Ninja Theory’s inspired reboot doesn’t just revive Capcom’s aging hack-and-slash franchise, it transforms it.
In 1893, after writing twenty-four short stories and two books chronicling the life and times of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle penned the final chapter on the world’s greatest fictional detective. However, after enduring ten years of hate mail from irate Victorian-era Sherlock fanboys, Doyle revived his legendary character in what may have been the first act of retconning in modern literary fiction.
In the 120 years since, we’ve witnessed every perversion a fiction series possibly can endure: sequel upon sequel, retcons, reboots, remixes, parallel timelines, extra-canon works, and the occasional musical episode. Sometimes these machinations are blatant cash-grabs, attempts to wring a few extra dollars out of an aging franchise. Other times they’re more like an intervention, a frantic attempt to salvage a treasured intellectual property that’s careening horribly off-course. Every once in a while though, they’re a truly visionary contribution, one that unlocks potential in the source material you never suspected was there.
DmC: Devil May Cry—Ninja Theory’s reboot of Capcom’s Devil May Cry series of hack-and-slash action games—is a prime example of this third type of work. The original Devil May Cry for the PlayStation 2 was conceived by Hideki Kamiya (whose other credits include Resident Evil, Viewtiful Joe, and Bayonetta), and introduced the series’ protagonist Dante, a half-demon mercenary with an enormous ego and an ever bigger grudge against the forces of Hell. Despite its poorly-translated dialogue and nonsensical plot, the first Devil May Cry was one fun game to play, largely because of its incredibly fluid, highly stylized combat, which inspired games like God of War and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow.
I’ve never found the lore of Devil May Cry to be overwhelmingly compelling, and thus I was hardly disappointed when the second, third, and fourth installments of the series failed to improve upon the mediocre storytelling of the first. Although I was pleased with each game’s incremental refinements in play control, combat mechanics, and graphics, I certainly felt no great excitement at the prospect of a full series reboot. Since I couldn’t even really describe what happened in the first four games, why in the world would I care if someone wiped the slate clean and started anew?
Boy, did I underestimate the developers at Ninja Theory though, because they did something I never though was possible. They took Dante, cocky, rebellious attitude and all, and reshaped him and his universe a way that finally made sense.
|“The Hunter” is an evil, foul-mouthed bounty hunter and your first boss encounter. In terms of geniality and physical attractiveness, later bosses will make this guy look like a Disney princess by comparison.|
Perhaps things will be clearer if we compare and contrast the old and new Devil May Cry. The original Dante (circa 2001) tried to be cool in that whole pre-millineal Matrix leather-trenchcoat-and-backflips sort of way, while exploring a stereotypically gothic island castle and slaughtering his way through waves of demonic marionettes. His nemesis was the Demon King Mundus, who possessed few if any characteristics to distinguish himself from the innumerable other incarnations of the Devil throughout history.
Dante v2.0, though, is pure punk revival. He talks, dresses, and behaves like a man who doesn’t give a shit, because at the beginning of the game he really doesn’t. His reimagined nemesis is Kyle Ryder, a skeevy business magnate who serves as Mundus’s vessel in the human world. His gothic castle is a skyscraper, and instead of controlling humanity through hordes of demons, he controls them through electronic surveillance, tainted soft drinks, and round-the-clock propaganda from DmC’s parody version of the Fox News Network.
|Nearly all of the action takes place in Limbo, a warped reflection of the human world where even the walls and floors are trying to kill you.|
This take on the world of Devil May Cry creates a brash new context for Dante’s epic struggle that never existed in the previous games. When Dante dismembers scores of demons, it’s not only because Mundus destroyed his family, but also because fuck them, that’s why. When he vents his anti-establishment attitude, it’s because there actually is an establishment, and it’s enslaved an entire realm of humanity.
What really makes the new DmC so remarkable, though, is the way these narrative themes are woven throughout the entire design and aesthetic of the game, creating a visually, aurally, and kinesthetically cohesive experience. For example, Dante not only looks like one of the Sex Pistols, but even his fighting style is a little impetuous and self-destructive, with combos that include the occasional bits of flourish and exaggerated, off-balance swings. Mundus, on the other hand, imposes his will through furious edicts rendered in giant Helvetica text, his very words distorting reality into the twisted shadow forms of the demon world. This contrast—the fluid freedom of Dante opposing the crushing, wrathful order of Mundus—makes the world of DmC a thrill to inhabit.
|Mundus the Giant Has a Posse… OBEY.|
Even placing all of these stylistic accoutrements aside, DmC is still at its core a great action game. The combat is as tight as it has ever been, with a great variety of weapons and multiple combat styles. While no single battle mechanic is particularly groundbreaking (in fact, many of the legacy combos are carried over directly from previous games), the ability to switch quickly between standard, area-of-effect, and directed heavy attacks encourages fast-paced and innovative gameplay. A particularly interesting addition is the “Ophion Whip”, a tether that can be used to pull enemies to Dante (or vice versa) as well as for traversal; it can also disarm certain enemies and perform other special actions via quick-time events. In this manner, the Ophion Whip allows Dante to operate in environments with a massive sense of scale, while also granting him the speed, flexibility, and total battlefield control this style of game demands.
As I’m nearing the end of this review, I realize there’s so many other great things about this game that I have yet to mention. There’s Vergil, Dante’s twin who is as stunningly rendered and painstakingly characterized as is his brother. There’s Bob Barbas, the news network talking head whose boss fight is one of the best and most innovative I’ve ever seen, anywhere. And there’s all the thoughtful little design elements, like the fact that the pause menu informs you how long it’s been since your last checkpoint, or that you can hop to a training screen to practice your combos from practically anywhere. I suppose I don’t need to go on, though, as my opinion by this point should be clear: if DmC isn’t the perfect game, then it’s pretty damn close.