California Literary Review

Video Game Review: DmC: Devil May Cry

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February 17th, 2013 at 10:26 am

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DmC: Devil May Cry

Release Date: January 15th, 25th, 2013
Platform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Windows PC
Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Capcom
Genre: Allegorical Spectacle Brawler
ESRB: M for Mature
Campaign Running Time: About 10-12 Hours on first run

CLR Rating: ★★★½☆


Shout at the Devil

In the late nineties Hideki Kamiya was tasked with making a 4th sequel to Capcom’s hit Resident Evil franchise. Bored with the slow pace of the series and its protagonists who alternated between stoicism and haplessness strung together by thrice Google Translated dialogue, he wanted to try something new. Though he wanted to keep the supernatural horror, the game had to be fast and stylish, and its star had to be as effortlessly awesome as the manga heroes of his youth.

In a word, it had to be cool.

Thus Kamiya abandoned his directive and made an altogether different game: Devil May Cry, a razor sharp action extravaganza centered on the demon hunter Dante. It was a roaring success, followed by three sequels, an anime series, and enough knock-offs to form a new sub-genre of monster brawling where the competitors one-upped each other in an arena of grandiose fight choreography. As a new crown jewel in Capcom’s post-millennium lineup, the company famous for making the same sequel six times naturally wanted to keep this party train rocking all the way to Money Mountain, but there was a fundamental problem.

“Cool” isn’t static. It’s a writhing concept, constantly defined by the new and shedding the old like a snake’s prom dress (see Disco, Hair Metal, and Pogs for further reference). So even though DMC was certainly cool in 2001, by 2010, when God of War 3 out-bossed, Dante’s Inferno out demoned, and Kamiya’s own Bayonetta out-spectacled the series that started it all, it was plain to Capcom that they needed to be like Lady Gaga, steal from Bowie and reinvent themselves. In the limited imagination of large corporate entities, that means only one thing . . . (you guessed it) a reboot.

To this end they turned to British developers Ninja Theory, makers of the criminally overlooked Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and gave them a task of Fonzarellian proportions: to make Dante the king of cool one more time.

DmC: Devil May Cry

A sneak peak at Justin Beiber’s upcoming experimental death metal pop.

So what was it that made Dante (and thus Devil May Cry as a whole) so beguiling in the first place? Was it the over the top melodrama of the manic manga plots? Was it the J-pop haircuts or the brightly colored leather? The ludicrous campiness that could exceed even Adam West’s Batman when it wanted to?

Well, yeah. These aspects were all factors in the series’ appeal, but what made Dante truly cool is a simpler and older concept than the overblown absurdity he came to represent with each successive installment. Dante was, like James Dean before him, a handsome rebel fighting against the very concept of authority. A romantic notion that always had potential for exploration, but the series’ obsession with the superficial elements of “being cool” came at the cost of having as much depth as a Lilliputian puddle: Dante’s always been a rebel, sure, but one with neither cause nor clue.

DmC: Devil May Cry

The one exception being the combat system, which has always had enough complexity and challenge to be interesting while being stylish.

Thus when it came time for Ninja Theory to stick DMC into the Lazarus Pit of what is the modern reboot, the obvious tack to follow was to add some heft and weight to this series with nothing but disdain for the concept, but without losing the panache and pomp that made it fun in the first place. It was a dangerous tightrope act, one that had to balance loyalist desires for more of the same with enough fresh ideas to attract new fans. As any acrobat knows, you need the right tools to keep from falling into doom when walking a wire, so Ninja Theory took one straight out of the Chris Nolan playbook: an undercurrent of social relevance.

For in this remixed rebirth of DMC, Dante’s brash attitude is retained, but it’s now speckled with the punk rock edge and reckless nihilism of Sid Vicious. His nemesis, the Demon King Mundus, is no longer cartoonishly summoning an army from Hell for the sake of capital “E” Evil, as he already controls the world through the far more sinister forces of leveraged debt, addictive energy drinks, and agenda driven 24-hour cable news. His twin brother Virgil, always the more serious Blue Oni to Dante’s red, is now the head of an Anonymous styled anarchist organization attempting to tear down Mundus’ establishment, in what can only be a direct appeal to Occupy protestors.

At the same time, the rules of the mythology are thankfully streamlined and made clear. Dante and Vergil’s heritage now takes a page from El Shaddai, as they are explained to be Nephilim, the progeny between a demonic father and an Angelic mother (as opposed to a human one), accursed by both sides of the eternal spiritual war sketched in Christian Apocrypha. Likewise, Dante’s battles against armies of malevolent demons tearing through a modern cityscape – a prospect that defied analysis previously – are explained to occur on a parallel plane of reality to our material one, Limbo. In Limbo, a twisted mirror of our own world, hellish creatures reside hidden from human sight, and in a page taken straight out of They Live, subliminal propaganda hides behind every advertisement.

In general, the narrative, whilst following the all too common “origin story that molds the hero from humble roots into the incarnation the audience already knows” outline, now has genuine merit. There’s an actual character arc, for one thing. Dante and Vergil actually grow over the course of this journey, and for once we get to see their sibling relationship play out in a friendly familial manner rather than as a Racer X rivalry. Heck there are even a couple twists on well-worn tropes tossed in for good measure, including a hostage exchange that’s initiated by the heroes for once.

DmC: Devil May Cry

Limbo’s landscape exhibits a terrible intelligence; deforming, collapsing and expanding as necessary to waylay Dante as he explores this woeful wonderland. It’s also a visual triumph more often than not.

Of course, not everything is a radical departure from series formula. The cast is still the same quartet of every game: Dante, Vergil, The Doomed to Fail Badguy (Mundus), and A Mysterious Woman That Drags Dante Into It All (Kat, a Psychic-Wiccan Dream girl). You’re still going about slaughtering demon hordes in linear stages that require multiple playthroughs to fully explore with unlockable difficulty modes and costumes.

The now classic hack n’ slash on steroids gameplay is also aped. You’ll still toss foes into the air with sword strikes and keep them aloft with a hail of bullets from your twin pistols and perform elaborate flowing combinations of attacks that are only limited by the player’s timing, imagination, and finger dexterity. If anything, the combat is more fluid (if not objectively better) than ever, since the best mechanics from the series, including a grappling chain that functions like DMC 4’s Devil Bringer, are retained. Weapon switching is also made instantaneous by assigning the two different “element” types to the trigger buttons, allowing for increased variability and strategy during combos.

DmC: Devil May Cry

One of the few obvious missteps to the combat is the new Devil Trigger attack. Visually, the high contrast looks spectacular, but the mechanic itself – freezing enemies in place – is just boring.

Overall, DmC is a triumph for Ninja Theory. They nail the execution of both gameplay and narrative, creating a wholly satisfying experience that encapsulates everything good about the series while updating it with enough Westernized modernity to give it a flair all its own. To keep to the earlier metaphor, they make it across the tightrope to the other side . . . though one wonders just how high off the ground they ever were in the first place.

For this is a success bereft of any real risk. The total retention of the traditional gameplay keeps the highlights, but also all of the fundamental problems: it’s still a game of fun at first, but increasingly repetitive combat scenarios, and the difficulty starts at such a low level (this is the easiest game in the series save perhaps DMC 2) that it struggles to maintain interest as you progress, a situation exacerbated by a dearth of decent boss battles. More distressingly, while it’s good to see Ninja Theory present some social commentary – few games even attempt it – they strike at easy targets, with neither enough wit to be salient nor enough viciousness to be cathartic.

While it’s nice to see a game that literally serves many of the intangible ills of modern society on a platter to be struck down by the player, the reduction of all too human sins and sinners into quite literally DEMONS FROM HELL! blunts the subsequent destruction of expiation. Even if you don’t like Bill O’Reilly, presented here as the incredibly thin parody of “Bob Barbas” (a clever name at least), he isn’t actually Satan. Nor are the other targets of scorn presented, from the sugary soda, the mindless debauchery inducing club music, the Orwellian network of security cameras, or the investment bankers.

Okay, I’ll grant them the bankers. They might actually be Lucifer incarnate.

DmC: Devil May Cry

Seriously the game basically has you attacking the concept of Fox News. Subtle this isn’t.

I suppose the real problem here is that any substance gained through this exercise in Liberal Shedenfreude still only goes skin deep. That the difference between the removed high camp and the new obtuse Juvenalian satire is so negligible it’s interchangeable. What seemed like it would be a bold dive off a cliff into the unknown bungeed back to what it always was: a light romp of super powered mayhem that only half-heartedly tries to leave a deep impression.

Then again, even these callow attempts at stapling deeper meaning to a bit of dumb fun are an improvement over the status quo. At least Ninja Theory had something on their minds when they sat down to make this, and the story does end on an intriguing enough note that future installments could prove interesting indeed. Mostly, the game is still a blast to play.

And it’s still cool.

Considering the capricious nature of cool, and the fact that we’ll likely see Capcom attempting this in another decade to lesser effect, that’s enough. So if you’d like to have a bit of fun that at least takes a swing at all the constant frustration and ennui we call modern life, give Dante a shot and get the party started.

Just don’t invite Bill O’Reilly. He’s not going to like the “Pin the Sword in the Pundit” level.

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DmC: Devil May Cry Trailer

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