The surprising grace of Ninja Theory's Devil May Cry
Nobody who likes Capcom's newest Devil May Cry expected to. The decline of Japanese dominance in the commercial game industry has seen beloved franchises farmed out to Western studios to mixed success, often producing at best faithful reproductions with a certain spiritual emptiness.
It's not that Devil May Cry is the sort of brand that requires hushed reverence. It's always been content with the weird collision of its hero's absurd bravado and acrobatics with what was at least initially a more serious environment of horror and mystery (you could see the seams where the first game was supposed to've been a new Resident Evil). It's a silly series that revels in excesses, punchlines and plots as jargon-littered and convoluted as they are instantly forgettable.
Yet the brand is over a decade old, now, and people are protective of it nonetheless. Might be it feels more like a rarity these days -- most of today's twenty and thirty-something gamers grew up in a world where game aesthetics were firmly in Japan's command. Lots of us spent our high school years romanticizing pastel hair-sculptures and fighting graceful abominations with vaguely Judeo-Christian veneers.
Over the past console generations we've seen those idiosyncratic universes yield more and more ground to grim-jawed heroes in dark corridors, as the Japanese RPG shrank to a niche and third-person games surrendered their popularity to first-person ones, in general. Something's definitely gone missing from our world since the Japanese market correction, something primal and tonal that's not easy to pin down.
DMC is one of those distinctly Japanese melee series that has managed to keep its footing mostly intact; it is always kind of dumb, but it's always kind of fun, too. Its shameless cousin Bayonetta managed to make a major impact in 2010, like some kind of hallucinogenic herald here to trumpet a possible revival. It became important to some people that the next DMC would grab the genre baton and fulfill the prophecy.
That's why it was so easy to be cynical at early news of the game when it fell into the hands of UK studio Ninja Theory; nobody wanted a "westernized" Devil May Cry; the idea of doing an origin story starring a "young Dante" sounded from a distance like any one of the artificial cliches so often applied to defibrillate a brand that's outlived its relevance. When we last saw Dante in DMC4, he was a weathered but graceful, effortlessly confident romantic hero (after a fashion) with a fall of sleek white hair. No one wanted to see him slinging buzzwords to trendy dubstep while sporting a cropped Good Charlotte coif.
Yet Ninja Theory's game is an excellent spiritual successor for the series, managing to execute that rare combo of loyalty to the source material with creative additions that show off the team's strengths. It wasn't a very easy mandate in this case: Really, Devil May Cry is a series with roots in what teen boys think is Totally Rad -- in a prior console generation.
The traditional flashiness feels kind of tacky or dated unless it's done with a compatible tone; Bayonetta managed it by going all-out camp surrealism, but since there was clearly a desire to add to the DMC universe's storyline and focus on its characters, the newest title had to be rooted in a relatable dystopia -- for players to identify with Young Dante, they also had to be able to identify with his world.
Helping with that is the fact that on a thematic level the universe of Ninja Theory's DmC is broad-strokes of "important stuff"; it includes an intended critique of capitalist consumer culture, and one demon boss is intended to be a stand-in for conservative television talking head Bill O'Reilly. Meanwhile, the plot itself is what it usually is: Dante's issues with the loss of his mother, his devil father, and tensions with his twin Vergil, which this prequel takes responsibility for rooting. Beyond that it's all something something demon gates and successions of grotesque opponents, as usual.
What works best about this DmC is that it's handled with the kind of sense of irony you might miss if you were, say, a teen who thinks all of Dante's antics are rad, but not if you are an adult who is no longer into taking this kind of stuff with the gravest sincerity. It's a delicate balance, and one more franchise updates could try -- developers taking their fans seriously, themselves a little less so.
The attention to detail is very considered -- note how young Dante is still fearless and deft, but the great big sword Rebellion seems just a little big for him, takes a body-length of force, slight but admirable imperfections in what we know will one day become effortless ease. DmC contains essential but skillfully-subtle tributes to the franchise's heritage, visually and otherwise. Some of them are spoilers, so best to see for yourself, if you're curious.
Of course, nailing the mechanics is obligatory, and the game has the right feel. It's also flat-out gorgeous, with a few high-impact style choices that are appropriately bold for a Devil May Cry game but are also unique to Ninja Theory. The environment's bright, haunting dynamic text is the best of these. The illusory, submerged feel of the game's Limbo, with its abstracted spaces that respond to Dante's nearness, is also effective, while the flickering ghosts of real-world people beyond its curtain recall Bayonetta.
The studio was absolutely the right partner, in that one can look at the look, feel and style of games like Heavenly Sword and Enslaved and see a relatively short leap to Devil May Cry. That has to be a crucial lesson to publishers and developers entrusted with longstanding brands on the value of traits like tone, aesthetics and style.
DmC is overall an interesting study in how to handle the nearly-impossible task of inheriting a Japanese franchise with a long tradition and a very vocal fanbase and developing a game that feels creative and confident, but faithful in its way, too.
The result is not a "Western-made Japanese game"; it's a Devil May Cry game, against some tricky odds.