According to Ryan, DmC is a great game in its own rate, but perhaps not a worthy successor to the series.
Reboots and reinventions are always a chancy proposition. In exchange for the immediate brand recognition that comes from the name, the reputation of the preceding version can quickly become an albatross around the neck of the newest one. And when the original is, for many players, the standard for its genre, that problem can soon swell to massive proportions.
Such has been the case for DmC: Devil May Cry, the rebooting of Capcom’s much-loved, gloriously over-the-top brawler. Already afflicted by Capcom’s recent image issues over paywalling content, lazy porting, and its treatment of beloved franchises, the fact that it was given to a western developer with a less than stellar reputation (Ninja Theory) who then completely overhauled the games signature aesthetic and images took the fan outcry to a level rarely seen.
Project director Tameem Antoniades making tactless comments that displayed a dislike for Hideki Kamiya’s work on the original game and spiritual successor Bayonetta poured more fuel on the fire, which soon turned into an inferno over apparent insults to fans of the original. The redesign of protagonist Dante sparked outcry, and every trailer, every preview, indicated a schism between those who were curious about the new direction, and those who screamed “BETRAYAL” and called for the cancelling of the project.
Now that the game is here, how have things turned out?
First, some context that is important to my review. DmC is still a "hack n slash" or "brawler" third-person action game. I enjoy this genre, and have played (and completed) Devil May Cry 1 and 3 on normal, and Bayonetta (my personal benchmark for the genre) on hard, achieving a minimum Silver trophy on every level. As such, while I consider myself a seasoned fan of the genre, I’m not dedicated to the point of insanity like some commentators online, who proudly boast of their SSS ranked “Dante Must Die” runs on the infamously punishing DMC3.
Starting the game, it becomes clear that they’ve kept the familiar elements. Dante is still a show-off with an acid tongue (although he’s somewhat more of a jerk than his previous incarnation), still gets around like a double-jumping jackrabbit on speed, and still lays into the enemy with dual automatics named Ebony and Ivory and a sword called Rebellion. You still collect red orbs, spend them at Divinity Statues, and the upgrade mechanic is a refinement of the Proud Soul system from DMC4. You’re eased into the game’s mechanics over two fairly simple levels, that first introduce you to combat, then the distinct morphing levels (more on that later), and over the second level, the Angel and Demon weapons are introduced, and then finally, your traversal mechanics: the Ophion Whip and mid-air Angel Boost.
The combat plays well, and should be instantly familiar to anyone who’s played a brawler before. Leap about, watching out for the telegraphing of enemy moves, string together big, insane combos for better rewards. Clear an area and do it all again in the next one. Where DmC really shines is in the weapon system. Switching between them with the shoulder buttons, you can turn Rebellion into your fast striking angelic scythe, to clean up packs of weaker enemies and juggle them like mad, and then finish off with your monstrous flaming axe that swings like a sledgehammer and hits about five times harder. Later when you pick up the flaming gauntlets and the paired fuuma shuriken, the right and left D-pad buttons let you switch them in and out with their aligned partners. It’s a simple matter to use all five weapons in a single rampaging combo, and it’s a tremendous amount of fun to do. Throwing in the Angel Lift to rappel to an enemy, and Demon Pull to yank them towards you makes things even crazier, and I found myself grinning like an idiot a lot of the time as I strung together ever more insane rampages.
This system, however, shows up the first massive flaw of the game: the lack of a lock on function. It was a nuisance at first, but later on, when shielded enemies and flying pests are mixed in amongst groups of cannon fodder, it can be incredibly annoying to have your SSS ranked combo suddenly demoted by a crossbow hit, because Dante decided to harpoon the goon over somewhere else, rather than the flying nuisance that you wanted to interrupt. And this just gets more annoying as you climb in difficulty, and shields become standard fare for the fliers. Given that both L1 and R1 are mapped to dodge, and L3 and R3 seem to have no independent functions, there’s really no excuse for the lack of a lock either, especially when it would have made combat that much better.
The visual design is easily the second best feature of the game. The art direction is great, and watching Limbo tear apart and rebuild in response to big bad Mundus’ orders to KILL DANTE (as often appears on walls) never gets old. The Virility factory, with its floating masses of shelves and crates that you work your way up is a delight, as is the inverted city you cross as you hunt down the demonic Totally-Not-Bill-O’Reilly at his Totally-Not-Fox-News headquarters. The bizarre lighting and mix of over and under saturated colour gives Limbo a suitably otherworldly look, while the real world is kept drab and muted to help differentiate the two worlds.
Enemy design takes an interesting approach, with most enemies being a grotesque mix of flesh and steel, seemingly grown together. These demons are not the familiar monsters of magic and blood; their domination of man comes from their control of silicon, science, and money, and their designs reflect that. Not-Bill-O’Reilly’s boss fight takes things to an even more wonderfully imaginative level as he screams masses of white noise from his giant photomosaic head, and you leap into live newscasts to fight his minions, the camera switching so you view the action as though it was being shot from a helicopter, complete with the reporter’s commentary, while a scrolling headline feed underneath delivers his insults.
All in all, by the time I’d finished my first run of the game, I was pretty happy. That being said, this is a brawler, so I can’t really say I’ve finished it until I’m boasting high ranks on a real difficulty level. So I started up the now unlocked Son of Sparda difficulty. And at that point, the cracks in the game appear. Not only does the lack of a lock-on become an absolute nightmare, but two other problems show up, both of them in the combat mechanics, the absolute core of a brawler.
I’ve mentioned that the ability to switch between weapons on the fly is the best part of combat, so why they insist on constantly throwing enemies at you that can only be harmed by one particular variety of weapon is beyond me. Having them show up occasionally is an acceptable challenge, but when almost every pack seems to include one or more, sometimes of differing alignments, it’s utterly infuriating. Cutting out most of your arsenal on a regular basis negates the biggest appeal of the fighting, Ninja Theory!
This arbitrary reduction of the arsenal helps show up the other big problem: the style meter is broken. The meter appears to calculate the ranking based primarily on damage dealt, with number of hits modifying it, certain actions adding a kicker, and a penalty applied for repeating moves within a certain timeframe. This means that when fighting a pair of Frost Knights, for example, which can only be harmed by the rapidly striking, low damage Angelic weapons, the penalty becomes incredibly noticeable, since you can’t pad out your combos with guns or other weapons to avoid repeating the same moves. This problem is nowhere near as pronounced with their demonic counterparts, as both Arbiter and Eryx deal massive amounts of damage per hit, meaning you can pound enemies into the ground in short order and not have to constantly repeat moves.
To make matters worse, Arbiter in particular breaks the meter in and of itself. A quick search on Youtube for SSS rank combos will reveal the now infamous tactic: use the absurdly overpowered Demon Dodge boost, and deliver the Trinity Smash combo. Because damage is the primary driver of the meter, and you’ve just landed the most powerful attack in the game, you go from nothing to SSS instantly. The result is that you’ll find yourself using Aquila to herd enemies together, and smash them into next Friday with Arbiter. You’ll do this on every pack, since nothing else does the job anywhere near as effectively. The short move lists that are already present on the weapons thus become even more truncated as you find yourself simply repeating the same sequence again and again, and sadly, since enemy aggression and move sets don’t seem to change much between difficulties, you can get away with it.
The last issue is that the enemy packs feel small compared to the vast waves you could find yourself fighting in other brawlers, and the action feels slower-paced. This comes down to the same problem that sees the game locked at 30 fps rather than the 60fps that the original DMC games ran at: the aging Unreal 3 tech. With the detailed environments Ninja Theory went with, the engine couldn’t handle any more than this. This wouldn’t be a huge issue, except that reportedly Capcom offered Ninja Theory use of the MT Framework engine that powers their own games, and the necessary training and expertise to use it. Ninja Theory declined, in favour of Unreal. If this is indeed true, I would dearly love to know their reasoning. The Unreal engine is a robust and versatile platform indeed, but if it was going to have those issues, why did they reject access to the platform that powered the previous games and helped make them the benchmark for the genre? DMC 4 used this engine on the current generation of consoles and holds at 60fps, the only MT Framework game to fall below 60 fps is Dragon’s Dogma as a result of the massive and detailed environments that game utilises.
Here’s where the reboot issue really comes to the fore. As it is, DmC is a flawed but otherwise entertaining brawler. The problem is that it carries the name of Devil May Cry, and those games aren’t flawed brawlers; Devil May Cry is the franchise that established and defined the genre. If it’s going to carry the name of such a beloved franchise, it needs to stack up against the other games in it, and almost is NOT going to cut it. Sadly for Ninja Theory, DmC doesn’t cut it against the vaunted first and third entries.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a bad game and is worth playing, it’s not the franchise’s own Resident Evil 6, and if you’re new to the brawler genre you’ll probably get a real kick out of it. Seasoned brawler fans might not be as enthralled, and the DMC die-hards are probably best served by staying away and loading up their DMC HD Collections, or waiting for Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.
Where to for the franchise from here? I know one of the biggest fears DMC fans have is that if this instalment fails, it may mean the death knell for the series, since Capcom gave it to another developer to work on, indicating that they no longer wish to continue it. There’s a solid base here though, and I think Ninja Theory deserve another crack at it. If they get that shot though, my list of things to fix is simple
- Give us a lock-on feature so guns and the Ophion can really shine
- Use MT Framework over Unreal 3
- Fix the Style Meter so Arbiter doesn’t trump the rest of the armoury
- Get rid of the Hell Knight/Frost Knight and their ilk
- Expand the combo lists to add some more depth
- No more mid-fight cut scenes breaking the flow; fights against Lilith and the final boss were horrible for this
- Put a gag on Tameem. Running his mouth like he did not done Ninja Theory any favours.
- Ryan "Emperor Pylades" Linegar
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