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The Devil, Advocated: ‘DmC’ Remains a Fresh Breath of Fire

Flamed on its original release by series fanboys, 'DmC' deserves its second chance on new-gen consoles.

by Ewen Hosie
10 March 2015, 12:49pm

It is hard to recall a game in recent history that dealt with more dismissive pre-release rhetoric than 2013's Ninja Theory developed DmC: Devil May Cry. "Casual" was a word spat with particular venom by an internet hate brigade accustomed to the series' frenetically precise combat, forecasting a watered-down "DINO" – (lead character) Dante in Name Only – butchered frame rates, cynically engineered art direction and shattered dreams.

The game's creative lead Tameem Antoniades suffered fan ire for his aggressive stance on the direction of the Devil May Cry reboot, rustling jimmies when he claimed in an interview that he didn't care if the game sold "a thousand units or two million units" and calling it a creative crime to pander to a "perceived demographic that, in all likelihood, doesn't exist." Further alarm bells rang for fans afraid of change with news that Japanese publisher Capcom was also keen for a new direction following the tepid reception to Devil May Cry 4, a sub-par entry that had placed the series on moratorium after its release in 2008.

'DmC: Definitive Edition' trailer

DmC certainly possessed its share of issues, but they weren't creative ones. The game was more accessible (read: easier) than its Japan-developed predecessors, which pissed off the faithful as the once-elusive "SSS" combat rank became achievable without the risk of RSI. And the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions, while serviceable, were slave to the same frame rate hitches that befell Ninja Theory's previous title, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.

But as time's passed, so criticisms of DmC's artistic direction have, for the most part, been revealed as the opinions of a vocal minority, and the game ultimately won both mainstream critical acclaim and relative financial success. And now that it's been released in a "Definitive Edition" for Xbox One and PS4, unimpeded by the older consoles' hardware limitations, it may finally attract the reassessment from series fans that it certainly deserves.

Like Enslaved, which employed the script-writing services of Alex Garland, DmC perhaps shined brightest in the story department. It weaved a sharp tale of millennial fear and austerity angst in a way that stamped a sense of time and place firmly on the aging franchise's face. The architectural hostility of Limbo City made for a triumphant setting; aptly named after that "other" Dante's first circle, here was an insidious, transmutational playground trying to scupper the game's protagonist at every turn.

While DmC's themes were contemporaneously compared to the David Icke-baiting (and all-round cult classic) movie They Live, the storyline is perhaps more reminiscent of Grant Morrison's comic series The Invisibles. In the Scottish writer's bizarre opus, a Liverpudlian teenage delinquent named Dane reluctantly joins an underground resistance of occultists and psychics after discovering that the world is under the control of demonic cabals keeping the populace sedate and compliant.

Morrison intended his work to become a sigil for the burgeoning conspiracy theory culture of the 1990s, and DmC follows suit in this regard; deuteragonist Kat uses witchcraft throughout the game to literally spray paint sigils to create a gateway for Dante to cross between Limbo and the human world to aid his fight against the demonic Mundus, who has cast a shroud over the blinkered population who fail to see the infernal influence around them.

Reimagined from his former incarnation as a more traditionally demonic figure into a sharp-suited corporate executive ripped from the pages of a superhero comic, DmC's primary villain is burly, cunning and ever-so-slightly camp. His opening salvo, where he puts the President in place in suitably Dr Evil fashion ("One trillion dollars!"), sets the megalomaniacal tone of his character perfectly. The satirical "one-percenter" villainy of DmC's antagonists was far from subtle, but it didn't need to be; Mundus and company stand proud as enjoyable punching bags for the current-day collegiate set, their debt-addled older siblings and, yes, their parents too.

Aesthetically, there was a bold '90s vibe to DmC that seemed to stir up a love-it or loathe-it reaction among the series faithful, cribbing the goth stylings of Neil Gaiman and Alex Proyas – and some of Vivienne Westwood's sartorial sharpness – with aplomb. It was a style that put an inescapably British stamp on the franchise, in spite of its characters' predominantly American accents.

Ninja Theory also employed expert use of colour in DmC, bucking the developmental trend for grey and gritty pessimism. The explosive shifts into the game's take on Limbo also played with gravity and perspective in innovative ways, standing in marked contrast to the muddy medieval look of the older Devil May Cry worlds.

In an interview with PlayStation Access, Antoniades claimed that the team "purposely went again the grain" with their conception of Dante and his world, considering elements they could add to DmC that were generally unseen in games at that time: "We thought about how people dress, and what music do people listen to? What do we listen to? What environment do we live in? What's the concept of evil in the real world today that we want to fight back against?"

The corporatised brand of evil Antoniades stressed in his script – supervised again by Dredd screenwriter Garland – brought a freshness to the series. This approach further cemented DmC's British credentials, its newfound satirical purpose ripped straight from the pages of a classic 2000 AD comic. Indeed, this knowing tone arguably peaks during the game's most memorable boss fight – a battle fought within the vibrant digitised confines of a TV news ident against the Tron-like head of a ranting Bill O'Reilly stand-in named Bob Barbas.

The Bob Barbas boss fight, from the original 'DmC' release

This new Dante also made for a refreshingly sexualised presence. The former white-haired version, while full of confidence and capability when it came to fighting, always came off as slightly inept with women, his impotent hip thrusts hitting the empty air with all the frustration of a rotoscoped Frank Booth. In contrast, Nu-Dante was decidedly casual about sex – indeed, gaming hadn't seen a main character so straightforwardly carnal since The Witcher's Geralt of Rivia.

Dante's relationship with his brother Vergil was also expanded in interesting ways, with Vergil portrayed in DmC as a more sympathetic figure than before, an approach that sold his relationship with Dante more effectively than Devil May Cry 3. The decision to show the pair's development as allies throughout DmC helped to emphasise the later tragedy of their eventual falling out, building to a climax that set the scene for a promising but unlikely to ever be realised second chapter.

Devil May Cry has never been a series for everyone, but neither is it so precious that it should be above reinvention. In an artistic sense, DmC did anything but dumb the series down; it succeeded in attracting gamers put off by the technicalities espoused by the frame-counting fanboys, as well as those less au fait with its coiffured anime excess and increasingly convoluted plot.

It is safe to say that had DmC been a reboot of a film or comic series, it would have been accepted far more readily, and both Capcom and Ninja Theory deserve praise for sticking to their guns in the face of criticism. It is interesting to think of where a sequel could have gone had it escaped its own developmental limbo with the same fervour and style as Dante himself.

@ewenhosie

Previously:

Hunting for Hope at the Game Developers Conference

Notorious Gangsters and No Games: The Gory Story of the Gizmondo

'Max Payne' Was the Game That Understood My Depression