Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Filling your dark soul with light! - Textual Diarrhoea About DmC

At last! Games are finally breaking free of the shackles of a predominantly adolescent audience drunk with male power fantasies. At last! we are seeing an end to the diminishing of the medium. At last! We... Oh don't use this  picture as an example. He's a demon hunter, born half demon, half heaven and he's a bit of a ladies man... Come back! Games are to be enjoyed by EVERYONE!!!
Yeah... See ya... 

Not to be confused with the original game, or a prolific 80s hip hop outfit that may have had a runaway hit with mid atlantic piss merchants Aerosmith, Devil May Cry or DmC, (as it would prefer you to call it[1]) is the latest ‘bold’ reboot/reimagining of another franchise that ran its course and become stuck in the rocks of familiarity, laziness and overall lack of inspiration. It was of course whilst trying to reboot Capcom’s other big franchise, Resident Evil, that legendary game designer Shinji Mikami created the format which would eventually become Devil May Cry, which would go on to rewrite the action adventure monster twatting genre with its slick combo based air juggling combat, literally paving the way for God of War, and most of the exports from Platinum Games including Bayonetta. Publisher's Capcom have tasked  Western Developers Ninja Theory with kickstarting the franchise once again. A somewhat controversial move (again for the die hard fans), which once again shifted development of a fabled franchise from East to West. Call it whatever, (so long as you don’t chalk it up to the decline of Japanese game development you pitiful racists…) DmC is being transitioned for a Western audience and is developed where the water is warmer, the air sweeter and the general gaming population more susceptible to infantile crass and lashing of the ole ultra violence... 

Ninja Theory are of course responsible for 2007s PS3 exclusive Heavenly Sword (Hey, watch out link coming through!) and 2010s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (Boosh!). I’ve written sparsely about these games in the past, and whilst they weren’t always perfect, Ninja Theory always displayed a degree of commitment to characterization, story and artistic design that always made them memorable experiences despite the gaps in mechanics and... OH LAWD those awful six axis controlled crossbow sections with the cat lady from Heavenly Sword. Both of Ninja Theory’s previous exports enlisted the help of Andy Serkis, who unfortunately is nowhere to be seen in DmC, presumably because he’s too busy with the Hobbit and setting up his own motion capture studio. Enslaved writer Alex Garland returns as a story supervisor. Whatever that means, so I guess you can expect a decent video game narrative for once... right?

Well not really… Well, it’s okay… Well… well…        

You play Dante, who has undergone a radical redesign since you last saw him. And by radical redesign, I really mean that his hair is now black when it used to be white and he’s a bit skinnier and scrawnier. In the preceding hype train that heralded the game’s coming, this ‘bold reinterpretation’ was supposedly kind of a big deal[2] for the fans of the original games. Dante you remember resembled the frontman of some kind of J-pop metal band.[3]

Old Dante vs New Dante - A characterisation and representation of two separate cultures. DISCUSS 

Now Dante looks like Sid Vicious, wearing skinny jeans, low slung v-neck and a jacket that bears the Union Jack on it, for no other reason other than to complete the image of a 70s punk street urchin. He also says ‘fuck’ a whole lot and has sex with strippers and walks around in the buff not caring who sees his junk in the process. He also lives in a trailer and is a nephilem, born of an angel mother, and demon father. And as a result is a dab hand at monster twatting. BRILLIANT!

As a general layabout, the game surprisingly doesn’t have any origin moments that one would have expected from a ‘bold reboot’. There is no moment where Dante realizes he possesses the power to fight demons, there is no story behind how he got the sword or the twin pistols. From the get go, Dante is a troublemaker who just so happens fights demons, and can’t remember exactly what happened in his childhood, save the fact that it was highly traumatic. The storyline involves Dante encountering his long lost brother Vergil (remember him from Devil May Cry 3?) who enlists him into the fight against the demons and the acceptance of actual stone cold responsibility! 

The game is set in Limbo city, perhaps the worst/derivative name for a video game city imaginable. In addition, most of the game is actually set in limbo, a shadowy parallel world that exists behind the normal world, inhabited by demons who secretly pull the strings that manipulate the real world. This gives rise to a couple of interesting story beats, the big bad (actually a demon) is a corporate suit who controls the world through DEBT. They are able to control the masses through a FEAR MONGERING MASSMEDIA OUTLET and ENERGY DRINKS whose secret ingredient may or may not be a succubus’s anal discharge.[4] One level has you fight through a night club inhabited by WHITE RICH PEOPLE OF THE JERSEY SHORE. And that’s pretty much the whole game I’ve ruined for you, but hey it’s not the destination, it’s the journey maaann.


In between fighting, there is platforming through lucid landscapes.

Back to the name limbo city, the fact that they would even call it Limbo city in the first place seems problematic. It’s as if to show that the normal world and it’s mortal inhabitants are actually more aware of the purgatorial realm of the demons than the story lets on. Dante and his gang are painted as terrorists but existing as street wise freedom fighters, like in the classic movie Hackers. 

I kept imagining a mild mannered BBC One show documentary tracing back the origins of Limbo City. An over exuberant correspondent asking the regular inhabitants on the street their thoughts:

“Limbo City is named after a Mr James Limbo, and yes he did create the pseudo dance sport craze of limboing. You might say it is our most famous export. Check out the annual limbo championship! It's such good thing. What's that? I don’t know anything about any demons, my good man. What on earth have you been smoking?”

“Why’s it call limbo city? I don’t know. You would think that name would almost certainly give off some pretty negative vibes, the feng shui is fucked here as a result. Basically, nothing possibly good can come from a city called limbo city. I would certainly not like to raise a family in a place called Limbo City.”

“Oh yeah, Limbo City, it’s named after, this purgatorial realm from which demons dwell and control us all. It can only be accessed by a handful of people, but it’s probably really dangerous. But there you go. The housing prices are cheap! So… that’s always a bonus. Especially in these troubled economic times.”

Cut to the studio, where Alex Jones and Matt Baker ask special guest Patrick Stewart what he makes of it all, to which he launches into some highly amusing anecdote relating to Yorkshire or something…  All the while you’re thinking. It’s Patrick Stewart! He’s a legend!

Could use screenshots, but the concept art is way better.

BACK ON POINT!

Regardless of the inherent stupidity of limbo city and the duel dimension of limbo, it actually makes for some interesting level design. When the game isn’t cornering you in big circular arenas centred by a grand ornate fountain, it’s pushing you through city streets that become distorted by otherworldly forces, separating the combat with some zippy platform sequences. Everywhere you go is essentially lucid derivations of the old familiar video game settings of dingy warehouses and gothic streets, it’s perhaps not the most original setting, Darksiders did a similar thing with a more comic book colour palette, but for the purposes of the game, it works pretty well. One gleefully put together level has you negotiate through a mirror version of the city that exists within a river. Where everything is underwater and upside down. Ninja Theory have always been ones to create a good vista, and DmC is delightfully no different. 

GOOD ON YOU NINJAS! AND YOUR MAD THEORIES!

The other great thing about DmC is that it is a superlative monster twatting game, just like its predecessor. This was one of the biggest concerns when Ninja Theory picked up the intellectual property. Heavenly Sword and Enslaved had combat, but it wasn’t necessarily spell binding, more functional and just… well? there. How could they possibly maintain the kinetic power of Devil May Cry? With accessive ease actually. DmC reinstates the power of the ludicrous combos, with fluid animations and a wholesome array of monster twatting devices. Your swords, your guns and your additional demon/angel weapons, that allow you to pull yourself towards enemies or pull them towards you for the coup de grat. Each fight ends with the finishing blow shown from a suitably epic slo mo action angle, followed by a brief cutscene in which Dante composes himself as if saying “who’s next”, it’s a nice little touch, transitioning effectively between fight scenes and general level progression.

I don't know what the hell this thing is... But I'm killing it. Because that's what I do.


The only downside is that the enemies are a little derivative in design, to the point that I can’t quite remember what they looked like. You have the bog standard foot soldiers that are easily disposed off, like fighting pi├▒atas dispensing red experience points like candy. You have the trickier bad guys with chainsaws, the bastards armed with shields in need of breaking with strong attacks before you cut them up nice and proper, the big fat dude who charges at you… the annoying double bladed ninja who succeeds in evading most of your attacks, and of course the big dude with razor blades for hands whose big glowy ball at his centre eloquently signposts his WEAK POINT.

The combat does begin to drag, when the game thows at you colour coded enemies that are susceptible to attacks from a specific weapon (blue means use angel weapons against them, red means demon). This does much to restrict the way combat plays out. Most critics have said that the combat is at its best with as little limitations as possible. And they would all be right. The DmC combat is at it’s best when you keep adding attacks to a combo that is rampantly spiralling out of control to dizzying heights. All fights are graded, and you will need to bring you’re a-game if you want to get the highest rank of SSS. You start thinking, zipline to this enemy, smack him about a bit, launch him into the air, ascend into the air with a twin pistol flourish, use demon arms to soften him up abit until he explodes in red experience points. Zipline to the next one… and so on and so on. You feel like Robert Downey Jr in Sherlock Holmes. Discombobulate indeed...The longer the combos get, the greater the risk of fail and the more thrilling the game becomes as a result.

There are many levels of difficulties to DmC, you will have to complete the game several times to get the hardest setting. The levels themselves whilst designed and paced to tell a narrative are also designed to be replayed. You will need to go back to unlock all the secret areas once you have gained the relevant powers. Obviously, the combat is so satisfying, it’s easy to get sucked back in for a second sitting. A practice that really doesn’t happen too much nowadays.

Then you have the boss battles. None of these fights are necessarily hard per se. They are more controlled by the game’s cinematic presentation, and as a result are heavily choreographed to dispense moments of epicness. A lot of fights involve buttering up the enemy before targeting a weak point with your angel/demon weapons. Usually the context surrounding the fight is more interesting. In one level, you will fight the Glen Beck style TV personality at the head of the Raptor News Network (Fox if it wasn’t clear enough). It is one of those levels that takes place inside a computer, so you are basically fighting a big head, like in the end of Tron. Another boss fight at the end of the decadent nightclub level has you fight a gigantic demonic foetus that I read with my highly advanced uber brain as a statement of the shallow and fruitless exchanges of passion that are indicative of a binge drinking culture brought up on shit pop music and unrealistic dreams that go a bit like this:

"perhaps, tonight will be the night, perhaps tonight I will meet the one. The one that will complete me, the one I shall settle down and live happily ever after.  There has to be somebody out there for me, somebody who will love and cherish me, if only for the night..." 

Yeah! take that world! Whilst your out on a Friday night, I'm here playing DmC, getting off on metaphors most truthful!   
Kick the baby. 

BACK ON POINT

DmC is a champion of fluid combat and stellar level and artistic design. Apparently, the game is not selling as well as could be expected, or perhaps in line with projections considering the infantile fan feedback that didn’t even give the game a chance in the first place. At this current moment DmC has reported to have sold not even a third of what Devil May Cry 4 made on it's release. That is staggering, if you remember DMC4 recycled levels and boss fights like nobody’s business. It is a great shame, because Ninja Theory seem well used to releasing games to a lukewarm commercial reception. It’s a shame because in this economy, with development houses being shut down and swept under the carpet based solely on one disappointing release, you hope that this studio will pull through. It’s a shame because, with so much discussion about the maturity and themes of mainstream gaming, one of the few studios who do actually appreciate story, vision and characterization are not getting a look in. DmC is not a disappointing game, it may be juevenille in some places and certainly not without it’s flaws mechanically, but it’s Ninja Theory’s most solid release yet and there are simply too many ‘moments’ that demand to be played.  

As a series, Devil May Cry is most famous for this absolute clanger of dialogue. 





[1] (it is one whole syllable shorter than the original name so keep things nice and short in the interest of time, and hey thanks for taking the time to read this footnote. Footnotes are cool.
[2] But meaningless in the grand scheme of things.
[3] I say ‘metal’, in so far as the accompanying band have spiky Ibanez guitars. But their metalness and indeed rawkness is offset nearly completely by their lazy lyrics penned by a boardroom desperately seeking to appeal to the Western market, without understanding the complexities inherent of the English language. Hence chorus lyrics “Hey wow, baby, I should have filled your dark soul with light.”
[4] It totally is by the way. It’s basically a rip off of that Futurama episode, when they visit the Slurm factory. 

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