"A cruel joke for Wii U owners." "The end result lurches close to disaster." "A messy, frustrating experience." Games critics have had their say on upcoming Wii U exclusive Devil's Third, in a preview capacity at least, and they are unanimous: It completely blows.
But as a Wii U owner desperately craving something that isn't a cutesy platformer or a twee puzzler or a collection of party-time mini games starring Nintendo's established cast of cartoon favorites, I nonetheless hoped for the best. I held onto the idea that Devil's Third could be more of a so-bad-it's-actually-sort-of-good experience, when played personally. That it might be a gaming world version of a poorly plotted but stupidly explosive action movie, all ham-for-brains characters barking obscene non sequiturs and firing off innumerable rounds of ammo in the name of bringing about the end of some ill-defined but most-certainly-nefarious force of doom. The sort of thing you could play after four pints, laugh at, and pass out in front of on the sofa.
No such luck, sadly. Devil's Third is awful. In many ways, the blame can't be laid entirely at the feet of its makers at Valhalla Studios, who've waded through rivers of shit to get it this far. The game's had to switch engines during its development (the commercial release runs in Unreal 3), and was originally going to be a THQ-published title for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. When that Californian company famously went bust in 2013, the rights reverted back to Valhalla, who eventually did a deal with Nintendo, hence its exclusivity for the Wii U. It's had a rocky road to completion, then, but all the same, Devil's Third is a very curious acquisition by Nintendo, a PEGI-18, blood-splattered slice of software that falls a long way short of the company's usual standards.
The game's designer is Tomonobu Itagaki, whose work on the Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden franchises suggests that Devil's Third would, even if the graphics were terrible (which they are, and the frame rate's all over the shop) and the storyline dead on arrival (assuming it was ever alive in the first place), at least be a competent brawler. But by mixing incredibly basic and disappointingly weightless melee combat—one slow strong attack, one quicker but weaker, a block that's also a dodge when combined with the left stick, and the ability to wield swords and blunt weapons—with the floaty gun mechanics found in second-rate third-to-first-person shooters of two console generations ago—fire from the hip or zoom in for a more accurate shot—it's an absolute dog's dinner of an action game. It does no one thing well, and a shit-ton of them inadequately.
It'd look ugly if the year was 2007, the acting's not so much phoned in as delivered via SMS, and everything feels like it'd have been trashed even as a 360-era title. There is simply no place for a solo game like this in 2015. Whatever Devil's Third might have been before events entirely beyond its developers' control derailed the original plan, what they've ultimately dragged out of the studio, kicking and screaming like a grizzled shut-in who's not seen the light of day for more time than it takes to go to the corner shop and back since the last Friends episode aired, begs to be put down in the street. It'd be a mercy killing. It's the best that anyone can do for this game, now.
Unless… All anyone, myself included, has played so far is the solo campaign. That casts you as heavily tattooed Russian Ivan, a former terrorist turned American government operative who spends his free time drum soloing inside a luxurious prison cell and who can't find a shirt to properly fit his hunky torso for love nor money. He really likes sunglasses. There's a poster in his cell for something called "Music Beartnik"—look out for their debut album, it's a wiener. He is amongst the most charmless gaming protagonists your eyes will ever fall upon and your thumbs will ever control. He is a relic of gaming's past with all the nuanced personality of unbuttered toast (Asda Farm Stores white bread, and nothing more).
Alongside a squad of Green Berets, Ivan takes on an army of bog-standard soldiers with dumbass AI, short-sighted but blade-swishing ninja sorts, armored tank-style enemies with mini-guns, actual tanks, armored cars constructed from Duplo and depressingly clichéd bullet-sponge bosses (fuck you, Big Mouse). You use the usual array of handguns, rifles, rocket launchers, grenades, and so on. If a bad guy gets in your face, you can swing a sword, a machete, or an ever-reliable iron bar into their theirs, which duly explodes. Headshot them and their skulls pop upwards like that one coconut that isn't glued down at the shy, a silken ribbon of blood sprouting beneath it. That's pretty funny every time you see it, actually, unlike the same canned animation you get whenever Ivan slices an enemy in two, which loses its appeal the second time it plays.
You've done this campaign a hundred times before, basically, and this may well be number 101 if you had to rank them from worst to first. At best, it's somewhere in the 80s. At one point, and I shit you not, one of my buddy Green Beret dudes said, unprompted: "This is getting old." Oh, mate. I could not agree more.
Devil's Third isn't without its share of laughs, and I'm not sure they're entirely unintentional. The name of the terrorist gang you're going after becomes "SOD" when broken down into an acronym. Brilliant. A poster at an air force base (or an airport, I forget which it is, such is the level in question's complete blandness) has a picture of a forest landscape with the words "Good Old Japan" beneath it, as if it's apologizing for this new Itagaki work representing a moldy bread roll beside the glorious banquet of 2004's astonishing Ninja Gaiden.
Messages on loading screens treat the player like this is the first action game they've ever encountered: "Be wary of vehicles on fire (as) they are liable to explode"; "Most enemies are vulnerable to headshots." Thanks for that, Valhalla. I'm amazed I didn't see a tip telling me to "aim for the red barrels." Like this game wouldn't have those conveniently positioned beside clusters of enemies, eh? (In case I wasn't clear, just then, Devil's Third features fucking loads of red barrels.) I'm not saying that what I've seen of this so far represents the worst single-player game anyone can buy for the Wii U—that's The Letter, obviously, not that the two can truly be compared—but bloody hell, it's bad. Like, really, ridiculously, phenomenally bad. Not so-bad-it's-good bad, at all. Just bad. Really. It's not a "future cult classic," idiots of the internet, or any of that crap, so you can stop that noise right now. Seriously, stop it. I've got eyes, you know.
That's the campaign, then (as much of it as I could stomach). But the multiplayer, which doesn't come online until much closer to the game's release date, looks like it might be entirely brainless fare of the entertaining variety. An Itagaki-presented gameplay video published in June (in Japanese) shows a varied selection of avatar types chucking explosive watermelons and pineapples at each other, alongside the standard guns and ammo. Now that's more Nintendo-like, isn't it? Using fruit to obliterate your opponents. Perhaps they know what they've got after all, and that will become crystal clear once the game's servers come online in August.
Until then, anyone eager to play a mature-rated new title for their Wii U, after ZombiU and Bayonetta 2, is advised to cling onto their pre-order cash. Please don't spend money on this game without further investigation, after multiplayer's up and running. I know you're hungry for something more adult-orientated than a woolly dinosaur delightfully floating around a knitted world, or a sentient zit exploring landscapes shaped from clay, but please, trust me: hold fire. Keep your sword sheathed and your shirt on. And hope that Itagaki and company can recover from this and move onto something that better meets modern gaming's entry requirements.
Devil's Third will be released for Wii U on August 4 in Japan and August 28 in Europe. A US release date remains TBD.
Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.