Sunday, January 20, 2013

Review - DmC: Devil May Cry

Would it piss you off if I told you DmC: Devil May Cry felt a teensy bit like Darksiders, at first?

I'll come back to that.


"Stylish action" was the phrase, in 2001.  It was the guiding concept behind Hideki Kamiya's definitive 3D brawler, which spawned two generations of imitators that directly copied structure and system, but never were able to quite match the depth and flow. 

Ummn yeah, the flow of Dante or Vergil or Nero martial-arting their way through the twisted universe the series inhabits.  

You Stinger into a monster, stab him a few thousand times, wing him up into the air with a High Time, hold him up for a moment with pistol fire before leaping up to join him and re-introducing him to Rebellion, the sword your father left you.  

It feels like a language, as you flow from one weapon, combo and special move to the next.  And beyond being gorgeous to look at, Devil May Cry defines "stylish" as trying not to say the same thing twice, as you speak in its beautiful and violent tongue.  

Is DmC a good Devil May Cry?  One that's gorgeous to look at while allowing the player to say something beautiful?  One that flows comfortably and sweetly? 

Yes it is.  

Is DmC one of the deeper Devil May Crys?  Along the lines of 3 or 4 that reward total mastery of timing, allowing you to pull of stuff that is, for lack of a better word, ridiculous?


There's a lot going on here, and it may look very complicated.  In a way, it is.  Every weapon in the game has an 'attack, attack, pause, attack' combo with special properties - but you can chain one into the other mid-combo.  You can do two hits with your sword, for example, and pause, and switch to the axe to access the penultimate strike of the axe's attack-attack-pause combo. This player is doing that with two angelic weapons, switching from the scythe to the throwing stars in mid-combo, between the pause - executing the throwing stars after the pause is the move where Dante throws the stars out towards the grounded enemies and draws them up to him to continue the combo, gathering them in front of him before switching to the demonic axe and slamming them into the ground.  So...

Circle (tap, don't hold), square and X, L2 (hold) triangle, triangle, pause, tap left on the D-pad, 

L2 (hold) triangle, L2 (hold)  triangle triangle, R2 (hold) circle.  

...well yes, DmC is one of the deeper Devil May Crys.  It can be mastered to the degree of DMC3 and 4's ridicul-awesome Royal Guard requirements, demanding frame-specific timing for some of its more advanced techniques, but it's also far easier to pick up and play - and glory in - than any previous Devil May Cry.

Wait.  Stop.  Let's back up.

Let's pause to appreciate how insanely cool this result is, in the face of our collective fears for the franchise.

A match made in..?

The Devil May Cry franchise is the definitive brawler of the past two generations of console hardware.  In 2001, with legendary director Hideki Kamiya at the helm, the franchise redefined what the genre could be, and became the gold standard which all others would be measured against - and invariably found wanting, in the gameplay department.

Its history isn't perfect.  2003's Devil May Cry 2 was absolutely awful, and anyone who tells you otherwise is an apologist - but Devil May Cry 3, which is generally agreed to be the series' peak, rocked gamer socks with its frame-specific mechanics and rock-hard challenge in 2005 before Capcom gave it an HD facelift in the enjoyable but aged-feeling Devil May Cry 4 (2007).  DMC 3 remained the high water mark for a technical brawler until Kamiya revisited the genre in 2009 with Bayonetta.

Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening (2005).  Widely considered the high point of the series.
For most of the last decade, though, Devil May Cry has reigned supreme - and so, was subsequently riffed on or ripped off by everyone from Temco (Ninja Gaiden) to Sony (God of War) to THQ (Darksiders) to EA (Dante's - hah! - Inferno), and even a small UK studio named Ninja Theory, back in 2007.

Back then, Ninja Theory was contracted by Sony to develop a next-gen brawler for the soon-to-release PlayStation 3, as Sony Santa Monica were just wrapping up work on the PS2's swan song, God of War 2.  With CGI-acting alum Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings, King Kong) helming the game's cutscenes, Heavenly Sword was a wonderfully-presented game with... meh gameplay.

Heavenly Sword (2007)

It was good-looking, sure.  But as a challenging, deep brawler?  Give me a break.

In 2010 it was announced that the next Devil May Cry installment would be a reboot, developed by Ninja Theory.  And people were not happy.  There was major backlash - against the developer, against the redesign of series hero Dante, against the whole concept of anyone else making a DMC game.

I was happy.  Capcom's DMC stories have always sucked, while Ninja Theory's have been awesome.  Ninja Theory's gameplay has always sucked, but Capcom's was awesome.

If we could get both those awesomes into one game, it would be... well, yeah.  A very good game.

Which this is.  Here's why.

High Time.  Classic.

The game's combat system - which is broader than anything the series has seen before - simultaneously achieves the series' classic feel in the hand while being perfectly accessible to a newcomer.  It honors and extrapolates on the series' roots, keeping the best of everything and then adding a whole lot of stuff that works really, really well.

It introduces its remarkably diverse portfolio of violence gently, starting you off with your classic sword, and nothing else.  Tap triangle for a combo, circle button is your High Time.

...just like in Darksiders, the old systems are stripped down, and only the mechanical properties of your moves remain - so you still have all your moves, you just need fewer inputs to access them.

Stinger.  Classic.

Simplified.  Streamlined.  Gone is the lock-on mechanic.

Then the game gives you back your guns.  Press square to use firearms.

Then it gives you your first secondary weapon.  Hold down R2 as an alt button to access heavy, smashing axe attacks - combo with triangle, slam with circle to toss enemies into the air.

Then it gives you another secondary weapon, mapped to L2.

Then it brings back Nero's Devil Bringer mechanic - the only thing Devil May Cry 4 added to the franchise.

Devil May Cry 4 (2007). The Devil Bringer unleashed a spectral arm which would snatch up smaller enemies and pull them towards Nero, or pull him towards larger enemies.  It was context-specific, and used in platforming. 

DmC's Dante's weapon is really only Rebellion - but Rebellion will morph into a demonic axe or pair of gloves, a scythe, some throwing stars and a grapnel that acts exactly like the Devil Bringer did.  Except here, it's not context-specific.  You have to choose - via using Demon Form (R2) or Angel Form (L2) to yank objects towards you, or pull yourself towards them.

It grants the player total control and choice, and allows access to the types of insane aerial combos I've only ever seen on YouTube.

Y'know that stuff where the player actually keeps themselves aloft for like, thirty seconds while fighting a single enemy?  You fling an enemy up into the air and instantly, you're on him again, slashing and bashing away before flinging him off into the distance - hold L2, tap square - and bam, you're on him again.  Toss him away - R2 and square, zip - get back here, I ain't done.

I was never able to do that, before.  In DmC, though, I can.

In DmC, I've beaten bosses by hovering in their faces, executing aerial combos with lift properties that keep me airborne indefinitely, keeping a close eye on my timing and height to stay aloft while beating the holy crap out of someone.

I've never played a Devil May Cry that was as... well, as playable as this one.  So when I say that, at first, DmC: Devil May Cry feels a bit like Darksiders, I mean that as the highest of compliments.  I mean you can play, enjoy, and maximize its systems without pouring through strategy guides or GameFAQs.

The worst thing I can say about the writing is, sometimes during a boss fight, Dante will spout some real groaners. 

One thing I'll say against Ninja Theory's exercise;  the boss fights are wanting.  They're visually creative and work wonderfully within the confines of the story NT's telling, but they pale in comparison to the great bosses of the franchise's history.  There's nothing on par with Phantom or Cerberus.  These are visually delightful but mechanically simple affairs, for the most part - taking far too much from God of War and not enough from Devil May Cry.

One should note the game's ultimate confrontation, however, is wonderful.  Probably the best boss fight the series has seen since Dante threw down with Virgil in the rain on top of a demonic tower in DMC3.  If not better.

Beyond the glorious sigh of relief that the combat is excellent, Ninja Theory bring their considerable narrative prowess to bear on this reboot of the franchise and its hero to delightful effect.

Dante has always been... an archetype.  A two-dimensional symbol of aloof badassery and style in motion.  DmC's Dante retains his iconic traits, but he's also, suddenly, a developed and rounded character.  Never before in the series have we gotten a sense of who Dante actually is, but here the storytelling - and Tim Phillips' restrained, casual performance - provide us more depth and detail than we've ever seen before.  It's a great treatment of a classic character - successfully pulling off with Dante what Team Ninja failed so horribly to do for Samus - and a feather in the game's cap.

I'm sure not everyone will be happy,


but I feel it's an improvement.  Dante, here, is a real person who just so happens to have a supernatural heritage - I can dig it.

The world is fleshed out and thematically resonant, particularly for a generation that is slowly becoming aware that Big Business and the prototypical one-percenters may in fact be a manifestation of true evil - and as the game yanks the franchise's narrative into the present, it pays homage to its history.

Mundus (DMC1) is once again the big boss, but here he's an invincible demon king who's cornered the world debt market, still symbolized by an inverse triangle (didn't think we'd catch that, did you NT?).  Vergil (DMC3) returns as Dante's brother, but Ninja Theory have taken his mirrored image of Dante and extrapolated another rounded-but-iconic character from the original design - it's very cool to actually feel and understand the relationship between the two, instead of merely having it told to us.

After you attack twice, Dante will hold his weapon still for a moment as a shhhing! gleam of light streaks across it - a visual que that you've paused your combo long enough, and can proceed to the second tier of moves.

The final addition is a footnote in Dante's personal history.  No longer merely the product of a demon knight and a human woman, DmC's Dante is nephilim (heheh - Darksiders) - product of the forbidden love between demon and angel - which, honestly, I wish was expanded on a bit more.

It's cool that it grants him access to angelic weaponry, but honestly, I spent the entire game expecting he would unlock an awesome Angel Trigger ability later in the game.

He doesn't.

It does a pretty good job of mixing up the combat with easygoing platforming sequences.

As with all of Ninja Theory's work, the art direction is thrilling and inventive - but I'll admit the game world is so darned well-explained and well-understood by the player, it (often - not always) lacks the romantic, mysterious-dark-fantasy vibe of previous entries in the series.  There's nothing here that really achieves the same feelings as the misty forest labyrinths of Devil May Cry, the grand vistas of DMC4, the insane tower of DMC3 - but similar stages and tones rear their heads here and there, with the classics of the series getting referenced, to varying effect.

Structurally, it's also a bit different.  The game still proceeds in chapters, but the game world is no longer essentially a huge, twisting series of paths that you can freely explore and backtrack through a'la Metroid.  It's very much a series of one-off levels (which reward exploration with classic DMC stuff like unlockable challenge rooms and collectibles) which does a bit of damage to the feeling that its universe is a real place - though you can replay them once you've unlocked your entire arsenal to gain access to hidden areas.

Making your way towards a demonic tower in limbo, a mirror image of the real world where rain falls up, is pretty cool.

DmC: Devil May Cry is everything we could have possibly hoped for.  It is Capcom's awesome plus Ninja Theory's awesome - the best game the developer has ever made, and the most straight-up fun I've had with a Devil May Cry title in... well, over a decade.

It's a Devil May Cry game that I don't need to warn you away from, because this might just be too hardcore for someone who doesn't have a long history with the series.  It's also a Devil May Cry game I don't have to dock points from because it went too accessible, or too easy.  Try the game on anything beyond the 'Nephilim' difficulty level, and this game will start handing you your ass in a thoughtfully wrapped package with a big pink bow on it.

Devil Trigger mode.

It's got zero bugs, the best story the franchise has ever seen, the funnest, most expansive gameplay its ever had, delightful presentation, and kinda' iffy boss fights.

If you like brawlers, this is the best straight-up brawler gaming has seen since 2009 - and a fantastic reboot of the genre's godfather.

This is Devil May Cry.  Strike the pose.

Oh, also - the animations are gorgeous.


  1. Great review. Don't know if I'll get around to this, but the review certainly sells it well. The platforming and rain-falling-up screenshots look sooooo good.

  2. Yeah, it's not going to get any best graphics nods, but Ninja Theory have a great handle on art direction - and the fact that DmC lacks the audio bugs and spotty framerates of their previous titles is very pleasant indeed.

    Definitely the single most complete, accomplished game the studio has ever put forward - but I give a lot of credit to Capcom's weekly visits, for that.

  3. after seeing Adam sessler's review i got mopey, everything he said about it seemed evident from the trailers. "every time the characters opened their mouths I'd cringe" stung particularly.

    But your review sent me over the top and i picked it up regardless,AND I LOVE IT.

    I can see where the Sess draws his views and i respectfully disagree. I love how virgil is no longer the gloomy gus/ arbitrary rival (i still have no idea what he wanted in DMC3 and WHY THE HELL he bothered telling dante what he was up to) i love how the sexualized female companion (despite the cliche backstory) has moved on from her past in positive ways and how dante, no longer the arctype, respects her courage in facial ticks but never really says so.

    I think this game went for subtlety where some critics would find none, and i'm having a blast in both sitting back and looking closer

  4. That, I'll admit, is one thing I was less than happy about when it comes to DmC - it's treatment and portrayal of women. I should do up a separate post about that.