DmC: Devil May Cry
Nobody could accuse Ninja Theory of lacking confidence. The opening chapter of their re-imagined Devil May Cry begins with demonic strippers thrusting at the camera during a raucous dubstep infused credits sequence. We’re introduced to the re-designed youthful, crew-cut Dante as he engages in some late night salacious partying on a Santa Monica style pier. And when the action begins and Dante is drawn into Limbo – a demon realm parallel to the human one – aggressive and foreboding messages paint themselves on the environment à la Splinter Cell: Conviction, and flashes of a news report denounce him as a terrorist. There’s not an ounce of subtlety in sight, and that is entirely deliberate. This is Ninja Theory’s Devil May Cry, and they sure as hell want you to know it.
Capcom’s brand of camp gothic anime is still simmering away somewhere beneath the surface, but it’s overshadowed by a more sexualised western stylising. You’re more likely to find this incarnation of Dante roaming a modern nightclub than an ancient castle, which is a welcome reset in tone for a franchise that was quickly descending into self-parodying melodramatic ridiculousness – remember the rose in mouth flamenco dancing of Devil May Cry 4?
And if it was these stylistic changes that resulted in an outcry of pre-release concern regarding Ninja Theory’s design deviances, then the naysayer’s can rest assured that their worries were unfounded. This is the same devil may care Dante you’ve played as before, a cocksure pun-slinger with a thing for pizza; he’s just a bit more grounded. The same can also be said for the world around him, as it’s plagued by governmental debt, a population subduing energy drink and the propaganda of a demon run news corporation. At the centre of all this turmoil sits the demon lord Mundus, the murderer of Dante’s parents, posing in the human world as the banker Kyle Ryder.
This is Dante’s origin story, a retelling of his forgotten past and a re-establishing of his new universe. It starts off promisingly, as a reunion with his brother Virgil and some involvement with a rebel organisation known as “The Order” suggest a new direction for the series. But Ninja Theory never guide Dante’s revenge story to any new grounds, managing only to re-tread the same narrative beats as past Devil May Cry’s, albeit with a less schmaltzy tone and excellent character acting.
Instead Ninja Theory’s socially aware universe finds its calling in the incredibly creative level design of the demon realm, Limbo, a parallel reality that can affect the human one. Limbo is Ninja Theory’s most audacious stamp upon the franchise, a place where the physical laws of nature can be warped and contorted by those with demonic blood. It turns environments into taunting enemies, as chunks of rock are ripped from the ground around Dante and re-structure into platform challenges. One entire level is composed upside down as a mirrored parallel to the real world above and can only be navigated on the underside of floating objects. At times Limbo resembles a Mario Galaxy game, albeit one in which the Italian plumber were trapped in the hellish doldrums of the mushroom kingdom’s thrash metal world, and it works magnificently.
The parallelism of Limbo and the real world, and the dichotomy of Dante and Vergil form two thematic dualities at the core of Ninja Theory’s re-design, but perhaps the most important one is that of Dante’s own half demon, half angel ancestry. His nephilim constitution is the basis of the combat system, allowing him to wield arms from the forces of both good and evil. Demonic weapons possess power and control, trading off speed and evasive ability for sheer destructive force. Whereas their angelic counterparts allow for wide reaching crowd control and agility, albeit with a reduction in clout. These are complimented by a pair of similarly themed whips that aid battlefield and environmental traversal. The angelic chain functions much like Nero’s devil arm in Devil May Cry 4, pulling Dante toward adversaries, and a demonic hook shot performs the inverse function, yanking puppets, harpies and hell-hounds toward Dante and an inevitable roundhouse to the face.
In mechanical terms the fundamental building blocks of Devil May Cry’s combat are all present and accounted for. There are the multi-button combos, aerial juggling, and the creativity enforcing style meter, rewarding orbs based upon performance that can be used for steadily unlockable upgrades and items. For the most part Ninja Theory has retained the over the top systems of the originals, and the faithfulness to those earlier iterations becomes immediately apparent in the controls. They’re precise, smooth and empowering, allowing for as fine of a ballet of bullets and blades as the Devil May Cry franchise ever has. And the reduction from sixty to thirty frames per second makes no discernible difference to the smoothness of skirmishes at all.
The most fundamental change to combat comes in the form of trigger based stance switching, a weapon swap-out system brought over from Ninja Theory’s own Heavenly Sword. Holding the right trigger summons the currently selected demon weapon, and left trigger the angelic, with Dante’s neutral blade Rebellion residing in the trigger free centre. It’s seamless and intuitive, and coupled with the freedom of movement allowed by the whips, the instant access to a variety of weapon informed play styles allows for ridiculous combinations of moves to be effortlessly strung together.
There’s perhaps less variety available in combat when compared to the sheer number of moves afforded through the style switching systems of previous Devil May Cry’s, and the lack of a lock-on system does lose some of the precision that Capcom’s melee system was built around. But there’s an emphasis on fluidity and free-form chaining here that really enforces creativity. And whilst simple button thrashing will get you through the lower difficulties with an impressive visual display, it’s the three unlockable higher difficulty levels and numerous challenge rooms that demand a deeper understanding of its systems and complexities. This is a game catering to the entire spectrum of fans and succeeding to satisfy across the board.
Trying out new combinations of attacks is encouraged by smart loading screens that play out monochromatic animations of example combo chains. They’re suggestive little tips that invite experimentation, as increasingly complex enemy types and assortments begin to appear. Throughout DmC: Devil May Cry, Ninja Theory displays a flair for inventive flourishes like these loading screens, and nowhere is that more apparent than in its visual design. Muted neon green and red hues shimmer like a mirage filter atop dull grey architecture within Limbo, and switching to Dante’s devil form bleaches the screen, leaving nothing but searing whites and piercing reds. It’s an almost consistent creativity that peaks in the boss battles, with one particular standout being the fight against the demon news-reporter Bob Barbas’ giant digitised head; think System Shock’s SHODAN.
Finding a balance between franchise loyalty and fresh new ideas is an unenviable challenge for any studio tasked with developing a new iteration of an already beloved franchise, but it’s moments like these, the sparks of creative ingenuity that set this interpretation apart from Capcom’s. And much like 343 Industries’ recent take on Halo, Ninja Theory’s Devil May Cry is a focused balance of the old and the new. But where 343 opted for cautious and masterful imitation, Ninja Theory has embraced a confident yet faithful re-imagining. starting at the drawing board and breaking the series down to its fundamental elements, restructuring only the essentials in their own unapologetic style.
So whilst on the surface Dante’s latest jaunt is full of all the witty pop culture references and profanity we’ve come to expect from a Ninja Theory title, it’s also most definitely a bona fide Devil May Cry game, with all the associated demon slaying, orb collecting, style ranking madness you’ve come to expect. And although it can’t quite sustain an initially interesting premise and refreshingly inventive ideas throughout the full length of its twenty half hour chapters, this is a Devil May Cry enlived by its creators confidence, nestled in more than capable hands.