Review: DmC – Devil May Cry (*** stars)

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An old Jewish idea tells us that we contain both positive and negative forces in our psyche. Day to day, we can choose to indulge in the things that we like, or we can choose to follow God. Nothing impedes us from one or the other but ourselves. We either confuse the issue or make a fool out of ourselves by our own doing. Micah 6 display this same concept:

 With what shall I come to the Lord
And bow myself before the God on high?
Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings,
With yearling calves?
7 Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams,
In ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts,
The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8 He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?

The right thing isn’t the self-indulgent thing, but the best action that strives closest to follow God. What God desires and what we desire aren’t one in the same; what is right and what is wrong aren’t determined by my impulses. The contradictions of man run wide and deep, and only we can regulate them. Let them run free, and we inevitably plunge into undesirable places. God provides structure, and we provide chaos.

DmC: Devil May Cry represents this to a tee in video game form. Ninja Theory’s DmC: Devil May Cry contains the same mixed blood of its protagonist, Dante. Newly reformed in the shape of Western developers and refined with Japanese consultants at Capcom to maintain the kinesthetically pleasing combat of previous entries in the series, this odd fusion of East-meets-West displays the same opposing tendencies. On the one hand, it wants to tell a new story using familiar symbols, that of Hideki Kamiya’s famed entry into the “stylish action genre”. On the other, that narrative, even with wonderful voice acting and interesting characterization, fails to materialize into anything meaningful. The combat, meant to replicate the original while providing accessibility, somehow makes the game infinitely more difficult to play. In every respect, there’s contradictory impulses and strange design decisions all over the place.

To talk a little of the story: Devil May Cry games never astounded us with their narratives. Really, all we need is a set-up, a cool location, and the player will carve, shoot, and bludgeon his path through wherever you take him. Ninja Theory, obviously, aimed to change that. Coming off Heavenly Sword and Enslaved, both written by external writers, DmC’s narrative fails to make a similar impact in any way. Dante starts as a rebellious drifter, and ends up as a savior for humanity somehow. They try to make this work by the vehicle of Kat, to whom Dante supposedly falls in love and sees the value in humanity, but you wouldn’t be alone in trying to figure out when that happened. Honestly, they barely talk, and the whole plot detail reeks of wasted potential. I would also note that SPOILER making your “good guys” kill a pregnant woman, demon or not, certainly doesn’t endear anyone to them. It’s disgusting and shameful, all said, and I’m amazed more reviewers didn’t think so SPOILER.

There’s simply not enough character development, as if Ninja Theory only envisioned their beginning and end without taking the time to develop anything. Here is the hero, here is the villain, and they both do the exact same things. I get that they needed to fall within the already established narrative of the two brothers at odds due to differing philosophies, but much of the final conflict comes off as forced and underhanded. The whole “nephilim” back story, while interesting, is told through a series of paintings, flashbacks, and narration, not exactly engaging in this context. I want to know more about this world, and the amount of exposition takes one aback. These elements require a deft hand to communicate through a visual, audio, and written medium, and DmC utterly fails to do this effectively.

Furthermore, Dante’s “savior” element never comes into its own, precisely because we never see, nor care, about any other humans than Kat. This makes, literally, no sense! We never see the context or the oppression that Mundus, the lord of the demon world, supposedly places upon his subjects, and it never becomes more than a vague picture. The political allegory to Wall Street bankers and debt holders as “evil forces” seems heavy handed and forced, making your fights against actual demons more metaphorical towards capitalism than real. Although Bob Barbas and the Raptor News Network, an obvious play on Bill O’Reilly and Fox News, entertained me greatly, it’s just there for the sake of being there. As a satire, it’s a poor satire, and as a message, it’s a poor message when the game itself comes out of a multi-million dollar game-making machine. How much did that motion capturing studio cost again, Ninja Theory?

At least the art design makes up for this in some respects. Buttressed by the concept of “limbo” in which demons fight Dante, DmC goes hogwild with creativity, creating strange and otherwordly amalgamations of stone and steel. Limbo refigures the world in a hidden light, showing things for what they are, and this lets Ninja Theory plays with the concept. Unfortunately, the main way we see Limbo comes through platforming segments – DmC almost gives us as much Super Mario 64 as Devil May Cry! The two whips, angelic and demonic, represent color coded chain use (similar to Link’s Hookshot in the Zelda series) for the player in increasingly elaborate sequences of chains, dashing, pulling out platforms, and good ol’ jumping. As far as genre expectations go, this makes no sense whatsoever. As a game mechanic, it’s serviceable and interesting in its own right, but the lack of punishment for death means that you just do it again until you get it right – not that this takes much effort.

However, the focus of any DmC game lies in its combat system (you’d hope, right?) and DmC certainly tries its best to replicate the feel of Devil May Cry. As I wrote about long before, the combat controls still over-complicate a relatively easy game. Using different weapons, whether angel or demon, still require holding the L2 or R2 button; they further complicate this by adding additional weapons on the angel or demon side, only switchable by pressing left or right on the d-pad. Frankly, this system reeks of a lack of forethought. Even IF you can switch between seven different weapons in a combo, does that make it fun or interesting? I’d wager not. Consider the elegance of DMC3 & 4’s single-tap weapon switching system that forced you to choose a weapon for an up and coming encounter. Here, the weapon choice comes down to personal preference, variety for variety’s sake. In the end, enough time will surmount most controls issues, but for the sake of accessibility, DmC makes it very hard to interact with its systems.

Still, that doesn’t mean the combat isn’t fun. Many say the Arbiter and Aquila together make the game trivial, but I didn’t find that to be the case. Each combat situation, at least on Nephilim difficulty and up, presents enough challenge that you’ll want to use various weapons for each enemy type. While there’s no requirements for any particulars, excepting the color-coded enemies which is still dumb, there’s certainly a variety of strategies to adopt for your own playstyle. If anything, the devil dodge, which gives you an attack power bonus if you dodge while holding the devil weapon button at the last second (also stupidly and unintuitive to hold two shoulder buttons at once), breaks nearly everything. The last few bosses fell in no time due to how hilariously powerful you become just by performing this move, and it has a one-second window of execution – that’s almost forever in a fast-paced game like this. That doesn’t follow for normal combat, thank God, but notable nonetheless.

In the demo, I did not notice any camera issues, but the full game brings these in spades. Most action-combat games of this type provide audio cues for when enemies attack from offscreen, but DmC’s version seems noticeably absent. Good luck turning the camera around fast enough to find an enemy throwing a near-instant projectile! The size of the area determines whether or not you’ll see such things coming; at least visual cues still exist. The lack of a lock-on continues to present various problems in this regard, as crowd-control and aiming ranged attacks towards specific targets does not happen without foolish trial and error. Seriously, that could not be THAT hard to implement.

Honestly, the scoring system isn’t too large of a problem, notably because it’s far too easy to get SSS rankings without doing anything special. Ninja Theory simplified this to “avoid getting hit”, and that’s the long and short of it. No meters, no moves, just attack and don’t get hit. This will disappoint series fans (and genre fanatics), but since the competition’s light on the leaderboards anyway (again, considering how easy it is for everyone to get the exact same rank), I imagine it doesn’t matter.

Given all this, you’d expect that I would give this game a horrible ranking and just shun the game forever. Yet, I had to admit, I appreciate Ninja Theory for taking some risks. It is similar to their previous games, absolutely, but the combat’s an improvement in every way over their previous work (which came down to “mash buttons” and “press red/blue to counter red/blue). At least the game forces you to play it and not be bad. There’s certainly not enough set-back punishment, and the combat isn’t difficult enough in Nephilim to impede your progress too long, but it remains enjoyable nonetheless.

In a phrase, then, DmC strikes the experienced player in this genre as merely “average”. There’s lots of risk and experimentation happening here with a decade old formula, but it descends into a middling stride rather than a triumphant strut. The story fails to satisfy, much as the presentation looks astounding. The combat works in most cases, but small niggling issues present continual annoyances. And why the platforming, though admittedly enjoyable, in a combat game? Frankly, this mess of design impulses just never coalesces into a great, or even good, game – just a merely average one.

Like a human being, with both its strengths and its weaknesses, it displays that inevitable bout of contradictory impulses places within each and every person’s souls. Capcom provides structure, and Team Ninja throws in the chaos, but nothing ever comes of it.

NOTE: I played the PC version of the game, which runs at a silky-smooth 60 FPS. All consoles versions chug horribly during cutscenes and run at 30 FPS, so I highly recommend the clearly superior PC purchase, if at all. My computer isn’t even that powerful and it ran fine.

For an additional demonstration of the combat system as an addendum to this review, see our Mechanics Breakdown.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.