DmC: Devil May Cry
The oddest issues polarise gaming communities. It can be a challenge to convince those outside the hobby of the furor over the ending of a space saga, a game not forcing you to die the right number of times, or, indeed, the main character having the wrong colour hair. The reboot of Capcom’s beloved Devil May Cry series kicked up an unusually large amount of angry nerd dirt, with fans taking issue with everything from the combo system to the new Dante’s choice of shirt. But no game companies are getting lynched this month; DmC is a masterpiece on a million knife edges.
Few doubted the story credentials of the game – aside, perhaps, from the unhinged who praised the original Devil May Cry series’ cheesy rubbish – with Ninja Theory in charge. The tragically underrated Enslaved: Odyssey to the West still stands as one of the best examples of video game writing, and while DmC isn’t quite up to those lofty standards, it does offer a cracking tale and some genuinely interesting characters. Dante is a listless young punk of a man, living in a sour and ugly world not unlike our own. He encounters a young, hooded witch and a terrorist leader who turns out to be his twin brother. Together, they fight crime… of a sort. Mundus is the big bad demon running the city from behind the scenes, and only Dante can stop him by killing everything in the most stylish way possible.
He’s a nephilim, you see; the offspring of a demonic father and angelic mother. This tragic backstory is what gives Dante his amazing powers and the ability to take down the baddest dudes. It also fuels the combat system, which is probably the smoothest and most responsive collection of mechanics I’ve spotted for many years. By default, Dante has access to Rebellion – his trademark blade – which can slice and dice at the touch of a button. A different tap launches enemies into the air and a third fires whatever firearm you might be holding. Soon enough, Dante gets access to his devil and angel forms, which are activated simply by holding down the left or right trigger. Devil weapons like the Arbiter axe are slow but powerful, ideal for bashing through shields and sturdier enemies. For quick attacks and crowd control the angel weapons do quite nicely. The two modes each also have their own grappling hook, which can drag enemies to Dante (devil) or pull Dante to them (angel).
Superficially, the system is much simpler than previous DMC games, but over time it reveals itself to just be better organised. Since you can switch modes almost instantly, combos can be strung together as fast as you can react. Sending a demon into the air, leaping up after them to land a flurry of blows, hooking onto a nearby flying harpy and slamming it into the floor with a giant fiery fist looks and feels immensely satisfying, and moments like this flow naturally from every encounter. Dante begins with just the rudimentary (but still very stylish) move set, with dozens of moves to unlock via the red orb-powered upgrade shop. The game allows you to unlock new tricks at a pace which lets you learn the ropes before you get in over your head, ensuring the flow is never interrupted by too many unfortunate deaths.
The same applies to enemies, who multiply in number and power at a comfortable curvature. Early evils can be dispatched however you wish, but soon you’ll be fighting giant rat-porcupines that go berserk at the death of a mate, witches who lend their shields to allies, tubby suits of armour and dimension-hopping swordsmen. Each has a specific method of attack and a helpful habit of telegraphing attacks in one way or another, meaning careful planning and split-second timing can have you cutting through 20 or 30 very bad things like a real demon hunter. Some enemies only respond to specific types of attack, such as the Hell Knight, who can set the ground on fire and damage Dante unless he is in demon form.
This reactionary wave of thought extends to Dante’s movement around various locations. Traversal is often done across floating chunks of rock and other broken bits of reality, and a quick-thinking combination of grapples, double and triple jumps, and good-old fashioned brute force will carry you from place to place. These sequences are a welcome break from the action, if only because they allow a moment’s peace to admire the eye candy littered around every inch of the game, and they whet the appetite for yet more combat.
While arguments will no doubt continue about the new combat versus the old, the design work on DmC is far and away the best thing the series has ever seen. Of course, it’s also a spectacularly rich game world in and of itself; each location – from the carnival boardwalk to the night club dipped in appropriated Christian mythology – oozes personality and charm beyond the quick jaunt the game allows. This oozing is often delightfully literal; the real world is a slate grey IV drip of city streets and billboard advertisements, but Limbo bubbles under the surface. Dante is frequently drawn into this demonic under-dimension, where buildings burst with unpleasant liquid, the air itself burns with who knows what ungodly evil. Watching reality contort and rip itself apart is as entertaining as the gameplay, and Ninja Theory are to be commended for again creating imaginary places that are a joy to interact with. Kill orders written on walls, city blocks trying to crush you and doors running off into the distance makes an adventure from what could easily have been a simple sequence of fights.
The story offers plenty of chances for wild spins through the weirdest of locales, as The Order attempt to anger a god and save the world. Ninja Theory appear to have had a bee in their bonnet about several issues in modern society as well, since the game is littered with not-so-subtle social commentary. It’s laid on a little thick at times, as you take down the number one soft drink brand (it’s got electrolytes!) and break into the Raptor News Network to beat up a proxy Bill O’Reilly. But its a fun ride and there’s some interesting points lurking under the preaching and stabbing.
Such blatant attempts to tug at the liberal bias of reality are made acceptable by a rather likeable cast of characters. Dante himself is a vast improvement on the original cocky sadsack, affecting an air of disaffected youth that is deftly backed up by some solid character development. Vergil is a treat to watch as well, particularly when the different upbringings and conflict styles of the two brothers butt up against one another. And they’re rather sexy gentlemen, it has to be said.
The supporting cast do their jobs admirably and memorably, particularly the various grotesque boss characters who exchange expletive laden insults as parts of themselves get sucked in and out of other parts of themselves. Really, I’ve never been so engaged and yet so disgusted. It’s a shame, then, that the designated Totally Evil Guy Who Does Bad Things, Mundus, is a crushing bore. If he wasn’t constantly positioned in front of a swirling vortex of bloody damnation he could be part of the next GTA. In a world where gigantic slug women projectile vomit while threatening to gouge out my eyes and feed them to children, some bald chap with anger issues and a nice suit is a bit of a disappointment.
That aside, DmC is a slick piece of action gaming magic. The combat is easy to understand but hard to master, and most importantly it’s fun enough to hold my attention through 10 hours of slashing, stabbing, punching, grappling and juggling. The standard difficulties are a little on the easy side if you’re an experienced Devil May Cryer, but completing the game lets you unlock several modes that punish in a manner appropriate for the Son of Sparda. It’s also has art direction that I want to make into a blanket and wear through the streets. Even a random street scene feels as if it is crawling inside my skull to lay very pretty eggs. Despite misgivings people may have had about this reboot, Ninja Theory have proved that a new version of Dante is absolutely worthwhile. No matter what colour hair he may or may not have.