In Defence of DmC: Devil May Cry

Developer Ninja Theory have been an unpredictable crew this generation. PS3 launch title Heavenly Sword received generally positive reviews whereas the more recent Enslaved was met with harsh criticism. Ninja Theory’s head honcho, Tameem Antoniades suspected that the latter’s poor sales and reception had less to do with the product itself and more to do with something else.

Nerd rage.

“My name is Dante.”

Trouble in Tameem Town

When Ninja Theory’s reboot of the Devil May Cry franchise was revealed last year, talk simply refused to stray from the black hair, cigarettes and Union Jack coat of the redesigned protagonist. Tameem argued that Dante’s old look would have been laughed at outside of Tokyo, opting to replace it with a look that would have been laughed at anywhere.

From there on, the anger continued to grow. Backstory elements such as Dante’s parentage (now apparently a half-angel), a refusal to change back to the old design, the use of Unreal Engine 3 and the similarities between the first Dante design from Ninja Theory and Tameem himself let the internet hate keep on snowballing down a hill.

I myself was one of the many who spat my drink across the room, clicked the ‘dislike’ button, and waited rocking on my heels in the shower eating a tub of Ben & Jerry’s while I waited for the announcement that it was all a hoax. It didn’t come.

As a fan of the action genre and a fan of the series, I can’t say I’m thrilled by the new look. But when I put aside the bitching about smoking and cracking Edward Cullen May Cry jokes, there’s so much that the game can still offer.

A Potted History of KE-RAYZY!

I first came to the series with the original Western release of Devil May Cry 3. My experience with the genre was fairly limited at the time, having just come from God of War. The freedom in the combat system, atmosphere, variety in weapons and challenging difficulty made it one of my favourite games. I bought Devil May Cry 4 when it arrived on PS3 and though I did enjoy it, I got the impression that something was ‘missing’ from the formula.

Recently I picked up the Devil May Cry HD Collection, which allowed me to experience the first two games for the first time, following it up by revisiting Dante’s Awakening (this time in the Special Edition). I’d heard a lot about how Devil May Cry 2 was the weakest of the trilogy, but the sources I did hear from often had a lot of trouble articulating exactly what was wrong. One phrase that stands out in my memory was from an old PS2 magazine, PSM2 or Play if memory serves, saying it was “like the first one but photocopied a hundred times over so it didn’t work.”

Playing the three games back-to-back made it quite clear what the many cumulative small problems with the second instalment were, and shed a little light on my recollection of Devil May Cry 4 as well. When I identify these problems and stack them up to what I’ve seen so far of DmC, it looks like Ninja Theory’s title may well have the aspects of the series where it really does count.

Hold the phone, haters!

“But it’s not Dante!”

Even though Dante has gone through costume changes throughout the years, it can’t be denied this is the most drastic. The pasty skin and greasy black hair are a far cry from the normal crimson coated demon spawn we’re familiar with.

Bow-Chicka-Wow-Wow!

However, let us assume that the ‘old look’ becomes available in-game, either as an alternate outfit or the default appearance after a twist in the middle of the story (similar to Dante replacing Nero in 4, or the Devil Trigger becoming available a quarter through Dante’s Awakening). There. Does that fix everything?

There’s more to Dante than just the outward appearance. Let’s take a look at the Dante of Devil May Cry 2.

Red and black clothes? Check. White hair? Check. Smooth complexion? Check. But something’s off…

The second game’s problems weren’t limited to its gameplay mechanics, but the story and characterisation were atrocious too. Even though Devil May Cry has never been a series overly reliant on its plot, in the other games you generally had a particular objective in mind throughout each mission, boss battles felt like they served a purpose, and it was always possible to keep track of what was going on. Devil May Cry 2’s story lacked cohesion, backstory, interesting character development, motivation, and some bosses just came out of nowhere to take up an entire mission, in a game spread across two overlapping storylines on separate discs.

When games are light on story, a character’s role is to help ferry you from point A to point B while maintaining your interest. Lucia’s entire arc can be summed up in a few words, and Dante was simply not entertaining. Playing 1, 2 and 3 back-to-back shows the contrast clear as day. Devil May Cry 2’s Dante was a brooding, tight-lipped hero straight out of The Matrix lacking in the snark, cockiness, lightheartedness and tendency to gloat that makes him such an appealing character in the other games. His personality only surfaces in the final couple of hours of the game and only then it’s the compassionate side (keeping in with DMC tradition) rather than the badass whose image is reinforced through the gameplay. The removal of taunting made the ingame Dante border on mute, whereas in 3 and 4, even without pressing the taunt button, he’s almost as chatty in combat as he is in cutscenes.

I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t want to see the old outfit make a return in some form, but a bright red coat, black boots and white hair do not a Dante make. Although some aspects of Dante’s new personality, such as flipping the bird to enemies, casual swearing and the smoking habit, make me raise an eyebrow I’d readily take it over a repeat of the stoic, dull silence seen and not heard in Devil May Cry 2. What I want to see is if our new outfit generally stands out from or blends in with most environments. He may not have the attitude we’re accustomed to – but at least he has an attitude.

But The Canon!

It’s no secret that the backstory in Devil may Cry has ruffled a few feathers, mainly over Tameem stating that Dante’s mother was an angel and that he grew up in a demonic orphanage. Disregarding the fact that a reboot can imply an alternative continuity…

Backstory is a relatively minor aspect of the Devil May Cry franchise. The lore is simple and straightforward, and allows the player to dive into stabbing and shooting things after five to ten minutes of cutscenes, at least half of which is action-based. The first and third games have some inconsistencies in their stories, but nobody was in uproar. Devil May Cry 4’s first protagonist, Nero, only had his parentage explicitly revealed after release.

Enjoying the story of the series doesn’t revolve around checking every minor detail and sifting through a timeline across five games, a manga, and an anime, but from simple techniques that drive the gameplay – knowing who your current adversary is, and knowing what stands in your way. In the first, third, and fourth (well, the redundancy aside) games, the story was coherent, there was a purpose to moving onward, you had a goal in sight, and the puzzles, similar in structure to the Resident Evil series, gave a sense of progression. Devil May Cry 2, however, was not only too light on its exposition, but lacked a clear, coherent story. This was in part due to the two-disc parallel structure, but in many cases, missions simply felt like going through the motions. Here’s an obstacle, here are some weaklings, here’s a couple doorways, here’s a puzzle, here’s a boss, here’s a cutscene that doesn’t really express progression to your main objective, here’s a mission of nothing but a single boss fight, rinse, repeat.

Though I can understand the complaints over the new title not adhering to established canon, it won’t be a big issue for me. I’ll be satisfied with a coherent story that makes me want to press on with my goal, hacking and slashing all the way.

So…Ummmm…What’s Left?

The complaints above are all based on things we’ve seen, things that are concrete: superficial annoyances that can just as easily be applied to a movie. DmC is a game, so obviously, complaints would hold a lot more weight if they commented on the aspects that make it one. And this is where arguments are less convincing. From the trailers we’ve seen so far, gameplay looks like it’s what we’d come to expect. Fast-paced, heavy on dodging and juggling, a mix of guns and melee.

However, that’s not enough evidence to instantly infer that the new title will be as good as the series’ high points. Again, it’s a visual representation. The pace is a good indicator, but as action games are usually heavily reliant on a loose concept known generally as ‘game feel’, we’ll have to weight for hands-on impressions or a publicly available demo to make further judgement.

With that said, let’s look at some of the cornerstones of what makes the gameplay of the series so satisfying:

  1. Mechanics that generally follow simple rules, such as “the start of some animations override the end of others”.
  2. Information on executing attacks. Compare the bizarre way in which some moves were performed in Devil May Cry 2 to the files in Devil May Cry 3 that document how to perform different moves.
  3. Variety. The better games in the franchise focused on buying and unlocking new weapons and abilities rather than simply upgrading the strength of weapons.
  4. Fluid combat, with as little time spent in menus as possible.
  5. Freedom. The former four ideas give the player a variety of tools that they know how to use in tandem with mechanics that allow them to experiment and figure out what styles, weapons and attacks give the best results, rather than restricting them to long, predetermined dial-a-combo moves that don’t allow you to play around.

Kamiya’s Bayonetta also follows many of these rules. Seen by some to be a spiritual successor to Devil May Cry.

Looking at DmC, it’s hard to not feel threatened that a change in style will come with a change in gameplay, but very little is currently known. At one point, developers were considering the possibility that Dante would have to reload his guns. Though this provoked a knee-jerk reaction, thinking on it further makes it seem like Ninja Theory is making attempts to encourage close-range combat over mashing the ‘fire’ button. A while ago, it was said that jump cancelling, a popular mechanic in the third and fourth games, would not be in DmC. Perhaps the developers considered it overpowered, or that it was time to get rid of it in favour of a new technique. At the same time, an alarm bell is ringing in the back of my head, seeing it as a signal that the new game may lack high-end mechanics. But – and it’s a big but – not only has jump cancelling been put back in, we don’t yet know all the details of how the game will play once the joypads are firm in hand.

Games in this genre are very dependent on their ‘game feel’, the impression that your button presses deliver a sense of satisfaction in a feedback loop. It’s why watching gameplay and physically playing the game seem so far apart. It’s not something that’s easy to express in trailers. This is what’s keeping me from passing judgement on DmC until a playable demo is released – and so far, journalists who’ve played the game are optimistic.

I’m not happy with all I’ve seen of Ninja Theory’s reboot of the series. I’d love to have the old Dante back, with a more varied colour palette, less scripting and jump cancelling. But for each thing that the new developers seem to be doing wrong, there could well be many, more important, things that they are doing right. Unless a demo persuades me otherwise, I’ll be likely to wait for a price drop, but it’d be silly of me to pass judgement before I get a hands-on impression.

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