldn’t even be memorable without the perfect song choice.
Sadly, while combat is pretty enjoyable during the missions themselves, the bosses are probably one of the weakest points of the game. Outside of two fights (one in the middle and one at the very end), none of the bosses will remain in my memory for more than a few days — a fairly stark contrast to the unforgettable big bads of the franchise’s past.
As for the difficulty of the game, Normal is extremely easy, and Hard isn’t much better. If you’ve played a Devil May Cry game before, you’re going to want to start from Hard mode immediately, until you beat the game and unlock the real meat.
Once you’re done (it took me around ten hours with mild exploration), you’ll have the classic difficulty offerings to tackle, as well as a few [underwhelming] costumes, and promises of DLC down the line (paid Vergil’s story DLC, and free Bloody Palace DLC).
Son of Sparda (very hard) is basically “normal mode” for past Devil May Cry games, and it mixes up the enemy variety a bit by placing end-game enemies near the beginning of the game. Dante Must Die is sufficiently challenging, and “Hell and Hell” mode (Dante dies in one hit; enemies do not) will keep even the savviest of action game fans busy for weeks on end, guaranteed.
Then you have all of the hidden keys, hidden doors and challenges, and other secret items on top of the fact that all of your abilities and items carry over across difficulty levels (just like classic games) — in short, you have one long game ahead of you should you buy into the idea of multiple playthroughs.
To be clear, this is not a classic Devil May Cry game. Combat is not nuanced down to exact tenths of a second, you aren’t going to ponder over which ability based unlockables to buy, and there isn’t a whole lot of thinking going on in general.
Still, as an action game, Devil May Cry succeeds far beyond what Ninja Theory has ever accomplished in the past. Whether that can be attributed wholly to their own merits, or a bit of Capcom supervision is unknown, but the fact remains: I have a little more faith in Ninja Theory as a studio from here on out.
This review is based on a physical copy of DmC: Devil May Cry for the Xbox 360.