The announcement of a Devil May Cry remake by Ninja Theory was kind of a tumultuous experience for me. I was at once worried that a franchise so close to my heart would be done a disservice when handed out to a western developer with a less than stellar track record on game mechanics. But I was also happy for Ninja Theory since they would get this opportunity to rise to the challenge and prove themselves right for the job.
You see, the original Devil May Cry was the singular reason I traded in my Nintendo 64 for a Playstation 2, two or three years into the cycle. The high octane action, the beautiful dark gothic setting, the cocky badass demon hunter stylishly taking on the hordes of hell, staring down enormous monsters with a mocking grin.. But more than anything, Devil May Cry had incredibly tight gameplay and steep difficulty that rewarded skill not only by increased currency generation and favorable scores at the end of each mission, but also by making you look incredibly cool while dispatching room after room of demonic minions. Devil May Cry 3 took this concept to such perfection that for many it has yet to be dethroned as the greatest third person hack & slash action game of all time.
On the other hand, Ninja Theory is one of my favorite developers of this generation. Heavenly Sword is still one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had on the PS3 due to their mastery in storytelling, character creation, facial animation and casting of talented voice actors. Their second title, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West continued to deliver on these bullet points, with a highly personal story and amazing character interaction integrated with influences of eastern mythology and western science fiction. Although functional, neither of these titles were very well received from a gameplay perspective.
To top it all off, Ninja Theory seemed to be taking excessive liberties with the franchise, and based on the initial announcement trailer, the similarities to the original series were in name only.
With all of this in mind, I have to say that they did an impressive job.
This reimagining takes place in a world where the demon king Mundus has indoctrinated all of humanity with an addictive, mind numbing energy drink, and remains in control with propaganda and surveillance. His demonic minions patrol in a sub-reality called “Limbo” that at once pierces through the veil of his hidden dictatorship while also abstracting the world to a disjointed, crumbling hellscape, over which those with demonic power can impose some level of control. Dante, hunting and disposing of demons wherever he comes upon them, is hunted as a terrorist in the real world, and the game kicks off when he’s recruited to join a resistance against Mundus lead by his long lost twin brother Virgil.
The story by itself is really bare bones and nothing to write home about, but Ninja Theory has maintained a lot of the silliness of the original games while still delivering well animated, well-acted and well realized characters to push it forward. The entire premise is ridiculous and campy, completely in line with what you expect from a Devil May Cry game, but seasoned with the excellent character-, monster- and environmental design, they actually pull it off.
While the action is fully functional, reasonably competent and offers a lot of opportunities for sick combos and cool maneuvering, it never quite reaches the highs of other games in the action genre. Going for a free camera seems to have been detrimental to the experience, and I felt like I was fighting the controller more often than the enemies on the screen. I do, however, have full understanding as to why they would want you to be able to look around, because where this game truly shines is in its presentation. The concept of Limbo has allowed them to take great liberties with artistic design, and environments, boss fights and set-pieces might rightly take the breath right out of you. The world contorts to impossible shapes and forms, dynamically changing as you traverse the more platformy sections of the game, and each environment offers a unique aesthetic feel. Highlights include a paradise like area with floating islands surrounding an enormous chained up statue, an upside-down subway complex and an abstract night-club section basically made up of waveforms.
This visual flair reaches a booming crescendo during the games handful of boss encounters. You’ll find yourself fighting everything from a giant monster baby to a metaphysical digital representation of a head, and each encounter made me eager to see what craziness they would throw at me next. The boss-fights themselves are well designed, diverse and engaging, but they leave much to be desired with regards to difficulty. Their attacks are always highly telegraphed, and the methods for beating them are usually self-evident. But when you finally shave that last sliver of health from a boss you get rewarded with some fantastically cool cut-scenes, completely QTE free as is the Devil May Cry way.
To summarize, Ninja Theory has created a great game, and a good entry in the Devil May Cry franchise. They made it their own without sacrificing the source material, delivered some of the most fantastical level design I have ever experienced and created a flawed but functional action game on top of it. My hat is off to these people, and I can’t wait to hear about whatever they will be doing next.