DmC: Devil May Cry Review: Not-So-Divine Dramedy

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DmC: Devil May Cry isn’t just a hip rubric rethink, it’s also a beat-em-up that doesn’t work quite right out of the box. But first let me explain what’s in that box.

Not Devil May Cry 5: This isn’t Japan-based Capcom’s baby so much as Cambridge-based Ninja Theory’s, the developer (Heavenly Sword, Enslaved) Capcom brought in to rearrange the furniture. Not an emo do: The only chalky mop-top you’ll spy in DmC is the one time Ninja Theory tells a decent joke. And not much of a challenge — at least not the first time through.

But this is a big box, and there’s plenty to appreciate if you’ve patience enough. DmC‘s equable hero — not as waggish this time around — has an even crazier death-dealing arsenal and dossier of moves, bounding off surfaces like Miyamoto Musashi on a trampoline. Sanguine, leathered-to-kill and over-fond of flipping off the F-word, Dante slices, punches and soars through mighty-morphin’ levels that look like Tim Burton’s rendition of the Divine Comedy starring Insane Clown Posse.

The rejiggered “demons killed my mom” revenge-story (which, pro-tip, you’ll want to start on “Nephilim” difficulty because the other two feel like showroom tours) lasts all of a lazy afternoon, and then you get to start messing with the stuff worth messing with. To borrow a line from my Diablo III review: If all you play of DmC is its no-cutting-in-line Nephilim mode, you haven’t played the better game developer Ninja Theory wants you to.

Let’s talk about that better game. Ninja Theory took a gonzo brawler where how you fight mattered as much as finishing the fight, kept that stuff, sobered up the story, threw in some platforming and added a clever new mechanic where Dante wields diametrically opposed abilities by holding down either the left or right shoulder triggers and tapping the face buttons. Those abilities register angelic or demonic and dovetail with a major story rewrite that sees Dante and his brother Vergil as the hybrid children of a demon and angel (instead of demon and human, as in the original games), pursuing the big bad (Mundus) through a dystopian modern city and its perverse, phantasmagoric reflection, Limbo. In Limbo, the floors might suddenly bend up and over like that scene in Inception, or chunks of ground suddenly break off and whirl away like planetoids.

Capcom’s trying to sell the game in part based on Limbo’s malleability. The city’s essentially a living entity here, out to kill you. But that sounds cooler than what it actually is: a chance for Ninja Theory to show off some admittedly awe-inspiring, world-warping tech. This is the platforming part of DmC, except it’s just not that interesting as platformers go. You can jump, long jump or grapple through levels that menace and posture, but with the exception of a few “whoops, there goes the floor” Temple Run moments, they never pose an actual threat. The challenge improves when you replay these levels later, working to unearth keys, secret doors and lost souls to pad your leaderboard scores, but the levels are small enough and the puzzles so elementary that you’ll run out of rope, interest-wise, quickly.

Thank goodness Ninja Theory got the fighting right (after you ramp up the difficulty, anyway). DmC hews to classic beat-em-up tropes — you fight incrementally challenging enemies and mix-em-up mobs area by area — and still doles out a grade rating for combos where you’re trying to chain nonconsecutive moves. But your new hybrid abilities, which include an axe, gauntlets, scythe and pair of Krull-style glaives, double as tactical keys: Defeating angelic or demonic enemies requires you tap the corresponding weapon, for instance, while countering demonic or angelic moves and navigating color-coded platforms is a matter of timing trigger-pulls carefully.

Things finally get interesting when DmC starts throwing a little of everything at you simultaneously. Style grades were the original games’ way of punishing button-mashing, and that’s still the case here, but adding enemies and environmental challenges keyed to specific powers ups the ante without overcomplicating things. Upgrading abilities you can re-spec at special waypoints unlocks alternative tap patterns to power up a move or pull off special variations, but you don’t need most of these to win (think of them as style-related flourishes, plus they’re incredibly cool to watch). And after you’ve played through DmC once or twice to unlock stronger enemies and remixed enemy waves — call it a mainstreaming levy on core-players and series loyalists — the challenge compounds in a way that starts to feel like the Devil May Cry you used to know, only better.

But whoever they tapped to write the story, well, I want to be nice here, so I’ll just say they’ve replaced the zany what-the-heck’s-going-on feel of the original games with a bunch of dreadfully somber this-is-exactly-what’s-going-on exposition. And don’t get me started on the one-liners: If you love the sort of thing Arnold’s always saying in movies like Predator, The Running Man and Commando, you’re going to adore what they’ve done here.

But as they say, come for the origin story reboot, stay for house rules like “Enemies die in one hit, but so does Dante!” That, and you have to hand it to Ninja Theory’s art team — the game looks incredible. There’s always something worth eyeballing. If you have to wade through eight or nine hours of narrative filler and too-easy fights to get the game to fight back, at least there’s that.

Version reviewed: PS3

Score: 4 out of 5