I can't quite fathom why Nintendo decided to pick up Devil's Third as a Wii U exclusive. Despite the Wii U's commercial failings, few could argue that Nintendo's games for the console have been anything but supremely well produced. Games starring Mario or any of the Big N's other characters have generally run smoothly and rendered crisply, and been for people of all ages and experience. Devil's Third is not one of those games.
Created by famed Ninja Gaiden reviver and Dead or Alive creator Tomonobu Itagaki, Devil's Third sees his new studio, Valhalla Games, attempt to mix the hack 'n' slash spills of the modern Ninja Gaiden series with the FPS thrills of Call of Duty. It certainly does mix these two genres, allowing you to switch between them seamlessly mid-combat, but it is barely competent in each. Add in visuals that resemble a budget Xbox 360 title and terrible performance issues, and we've got something of a disappointing mess.
Ivan starts the game inside the kind of prison cell Daily Mail readers believe most criminals enjoy, and then some. He's got a drum kit, guitar, TV, Jacuzzi, mini-bar, pool table, PS4, iPad, fibre broadband, Netflix membership, Amazon Prime... OK, so maybe not all that, but he's essentially some kind of rockstar prisoner, despite clearly having been part of an incredibly dangerous and bloodthirsty group. It's silly but not unusual if you've played an Itagaki game before. Before long Ivan is working with a government organisation to take down members of his former squad.
Melee combat is handled primarily by two face buttons, one for quick attack and one for strong strikes. These can be combined for combos and weapons (such as machetes and axes) make Ivan more deadly. Successful hits slowly build a meter which, once full, can be used to initiate Enbaku. This causes Ivan to glow and lets him take out enemies with single blows, causing massive damage. Blocking, dodging, sliding and weapon throwing all make the combat more than simple button mashing, but this is far from the hardcore yet slick gameplay found in Ninja Gaiden.
While some enemies are best taken on up close and personal, ideally with a sword or an equally sharp object, playing FPS-style lets you attack enemies from distance or stagger them before swooping in with a finishing strike. Mechanically the FPS gameplay is perfectly serviceable, offering snap-to-enemy aiming when looking down sights, a solid cover system and lots of things to shoot - not only enemy soldiers, but also mutated monsters both big and small.
The big letdowns with the shooter side of the game are the level design (I lost count of the times I opened a door to be greeted by a wall!), the environments (shipyard, facility, airport, underground lab) and the terrible enemy AI. We're talking classicly unfair enemies, who can see you even when they shouldn't be able to, yet willing to stand still while a grenade ticks down and explodes inches from their feet. It all feels rather old-fashioned, and not in a 'back to the glory days' kind of way.
Presentation isn't everything, but given how polished modern shooters are it's more than a little jarring to play through the ugly, low poly, poorly textured world Valhalla has created. We all know the Wii U isn't a powerhouse, but it's certainly capable of a lot better than what's on show here. If it ran at a smooth 60fps a lot of this could be put down to deliberate choices made to maintain smooth gameplay. Considering it already resembles a PC release from 2001 and has some quite staggering frame rate stumbles, it would probably have had to resemble Quake 2 to hit such heights.
Devil's Third has a fairly substantial multiplayer mode, although sadly I lost enthusiasm for it extremely quickly. A hub area provides access to a weapons and upgrades testing zone, although there's also a shop for these and new outfits. There are two currencies in play: Dolls and Eggs. Dolls can be used to buy guns and melee weapons while hand-thrown projectiles and heavy weapons must be bought using the eggs. All new outfits or changes to your appearance must also be bought using eggs. On starting a character you are given 30,000 Dolls and 30 Eggs. A gun typically costs in excess of 40,000 Dolls and costume items are upwards of 6 Eggs.
Outside of the fact that certain items must be bought using Eggs, multiplayer's biggest problem is that it shows up the controls to be something of a mess compared to the slickness found in Call of Duty and the like. There are loads of game types, including some real oddities, such as one where you have to find chickens and another that involves fruit, but all of this feels like it's been a waste of time because the shooting and melee combat comes unstuck when you have to contend with smart enemies. In the campaign the combat mash-up sort of works, but it's just too clumsy when WiiU4Lyfe and NintendoFANBOYYYYY are hopping around all over the place.
Add to this the fact that it's hard to get enough people into a lobby to have a proper go at the team modes, and the multiplayer mode starts to resemble one of those abandoned theme parks. It's clearly built to be a home for fun, full of cool ideas, but it's already losing visitors and were it not virtual would be heading into disrepair at an alarming rate.
Devil's Third is impossible to recommend as anything other than a curio - like a tiny porcelain model of a clown riding a bear that you can't help but stare at in a charity shop. Coming from Itagaki this is a huge disappointment and a massive misstep for Nintendo as a publisher.