It’s reboot time for Dante and his demon chums. Find out if Ninja Theory have elevated the series, or stuck it in limbo.
For the uninitiated, Devil May Cry (DMC) has been giving us a stylish way to hack demons to bits for many years now. Developer Ninja Theory have been brought in to help reboot the series. So how does it stack up? Lets start with the story.
This DMC catches our surly anti-hero Dante at a much younger, rawer stage in his life. With no memory of his past he flails through life, his only thought being how to get to the next good time. This all changes when he meets his brother (and series favourite) Virgil, whose group ‘The Order’ fills in the blanks and lets him know that he is the child of a union between an angel and a demon.
In truth the series has always shown Dante as a kind of 2D character, albeit one never far away from an entertaining quip, or terrible pun. An element of that remains with Dante now having a potty mouth to boot. Seriously, early on he swears like a drunken soldier who’s just stubbed his toe on the floor. This insistence on being adolescent and in your face with cursing and sex does jar somewhat with the new emotional maturity of the plot, but overall it’s engaging enough and even manages a cheeky bit of satire at contemporary life, with one level being a swipe at soft drinks and consumer culture in general.
The high octane combat of the series remains in place, with the emphasis remaining firmly placed on doing it stylishly. As well as completion time and exploration, the game judges you on the variety of moves you use while putting demons to the sword. New to the series is the inclusion of angelic and demonic grappling hooks which can not only be used to navigate around the levels but can also be used to break an enemies guard or draw them near to you.
The selection of enemies is gradually increased, functioning as a kind of difficulty curve. For example, early on basic hack and slash tactics will help you clean house. But later, certain enemies come out to play that are not so easily beaten. Flying enemies with shields you need to rip away first before damage can be inflicted. Enemies who only respond to a certain weapon type (you acquire many more than your standard blade which you can switch between at will), or a certain kind of tactic. The temptation is to ignore these and take out the easy fodder first. But leave the nastier enemies alive and they’ll inevitably find ways of hitting you and messing up your combo score.
I touched on navigation earlier and the platforming elements seem to be much more to the fore in this instalment of DMC. This is sometimes a very good thing indeed, with the use of grappling hooks blending well with the original Dante double jumping acrobatics we know and love. Occasionally there is the odd misstep, such as the clichéd ‘running away from the level as it collapses’ idea surfacing a few more times than I would have liked.
Exploration is rewarded with keys of copper, silver and gold that open doors to bonus rooms. In the grand old tradition of video games, these rooms give you an objective (kill a certain number of enemies in a time limit, traverse an area before time runs out etc) and reward you with a goody upon completion. Go a bit off the beaten track and you can also find lost souls to free that add to the completion bonus, and reward you with red orbs.
The games upgrade bar is the way to increase Dante’s skills and strength. Slaying enemies earns upgrade points that can be used between missions or at certain points in the level to either rank up Dante’s existing skills, or to unlock new ones. It’s been a staple of the series and remains a streamlined, to the point means of giving the player a say in how they approach the game.
All the gameplay elements of combat and navigation are introduced gradually so the player never feels swamped by new techniques yet never feels spoon-fed. This is quite an achievement on the developers part.
Looks and sound
Combat music is the sort of heavy techno/thrash stuff we have come to expect from the series. Together with unnerving demonic wails and sword slashes the game goes for a sort of sensory overload to hook the player in. The quiet moments of exploration are like the downtime inbetween and are accompanied by a mellower (if no less eerie) sort of music.
Visually, the game is set in both the modern real world and limbo. Both have distinctive visual styles but it is in limbo where the game really has fun with it’s look. Twisted demon architecture is ever-present and feels authentic to the series. There are some odd haunted house style scares that appear to be played more for laughs than anything else and sit a little awkwardly alongside the rest of the games visual style.
However the real ace in the hole is the way the characters have been presented, particularly in cut scenes. Whatever you may think of his style changes, what remains beyond question is the fantastic way Dante’s emotions are readable just by looking at his face. Particularly in cut scenes, his and others nuanced and subtle expressions and body language draw us into caring about the story and the characters.
In a way, this non-verbal boost to characterisation is the most surprising bonus and suggests there is more going on with the character of Dante than his cheesy dialogue would suggest.
To sum up
I think this reboot can be deemed a modest success. The gameplay embraces newcomers and sates veterans (once past mission 10 things get pretty challenging) and aims for a style of its own while retaining core elements of the series.
Here it is less successful, with some inconsistencies in tone (it lurches from serious to silly with little rhythm) leaving the player with an unsatisfying aftertaste. Also, as mentioned, some of the platforming elements are a tad formulaic and not as inventive as some of Dante’s new moves might have allowed.
However, the life-force of the series has always been the combat and I’m pleased to say it remains as lively as ever. Switching between weapons on-the-fly has never been easier and combo chaining is great fun.
DMC is a game not without its flaws, but is a great blast nonetheless!
DmC: Devil May Cry is released on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on 15 January and PC on 25 January.
Version reviewed: Xbox 360