Devil May Cry: Devil May Cry is a reboot, designed by a new studio and starring a new character with an old (old) name. Dante’s back with a new attitude, a new haircut and a new voice. He loves the ladies but he really hates The Man, and when he settles into the rhythm of demon-killing and corporate takedowns, he’s surprisingly good company. Here’s wot I think.
Within the first few minutes of DMC, mod/punk antagonist Dante has visited a strip club, taken two of the employees to his trailer for a night of grubby pleasure and flown through the air, naked, with some junk food covering his junk. He’s also pissed up on liquor – brand 666. It’s as if Ninja Theory are poking a stick through the monitor, probably with a willy and some barbed wire drawn on it, and saying, ‘this ain’t your grandad’s Dante, kiddo’. He even rejects a white wig that falls onto his bonce at one point in the first level, pouring scorn on the very notion of being that guy. What a rebel! He won’t be what you or anybody else wants him to be!
Unfortunately, a lot of people are probably just sitting there throughout those early sequences, taking the blows to the face, and thinking: ‘Is this anyone's Dante?’
I can’t claim any real affection for or connection to silver-haired Dante of old, not having played any but the first game to completion, but I was perturbed by the idea of spending fifteen hours or so in the company of a man who probably hears Combichrist playing in his head when he cartwheels around the room in slow motion every morning, eventually landing in his socks. Here’s a shocker – by the end of the game, I liked the little ragamuffin. After a couple of levels, the rebel finds a cause, learns that he is half demon and half angel, and has an enemy worth fighting. From there on in, the good times roll.
The combat is the cake and the world is the icing, and just as when I’m not talking in daft metaphors, I tend to prefer the icing to the cake. But let’s cover combat first.
It begins with the basics, which in this case are sword combos, dual pistols, dodges and launches. The latter make space for aerial combos, juggling and, my early favourite, suspending monsters in the air by repeatedly shooting them. It’s a crap move that hardly does any damage and leaves Dante vulnerable, but it’s handy for stringing combos together and it sums up the series’ approach to physics. As Dante might say, ‘I don’t give a shit about physics’, or, if he wished to be succinct, ‘fuck physics’.
Just as the ludicrous excess of the story and characters becomes enjoyable once Dante finds his calling, so does the combat. Everything before that is tutorial but once the angel and demon weapons come into play, each attached to a trigger, it’s possible to build massive combos, varying styles and discovering neat little tricks along the way. Every weapon can be upgraded, adding new moves or buffing existing ones, and while I found my favourites, by the end of the game I’d maxed out almost everything and was happily switching between scythe, axe and flaming fists during every fight.
That may be a problem. I’m usually not very good at games that make demands on my ability to remember and repeat button sequences quickly, and yet I was vaulting, stabbing and smashing my way through DMC like a master. Admittedly, I was only on the normal difficulty setting and there’s a harder one available from the start and plenty more to unlock, but the combat is certainly less challenging than what I remember of the original and it’s a far cry from Bayonetta’s intricacy.
I’ve tried Dante Must Die mode, now that it’s unlocked, and it does mix up the number of enemies and when they appear rather than just making them harder to kill, so that’s promising. There’s plenty to discover just off the beating tracks, including timed arena missions, and different demons, particularly in groups, do require different approaches.
Some people, particularly the very people already irritated by Dante’s redesign, will no doubt bash the game for being oversimplified but I’m quite pleased that I was able to enjoy it at my level, and it’s not as if I was just mashing the same button again and again. Rather than trying to survive the fights, I was trying to reach ‘SSS’ rank on them and that was a challenge requiring use of chains, dodges, environmental kills, friendly fire kills, parries, deflections and every weapon available.
Along with the combat there are some traversal skills to master. The game is at its weakest in the platforming sections, although it never dallies in them for long, but swinging through the collapsing, metamorphosing city as it rearranges itself to trap and crush is usually a blast, even if it’s mostly a case of following the glowing grapple targets. The spectacle of the environments generally makes the ride worthwhile though.
When DMC isn’t in cutscene mode, Dante tends to be in Limbo. Like the man himself, the city that the game takes place in has two sides and limbo is the side where all the ludicrous fighting takes place. The transformations, from recognisable city streets and office buildings to demon-infested wonderlands, are often spectacular and almost constant.
I use the term ‘wonderlands’ because the design of the other world, twisted and spatially confused, reminded me of Alice: Madness Returns. Imagine Alice with enjoyable combat! DMC’s veiled realities aren’t the heavy metal album covers I feared they might be; instead, there’s a variety of imaginative madness, with a stand-out series of missions taking place inside the city’s reflection. Water drips up, which is actually down, and trains scream by overhead, as Dante battles across the bottom of their tracks. I'll say no more, but it’s a startling sequence and although it relies too heavily on obvious grapple points at times, moving through the world is a joy.
The game doesn’t entirely avoid the problem of empowering cutscene-Dante with a grace and poise that can’t be replicated using the controller. Occasionally something throws a building at him and he sidesteps, barks out a ‘fuck you’ and looks pleased with himself, not a hair out of place, but when he’s punching The Media in the face while running through data streams and television broadcasts, the player is largely in control. And, yes, all of that happens.
There’s even a bit where Dante beats up dubstep. Sort of. It’s tenuous, I’ll grant, but he’s basically at war with a nightclub and the music isn’t on his side.
It’s mostly bombastic stuff that seems to feel more at home in your face than your own tongue does, but there are smaller touches that I appreciated. Humans flicker through the environments phantom-like, their world parallel but different to limbo, and they can be seen fleeing and panicking as the city ripples and erupts. And there are quiet moments in the script as well, with Dante rapidly maturing and taking responsibility as he progresses from flippant teen anarchist to flippant teen saviour.
The bonkers plot never takes itself too seriously but in Dante’s allies Kat and Vergil there are characters with actual personalities. Kat, in particular, is good company, with her spray-paint spells and human resolve. It’s slightly disappointing when the camera insists that her backside deserves centre stage from time to time, but the voice acting is strong and she’s easy to like. Besides, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Dante is the real airhead eye candy here.
More problematic are the journeys into body horror, which occasionally descends into a grotesqueness that doesn’t fit well with the quips and inane swearfests punctuating the boss battles. I’m not particularly squeamish but one encounter made me abandon my pastrami on rye and shudder a little. It involves a demon wearing a human skin which resembles Ida, the plastic surgery addict from Gilliam’s Brazil, and culminates in an inversion of pregnancy that brought back nightmarish memories of the Garbage Pail Kids.
Most of the enemies look like constructs rather than people and while I can dig the idea of demons perverting the human form, DMC is at its best when it’s silly rather than Silent Hilly. It’s testament to the rest of the game’s gigglesome nature that the horrible gross-out nature of that particular strand of the plot didn’t completely spoil my mood. It’s a tonal semi-shift into the queasy and dehumanising that feels unearned and unnecessary.
Thankfully, for most of the fifteen hours or so that it takes to complete the story, DMC is one of the daftest games of recent times. You will destroy a soft drink company and an alternate world Fox News. You will see bankers bashing their heads against walls and crawling on ceilings, having literally lost their souls to the almighty dollar. All of it looks the part too. It's the sort of game in which the art design is more important than the tech but the port seems spot on, always running at a healthy clip, and you can see the graphics options for yourself in the pic below. I'd advise a controller, although keyboard and mouse is supported. That's not for me though, not in this sort of game.
I pursed my lips and made a note as soon as I saw Dante surrounded by saucy angels on the menu screen, seemingly pointing them toward his action-less Action Man crotch. And yet, in all of its sound and fury, the game has an infectious sense of humour and an inventive sense of style. Just as the combat is picking up there’s a scene that tells Dante’s backstory by means of some nifty street art and after that unexpected pleasure it’s the missteps that surprise rather than the slickness of the rest. Just be warned, when Ninja Theory do bad taste, they don’t pull their punches.
DMC: Devil May Cry is out for PC on January 25th.