Ninja Theory flirted with excellence with Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, but it was story not swordplay that won the developer plaudits with its re-imagining of Journey to the West. Tasked with rebooting a beloved and unequivocally Japanese hack and slash, few were the gamers that placed their faith in the Cambridge developer. Justified animosity?
The spunky videogame protagonist is hardly a revelation. Though not nearly as ubiquitous as the laconic soldier-man, we’ve enjoyed (and endured) countless of their ilk over the decades. Far be it from gamers to get in a huff over nothing though, because Ninja Theory’s re-envisioned Dante may be the best example yet. Irresistible in his irreverence, acerbic in speech, he’s a sassy, virile companion to Platinum’s Bayonetta and his magnetic wit mirrors DMC: Devil May Cry at large.
New Dante assumes the role of vertiable badass with gusto. He’s a purveyor of torment and suffering like nobody since Platinum’s arch heroine and has the imposing repoitoire of deathly-dance-moves and the expressive, freeform combat system to match. Combos here are mapped to the B and Y buttons, with the former for heavy pummels and the latter lighter, more nimble attacks. Simple hack-and-slash combos arise from varying the order in which you combine the two and you could probably survive the whole game (on the easier difficulties) without stretching far beyond these basics.
But this is a hack and slash shot through with flair, and it’d be criminal not to garland Dante’s swiping swirls and deadly pirouhettes with some of the more natty features of Ninja Theory’s reworked combat. The leash, for instance, affords you carte blanche to zip through the sky by latching onto airborne enemies – effective both as a defensive and offensive move. Access to Dante’s eight weapons – an eclectic mix of angelic weapons designed for herding and dishing out area damage, demon weapons better suited to inflicting devatating blows on single enemies, and guns handy for stitching together hefty, high-scoring combos – is also immediate, with a flick of the d-pad allowing for mid-combo exchanges.
Controls are so slick as to actually confer some sense of bringing the sword down yourself (an achievement aided by a camera that makes an action-movie crescendo out of every glorious evisceration). Expressive, entertaining and dynamic, in the simplest of terms, swordplay in Devil May Cry is a delight.
Which make it something of a scandal that enemy design isn’t always up to the task of matching it. At its most negative, the enemies stiffle the electric fluidity of Ninja Theory’s revised combat. Those that block with religious fervor kill dead the combo chase and interrupt the flow of battle to obnoxious effect, while others simply soak up too much damage, coaxing you into brushing aside the pizzazz of combat for slobbering-tosspot button bashing. A typical encounter might include a rabble of demons impervious to angelic weapons, a handful of airborne snipers and a stomping-great chainsaw brandishing leviathan, and there’s an undying sense they haven’t all been designed to work together to underscore the exquisite combat at the heart of this reboot.
Most of the game’s shortcomings herald from wanting enemy design then, and if not that then some pernicious pacing woes. The breathless drama of battle is sewn together with moments of quiet and calm but these often labor on ponderously without the slightest regard for narrative flow. Whole levels, particularly during the final act, strike as having been bungled in for reasons to do more with the clock than benefiting the game at large with arena fights and do-this-three-times-because-lol objectives prolonging the story’s end.
Dante’s story is decent, though. An origins tale relayed through snazzy cutscenes that play up the inherent stylishness of Ninja Theory’s world – which occupies the glorious middle ground somewhere between sci-fi and gothic – it concerns Dante, his disaffected secret brother and bastard, demon overlord Mundis. Certainly, Ninja Theory’s thinly-veiled commentary on the state of western civilisation and the tsar-like grip capitalism holds over us isn’t fresh, and it’s Dante’s quick-wit and crass humour that drives you on, but the story is told with some panache and some of the boss characters in particular are tickling in their impolicity.
Perhaps most surprising though, beneath all the virility and rampant ass-kicking lies a tender heart. Add to that a character whose presence is often enough to paper over the cracks and combat that echoes with the death-wails of Bayonetta, and you’ve got a thumping-good combo.