Capcom found something special when they visualized a Resident Evil sequel that would depart heavily from certain survival norms. The resulting experiment gave gamers Devil May Cry, a hack-and-slash title that put their spasmodic reflexes to good use before Ninja Gaiden’s 3D revival. But after the company’s warping of the timeline – releasing a sequel, prequel, then a semi-sequel to the first DMC – the time has come for a reboot. Ninja Theory distills the license into its essential demonic parts and rewrites the convoluted backstories, making them easier to follow. Players will come to appreciate the new Dante in a respectable, dark-haired light, yet none of the combat’s fluidity, substance, or style takes a hit in what could have been this rebirth’s game over.
The developers expand on the gameplay possibilities through the establishment of Dante’s roots. As the progeny of a demon father and angel mother, the arrogant adolescent wields the hybrid power of a Nephilim. Dante knows nothing of his inner strength, his past, or his twin brother initially, but because this Devil May Cry falls under the alternate universe label, the story benefits by being the series’ most sensible. The older Dante’s fascinations for fashionable leather, cryptic one-liners, and lewd women came off as distant and perverse; here every characters’ motives remain clear and their personalities understandable. Dante undergoes a change too, and I do not mean of the Devil Trigger sort (Ninja Theory saves that reveal for later). The quality writing/acting morph Dante into a humane being driven by relatable goals, the edge (and F-bombs) in his voice disappearing as he begins fighting for a cause other than himself.
And as he quickly comes to learn, Dante’s Nephilim status identifies him as the sole threat to the demon kingpin, Mundus, brainwashing humanity through surreal soft drinks and surveillance means. Mundus puts a bounty on Dante’s head, though the careless party boy has already survived his share of satanic encounters. Dragged into the hell plane of Limbo, the combat immediately enlivens old muscle memories when Dante calls upon his sword Rebellion and reclaims pistols Ebony and Ivory. Players can see the inexperienced ways in which he handles a blade – the end of Dante’s combos nearly throwing him into an off-balance roll – but the speed of launching a lesser demon, juggling the creature through gunfire, and burying the beast at the bottom of a crater after a mighty overhead slash has not lost its satisfaction.
As if activating Devil Trigger could not be cooler, unleashing Dante's inner demon drains the color from the world.
Mundus will not fall of his own accord (immortality and all). As such, Dante's brother Vergil and a psychic named Kat enlist the loner to dismantle the demon king's operations from inside Limbo's unhallowed ruins. Although much of the narrative occurs in this abstract existence, I am by no means complaining. Previous Devil May Cry levels were well sketched, well designed, well modeled, and nothing more. Limbo exhibits as much personality as any of the main characters, albeit one slightly more demented. The golden avenues, twisted skyscrapers, and inverted jail cells directly oppose the dead colors and dim setting of the modern world, making this demon dimension a vibrantly macabre joy. Limbo has a mind of its own, a mind not keen to let Dante wreak havoc free of repercussions. Concrete streets shift as massive earthquakes cleave cracks in their foundations, hallways collapse inward as the walls form a vice, and crystalline structures crush doors of reinforced steel to seal off exits and elongate Dante’s journey.
These sudden breaks in Limbo form the backbone of many platforming sequences. After a resurgence of memories, Dante awakens a pair of Demon Pull and Angel Lift whips that ensnare debris for traversal or rip the bosses’ weak spots free of their grotesque forms. Some fans, however, would claim the aerial segments become too frequent to be refreshing. Look again. One trip into Limbo transforms the surrounding nightclub into a game show, where the disco dance floor injures players unless they equip angelic blades when standing on blue tiles or demonic bludgeons when standing on red. In the next mission, Dante must shatter storage containers appearing in front of a getaway vehicle while he transitions back and forth between realities. Compounding the excitement, the dubstep/heavy metal soundtrack kicks the action up to 11, suiting Limbo’s dynamic states better than previous DMCs and their obsessions with gothic architecture.
Kat fills her role of the potential love interest without needing to be overly sexualized.
Thanks to the well-crafted pacing, none of the locations feel padded out to the degree of climbing the tower in Devil May Cry 3 or retracing Nero’s steps in Devil May Cry 4, either. Every boss, every environment has a purpose, be it the sickening source of a soda manufacturing plant or a station's propaganda news broadcast. Yet it’s all in good faith that Ninja Theory knows how to spin these narrative webs into satirical social commentaries, such as the soft drink company’s slogans for obesity or the news anchor’s allegations of “doing God’s work.”
The locales diverge enough to be worth revisiting for previously inaccessible secrets, many of which remain off limits until Dante conjures a cumbersome demonic axe or angelic crowd-controlling scythe. Players can swap between these two summons at will – a clear influence of Ninja Theory’s work on Heavenly Sword – as well as the shuriken-like glaives and molten Hulk hands offered up as boss rewards. Sending a demon skyward with the axe’s shockwave, keeping it aloft through a whirlwind of throwing stars, pounding the hellion into the earth using the flaming gauntlets, and impaling the target on the scythe's curved blade is just one of the literal hundreds of combos.
No one puts Dante in the corner.
On that note, the game does falter in its enemy variety when stacked against the magnificent-looking boss battles. Tyrants, witches, and ice knights possess specific vulnerabilities, ranging from exposed areas on their fronts to angel or demon armaments. When Devil May Cry spawns these tougher fodder in the same room, these occasional encounters slow down the frenetic life-or-death sword fights. Why introduce methodical sparring matches where creatures take their time retaliating when the game encourages constant momentum?
As proof, Ninja Theory retains Dante’s ability to evade and parry incoming projectiles instead of implementing a simple guard maneuver. They also cut the lock-on system, though consider this a testament to the developers’ skills when I say good riddance. Not once did Dante charge the wrong abomination, even in skirmishes of a dozen or more. Witches, harpies, and stygians hesitate to berate Dante from behind too, choosing to wait until the camera pans around to renew their assaults. The less aggressive AI means players never need worry about unavoidable ambushes, but should Dante perish, the game resumes in the room where he died or on the exact platform that he fell from – a far cry from DMC3, which restarted the entire mission from the beginning. For more prolonged engagements, Dante still has the option of consuming gold revival orbs to continue the barrage, yet I could count the number of deaths on one hand during my first playthrough.
Church is a literal hell in Limbo.
Nephilim mode – the equivalent of Hard for the initial three difficulties – contains enough of the challenge that veterans will instantly seek without being insulting to anyone not deemed an action game savant. For any fans of Devil May Cry, however, Nephilim mode may as well be a warm-up. Four more difficulties anxiously wait to test reaction times, including the infamous Dante Must Die!. With monsters at their strongest here, Heaven or Hell difficulty almost seems a relief, in which Dante and Mundus’ underlings both perish in a single hit. Ninja Theory even appeals to completionists, who will be glad to know there are plenty of keys, challenge rooms, and skills in need of acquiring when Dante is not busy fighting for that ultimate “SSSensational” rank.
Ninja Theory has crafted not only their best action game, they have crafted the best Devil May Cry. The initial controversy over Dante's haircut accused Capcom of losing sight of the series by handing their white-haired hero to an outside studio. But in choosing not to sacrifice fun for nostalgia, the developers deliver a mature storyline not above a raunchy conversation or two, boss designs that belong in a book of children’s nightmares, a combat system from which Dante alternates between eight unique weapons on the fly, and unstable environments both stunning to behold and exciting to search. Rebooting a franchise has never been easy, yet Ninja Theory pulls the task off with aplomb.
Developer: Ninja Theory
Release Date: January 15, 2013
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, PC