Thursday, January 17, 2013

DmC Devil May Cry - An Impressive Reimagining

Dante has black hair. Vergil is a good guy. Unreal Engine 3. Ninja Theory. Reimagining of Devil May Cry. Noisia and Combichrist. Dante and Vergil are no longer half human. If any of these statements has offended you in any shape or form or has been perceived as a personal assault, please click the back button on your browser window right now. If you're still here after that, then it's on to the review below.

Allow me to preface this review by saying that I'm a fan of the Devil May Cry franchise and have even reviewed all four of the main entries (one of them being a Special Edition) plus the HD collection. I haven't been there since the beginning, but having played these games multiple times for one reason or another (mostly to review), I understand the legacy that they have left behind as well as the place they hold in their genres. When I heard of this reimagining, which is officially an alternate continuity, I was thrown off a little at first by the aesthetic changes, but then realized that the move just might be brave and bold enough to work. Over time it grew on me and I became a supporter of the idea, even going so far as to cosplay as DmC Dante a few times based on the earlier display, since that was unfortunately all I had to go by (though getting DmC Dante's pendant with my pre-order will now make it a bit more accurate). As the release date for this game drew ever nearer, I read more about Ninja Theory's plans and played the demo repeatedly to my heart's content. I also weighed the implications of creating a new continuity: On one hand, Devil May Cry 2 didn't happen (yay!), but on the other hand we won't see anything new with Nero (aw! (but this is a new continuity, so who knows for sure?)).

And therein lies a problem: trying to compare DmC in any way to the older continuity. I understand the temptation to do so, since I'm one of the many who enjoyed playing those games. However that's also a little unfair, since this is a brand new hand-crafted artisanal canon. It has nothing to do with the old continuity, and thus should be observed as a stand-alone product. In other words, this review will come from the perspective of someone who has played every single game, but just about everything I say will be judging this game solely on its own merits with little to no comparisons made.

First and foremost, the story. DmC is about a man named Dante, who is first seen recovering from a hangover. A young woman named Kat approaches him and tells him that he has to get away because a hunter demon has been sent to eliminate him. Almost immediately, the demon attacks and Dante is dragged into Limbo, a realm that is parallel to our own with the exception that it is where the demons reside. After taking down the demon, Dante learns that Kat is a member of an organization called The Order, which seeks to begin a revolution. The leader of the The Order wishes to see Dante, so he is brought to their hideout, where the two meet face to face. It turns out that the leader, named Vergil, is not only his twin brother, but that he and Dante are part of a rare breed known as Nephilim, born from their demon father, Sparda, and angel mother, Eva. The one who rules over all of humanity is the Demon King, Mundus, who can only be taken down by a Nephilim (a half-angel, half-demon hybrid). With a new sense of resolve, Dante agrees to work with Vergil to take down Mundus and bring about an era of freedom.

Dante meeting with Vergil 
Taken by itself, I found the story of DmC to be genuinely fascinating. There is modernity to this tale, which not only makes it more relevant to modern gamers, but also more relatable. Some of this comes from how The Order is sort of a commentary on the Occupy movement as well as Anonymous and their supposed goals (freedom), as well as how they choose to act upon them (attack those in charge). Limbo City, the main backdrop of the game, also looks like a place where people would actually live and is, by extension, a more believable setting for Ninja Theory's take on the story. The characters are also presented with some modernity as well, like how Kat is a witch, but saves time creating spell circles and other enchantments by using stencils and a spray can with a premixed compound. For me at least, it was a fresh approach to depicting a witch by having her take advantage of new conveniences and being more human in the process.

And that right there is the core theme of the plot: Humanity. The story asks a few questions on this topic, such as "What is best for humanity, freedom or order?"; "Are Mundus' motives enough to justify his rule?"; and "Did Dante and Vergil do the right thing in the end?" At the same time, Dante begins the game not really giving a care about the world around him, but through his interactions with Kat, he grows attached to humanity despite his genetic makeup. As he grows closer to Kat, he becomes a more well-rounded character whose feelings were able to manifest within me in the endgame.

DmC's plot line allows for more depth and personality, which makes way for some genuinely shocking twists and deeper character moments. For instance, there's one part of the game where Kat and Dante are in a facility and both of them have to escape. However, Kat is trapped in the earthly realm with no real escape options. Vergil, who is in Limbo with his brother, wants to leave her behind, but Dante insists that he can help her out. Realizing the limitations imposed upon her by her situation, he goes up to Kat and tells her in a comforting voice to get on her knees and raise her hands; the incoming guards won't shoot and he'll come back later to rescue her. Just as they both think everything's going to be okay, the guards come in and shoot her in the shoulder anyway while she's completely defenseless. Shocked, Dante goes back to her and places his hand over hers. Even though these two are across realms, they are still risking their lives for each other and it displays how much Dante had grown at that point in the story. The shock of Kat getting shot and Dante's attempts to help her helped me care for these characters and gave me more motivation to keep playing.

All in all, Ninja Theory did a really good job tackling the story and making it very satisfying. They have a really interesting take on the mythology by taking some familiar elements and adding a more modern spin to it. What helped the most was the characters, who are written very well with intriguing backstories and have enough subtlety in their emotions and facial expressions, thanks to the impressive mo-cap, that you can sense something else beneath the surface; they are multi-dimensional figures. It all builds up to a climactic finale that turns the story on its side and puts almost all of the events in a new, more frightening perspective. Much like The Darkness, the execution is interesting in that this feels like what a live action version of the franchise would look like (in fact, this is what the live action version would be like), thanks to it being grounded more in reality with supernatural elements.

Next up is the combat. Through each of the 20 missions, Dante has to fight off waves of various demons to advance. Over time he gains the weapons he needs to fight them off, with a total of eight weapons to use at once, including one sword, three guns, two angel weapons and two demon weapons. Each weapon is unique in that they have their own strengths that determine when the right time would be to use them. The classic Ebony and Ivory combo is good for rapid fire with small damage from each shot, Revenant is a shotgun allowing for a wide spread but more damage up close and Kablooey (yes that's the name of the weapon) is very powerful and fires darts that can be remotely detonated, but the shot has to be precise to plant itself. Angel weapons are good for their speed and long range, but they deal a minimal amount of damage on their own, while demon weapons are slower and have a shorter range but are the most powerful of Dante's weapons (one of which my brother and I referred to interchangeably as Hulk hands and Wreck-It Ralph hands). His sword, Rebellion, is sort of an in-between weapon, with a medium range and a good amount of damage output.

On top of that, you use the two lower shoulder buttons on the controller to switch between the type of sword you want to use, with the left one accessing angel weapons and the right accessing demon weapons. As a complementary system, you also use the d-pad to switch between the exact weapon you want, with left and right swapping angel and demon weapons respectively and up swapping the guns around. It takes a little getting used to at first, but once you have a good rhythm going with switching weapons on the fly, the combat can become pretty deep as you find out when to use what weapon and at what time. With a solid Style Points system in place that grades you based on your performance, combat is fun and fluid throughout and mastery over the weapons makes you feel more like you can take on the world.

Dante using the Stinger ability
Weapons can also be augmented with new skills by purchasing upgrades in the shop by spending Upgrade Points that you build up by killing enemies. Upgrades are cheap to buy and require no cost to remove, so you can experiment with different ability combinations by simply removing a point and transferring it somewhere else. I ended up liking this system and by the end of the game, I had acquired nearly every skill for all the weapons.

The only thing that marred the combat a little however was the enemy variety and the camera system. The enemies themselves are fine and are designed in an interesting fashion, but limitations are set on what you can do once they introduce enemies that can only be killed by specific weapon types. While the game later gives you a way of dealing with this, it still takes some of the fun out of the experimentation. When you have to fight two enemies at once, one each affected only by an angel or demon weapon, the experimentation is lost until you acquire one specific weapon which will allow you to juggle between them with more ease. The combat also doesn't have a lock-on feature. I got used to this, but it sometimes introduced a problem with targeting exactly what I wanted and the free camera could have used a little work. It doesn't make it automatically suck, but these problems are minor if anything.

As for the levels themselves, there is more of an emphasis on platforming this time around, using a pull system, or whips if you will, accessible through both the angel and demon weapons. The demon whip pulls objects toward you and the angel whip pulls you toward an object. It's a little like Nero's Devil Bringer arm from Devil May Cry 4, but with a new twist to it that expands upon the idea. The whips make navigation a little interesting, with an equally useful combat application as well. The levels are a little linear, but they still encourage exploration with looking for Lost Souls and keys to unlock doors to secret missions. Some passages are also blocked by obstacles that can only be broken with certain weapons that you'll obtain later on. This adds a bit of replay value, giving an incentive for completionists to play missions repeatedly for a better level score.

If there's one aspect of the missions that's weak however it would be the bosses. While they are memorable for the most part and actually fun to fight, they don't really force you to take full advantage of your arsenal and can be taken down more easily once you recognize their patterns. Again however, they are memorable as well, including one where you fight inside a television broadcast against a demonic version of Bill O'Reilly in a form not unlike the Master Control Program as he fires area lasers and walls of static at you (didn't think I'd type that). They may feel antiquated, but do their job in advancing the story well enough, especially the final boss fight against Vergil, who uses a lot of the same skills he had from Devil May Cry 3; I was filled with joy the whole time and found myself loudly declaring it awesome that he did so.

I have one other real complaint, which is with regards to the Devil Trigger ability. By pressing both sticks, Dante can enter a Devil Trigger state where his attacks are more powerful and time slows down as enemies float in the air for him to kill. However, the Devil Trigger takes a little long to charge up and diminishes a bit too quickly. I would have at least preferred the fruits of my labor to last a bit longer.

Devil Trigger in action

Moving on, I also liked the look of the world, which takes very good advantage of Unreal Engine 3. Limbo City is designed with more subdued colors, marking how drab it really is, but the demon realm of Limbo is rather disturbingly colorful and its ever twisting environments introduce an element of improbability that creates a unique atmosphere. The characters I felt were also designed rather appropriately for this game, especially Dante, Vergil and Kat. The character designs in general suit everyone rather well and look appropriately realistic, although Lilith is admittedly really ugly no matter how you look at her. The particle effects are also really good and the environments are varied really well and look pretty different from each other.

The sounds of the game were also done well, with top notch voice acting from every character to help establish their personalities and relationships. Dante's one-liners this time around I found to actually be quite funny, since I laughed out loud at his witty commentary. I also praise the music, composed by the electronic groups Noisia and Combichrist, since it not only fits the events onscreen, but it's also good enough that I'd sometimes turn up the volume just to hear it more.

As a final note, I'd like to bring up the difficulty level of this game. I played the game on the default Devil Hunter difficulty and found myself with a little challenge, but I was still able to get through rather easily and with no need to purchase any items outside of Health and Devil Trigger Crosses, though I did use some Vital Stars that I had found to increase my health. I equate this to my skill level carried over from the previous games, which means that I'm good enough that a game like this seems a little easier than it probably should have. From this, I gather that veterans of the series won't find too much challenge in Human or Devil Hunter, so they should instead begin with the Nephilim difficulty for a real challenge before moving on to the other unlockable difficulty levels.

DmC Devil May Cry, for the most part, is an alternate continuity done right. It has a really interesting take on the original lore and characters with some real depth to them as well as some social commentary. While the combat and boss fights could have used just a little more tweaking, the end result is nevertheless very fun with a great score to back up a unique game world. This is a great jumping on point for newcomers to the franchise, as it is tailored very well for a modern audience. Veterans of the franchise may be turned off by some of the changes made with this reimagining, see the top of this post for details, but I'd still recommend that they give it a try and think of it more as an entirely new beast. It may not suit everyone's tastes, but it's a winner in my book and I can't wait for a sequel so that I may dive further into this fascinating new world.

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