Boy, do the folks at Ninja Theory have some serious cojones. In DmC’s first hour, there’s a moment of such breathtaking audacity that I didn’t know whether to laugh or gasp. The question is whether the developer has earned it. Initially, I figured it had. Since the announcement that the Cambridge-based studio was now in command of one of Capcom’s most popular series the abuse has been frequent and vitriolic. It’s come from those who clearly love the series, and those merely seeking a ride on the outrage bandwagon. A raised middle finger, then, seems a fitting riposte, if not a particularly dignified one.
Yet at least some of the outpouring of hatred stems from a strong affection for Dante as was. Is this fuck-you moment a misjudgement? Think of the furore whenever a new Bond is revealed, or when a film of a popular book is cast and one of the actors is deemed to be the ‘wrong’ choice for a particular role. Such a sense of injustice is amplified for a medium which offers a tangible bond between player and protagonist. It’s no exaggeration to say that some of the loudest complainants will likely have spent 100 hours plus as Dante. So while it’s understandable that Ninja Theory would want to stamp its own personality on the franchise, is it really necessary to do it in such a confrontational way? I’m not so sure.
Not least because Nu Dante lacks much of what made so many fall in love with the character in the first place. Remove the deific abilities and that iconic leather jacket and you wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the queue at Hollister, buying an overpriced t-shirt. His journey may have its moments, but as a character he’s little more than a callow youth, switching from angsty sulks to cocky quips whenever it suits. As the ostentatious titles point out, this is Ninja Theory’s baby, with Enslaved scribe Alex Garland relegated to a supervisory role. It shows. Though the story has its moments, and there are reminders that the developer knows how to frame a shot and to coax solid performances from its stars, there’s a troubling reliance on puerile profanity: one particular exchange has all the witty repartee of a sweary Twitter argument. Later sequences see Dante cough up puns that would shame Austin Powers. That all-important flamboyance has been lost. Or so it seems.
Because it’s still there when it counts. Amid that initial hysteria were some genuine concerns about a studio with no prior experience in the kind of deep, intricate fighting systems with which DMC had made its name. Sure, Ninja Theory was a great storyteller, but could it stretch beyond Heavenly Sword’s hacking and slashing, or Enslaved’s meaty robot smash-ups? It turns out that yes, with a little help from some friends at Capcom, it can.
So it’s not 60fps. No matter. DmC’s brawls combine responsiveness with a rare sense of weight – this is slick, seamless and endlessly entertaining stuff. It’s accessible, too, though it’s a long road to mastery, and the ability to truly showboat with confidence. Even your bog-standard grunts take some punishment before they drop, and most of them hit pretty hard in return, so you can’t take any of them for granted. Enemy types that only yield to specific weapons might prove irritating to some, but this is a change that forces you to become adaptable, encouraging proficiency with all weapons. The grading system also requires you to mix things up, offering a bigger score boost for stringing together different attack types. Getting your first S rank is a genuine thrill, but eventually you’ll be stepping beyond that with increasing regularity.
Better scores earn you more tokens with which to upgrade your arsenal. Alongside Dante’s trusty sword Rebellion and semi-automatic pistols Ebony and Ivory are an axe, a scythe, and a new angelic weapon that acts rather like a large shuriken. Your own playstyle will determine your preference, but I found the brutish power of the Eryx gauntlets to be particularly satisfying, uppercuts connecting with shuddering power. I regularly teamed it with Kablooey, a demonic shotgun made to destroy the shields of the shrieking witches, a tricky new opponent that can make Dante’s nightmare Limbo even more hellish. Beyond a handful of foes, enemy design isn’t particularly striking but crucially they’re all fun to toy with: you’ll tug shields from hovering cherubs with a grappling hook before slamming the floor to lift and subsequently juggle a group of spindly sword-wielders. Environmental hazards raise the stakes: one battle above a brittle glass floor is a cautionary tale about the importance of safe landings, while another sees ethereal trains thunder across the ceiling to discourage airborne grandstanding.
Such environmental tricks aren’t exactly uncommon, either. This hyper-saturated Limbo is an actively hostile world, shifting, splintering, collapsing and contracting to thwart Dante’s demon-killing quest. It’s quite a contrast to the muted hues of the real world, and if in places it’s uncomfortably close to the prevailing Hollywood trend for orange and teal (in fairness, it’s more of a vivid red than orange) then the two-tone approach works in the context of both narrative and combat. You instantly know whether you need to grapple towards a platform or tug it towards you; similarly, it’s obvious which enemies require angelic or demonic weapons to defeat.
Indeed, it’s a game of contrasts. As the plot delves into Dante’s backstory, the anti-hero and his family are depicted in scenes oddly reminiscent of Titian’s biblical tableaux. These moments sit alongside contemporary, politicised ideas that touch upon the ills of modern society, even within a fantastical context (one bravura sequence sees Dante leap through what looks like a Fox News CGI title sequence). It’s no real surprise, then, that the fluid grace of battle should be accompanied by a soundtrack of bludgeoning force, as thudding dubstep, chugging guitars and deep-throated roars generate a thick wall of noise.
When you’re not fighting, DmC founders a little. Dante’s jump feels right for combat but oddly awkward for platforming, and you’ll occasionally plummet to your death after inexplicably failing to latch onto a grapple point. Given these issues, it’s disappointing to note that the number of secrets you find has a notable impact on your level grade – at least on the first playthrough. Thankfully, any hidden items you do locate are remembered for future attempts, though I’m still not convinced players should be punished for ignoring what should be optional archaeology.
Another potential complaint, however, is set to be rectified in an upcoming update. The much-demanded Bloody Palace mode – available soon as free downloadable content - should prove a sterner examination of the combat’s depth. A full playthrough at Devil Hunter difficulty revealed no glaring weaknesses, though high level players may find holes to pick at. Thankfully, the demo’s broken jump-cancelling seems to have been eradicated.
In other words, it’s a game that’s more respectful to the ethos of the series than its narrative canon, and as such it’s more sure-footed in its systems than its storytelling. That’s a surprise coming from Ninja Theory, which waits until the very end to match that early moment of daring. It’s likely to prove every bit as divisive, but would a developer this ballsy want it any other way? Not in a million years.
Version Tested: Xbox 360
Completed the campaign on Devil Hunter (medium) difficulty; briefly tried Human (easy) mode and a few levels on Nephilim (hard) mode. Replayed a handful of secret missions. Number of SSS ranks: zero.