You've got to feel for DmC: Devil May Cry developer Ninja Theory. Tasked with the challenge of rebooting Capcom's classic combat series, the Cambridge-based developer has come under fire from franchise fans for its urban redressing of protagonist Dante. Armed with a top of the range faux hawk and a figure hugging sleeveless shirt, the image conscious Son of Sparda has been the focus of a particularly ferocious smear campaign from furious followers of the brand. But while the out of favour star may have lost the campy silver locks of his predecessor, he certainly hasn't shed his chops as a demon slayer.
Indeed, the overhauled hero's alternate origin story is less of a bold new step for gaming's most carefree character, and more of a modern refresh. The protagonist looks and feels contemporary in an effortless way, but maintains the blasé demeanour that defined his earlier outings. We rather like him, and we suspect you will too, once you look past the designer stubble and eyeliner.
At least the developer is brave enough to joke about it. An early cinematic sees the protagonist reflecting his appearance in the mirror as the soft part of a mop casually nestles on the top of his head. “Not in a million years," he jokes, before diving out of the way of an incoming demon attack. It's that brand of silliness that cuts through the reboot's otherwise dark plot, which comprises a tapestry of themes, including religion, family, and even corporate culture. Sadly, there's never enough substance to the story to properly tackle the topics, leaving them interesting ideas rather than true points of conversation.
Still, the plot is well presented, and builds upon the lessons that the British studio learned from its time spent working on Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. Characters are well animated in cut-scenes, with facial animation being a particular highlight. The game never really attempts to better the endeavours of Naughty Dog and Quantic Dream, but in matching them, it at least adds personality to the title's small cast of characters. The only disappointment is that outside of pre-rendered cinematics, the title suffers from the usual array of Unreal Engine issues such as texture pop-in, which frustratingly pull you out of the experience.
The story also sags in the middle before it sprints to an abrupt conclusion. Very loosely based upon the ideas of the original game, the narrative finds Dante recruited by a so-called terrorist group known as the Order. Headed by twin brother Vergil and his human sidekick Kat, the group embark on a mission to end the reign of Mundus, an ungodly seraph who ended the life of their mother and enslaved their father to eternal punishment.
As the offspring of both an angel and a demon – otherwise known as Nephalim – Dante is gradually introduced to contrasting powers which form the backbone of the combat system. Holding the L2 button allows the character to chain virtuous attacks, while the R2 button prompts more devilish manoeuvres. It's the implementation of these juxtaposed styles that represents the game's biggest innovation, as the attacks vary in efficiency depending on the enemy type. Blue foes, for example, are more susceptible to pure strikes, while red enemies succumb to fire and brimstone. Neutral antagonists provide a canvas for combat creativity, as you switch between different attack types – and, later, weapons – to initiate maximum damage.
It can feel like you're playing finger twister with the controller at times, but the title's pacing is slick and well considered. You start out with your trustee combination of Rebellion sword and Ebony and Ivory side-arms, but gradually unlock more to add to your artillery. The Arbiter blade and Osiris scythe augment the aspects of the aforementioned colour coded mechanics, but additional weapon types such as the Eryx fists and Aquila saw blades are later introduced to add interest. These can be exchanged in mid-combo via the directional buttons, along with a couple of unique handgun types that span a shotgun and explosive cannon.
Performing combos hinges on the requirement of timed button presses, with pauses between chains prompting new attack paths. You can, for example, land two strikes with the Rebellion sword, wait, and then initiate a devastating slam with the Eryx fists. This sends enemies soaring into the air, allowing you to juggle with the pistols, before launching into an aerial attack, and slamming opponents into the ground with a punishing final strike. All the while you'll be increasing your combo rank, with different moves enhancing your score multiplier. Successfully chaining attacks keeps your combo alive, while taking damage breaks your string and lowers your current grade. The whole system is designed to encourage variety and experimentation, which the game affords in spades.
Despite all of that, the title is not needlessly inaccessible. The depth is there if you want to uncover it – with the potential to create your own combos on offer – but you can get by with just a few simple attacks if you prefer. Naturally, your score will be impacted, but if you're playing for the flash rather than the underlying substance, then the developer has found a way to cater to both. The combat is arguably less technical than a game like Bayonetta, but there's enough on offer to thrill seasoned character action fans. A training mode – set in a white arena – gives you plenty of opportunity to practice your favourite combos, too.
As you progress through the campaign, you'll unlock tokens which can be spent on new manoeuvres. In some cases these merely increase the power of your current combos, while others add new attacks to your creative canvas. You can respec unlocks at any time, giving you plenty of opportunity to tune the combat to your tastes. Furthermore, rewards transcend multiple playthroughs, allowing you to tackle harder difficulties with more varied attacks.
And the game begs you to replay it. In addition to the standard trio of difficulty tiers, you'll also unlock the Son of Sparda setting upon finishing the story for the first time. This changes the location of foes, making the title a sterner challenge from the off. Additional modes include Dante Must Die, a setting derived from the most difficult enemy types, as well as Heaven or Hell and Hell and Hell. The latter two tiers in particular are designed with hardcore players in mind, with Dante unable to take any damage.
The campaign is relatively short when played in isolation – about ten hours – but it's from the aforementioned modes that you'll derive the majority of your playtime. Interestingly, returning to older levels with new abilities allows you to unlock more of the stage's secrets, uncovering new pathways and allowing you to collect keys which open up trial stages and bonus rooms.
You'll need to explore, too, as your completion factors into your overall score tally. At the end of each chapter, you'll be awarded a grade based on your style points, which is then multiplied by the time it took you to complete the level and the percentage of the secrets you found. Items and deaths subtract from your score, requiring you to play perfectly for the best totals. This information is then submitted to the leaderboards, which allow you to filter by friends, difficulty, level, and more. You can even peruse each player's score breakdown, if you're interested in that kind of thing.
Unfortunately, the arcade-esque structure is at odds with the delivery of the narrative. The plot's pacing is severely segmented by the score screens, which is arguably most notable during the mid-portion of the campaign, as you traverse an underwater penitentiary alongside a friendly clockwork demon known as Phineas.
The world itself becomes one of the game's biggest characters, as it's constantly changing and transforming while you explore it. Corridors extend, subliminal messages appear, and environments crumble. The developer uses this technique to excellent effect throughout, with no single area feeling bland or uninteresting. Unfortunately, this has an impact on the title's frame-rate in places, with the gameplay disappointingly locked to 30FPS, and the title unable to maintain that at all times. Still, it's a colourful and visually pleasing game, though it does suffer from the unnatural glossiness of the Unreal Engine in places.
The developer never really attempts to replicate the scale of a franchise like God of War, though boss fights do prompt spectacular set-pieces. Sadly, they are hindered by the pattern-based structure that has become a recurring theme in the character action genre, and amount to little more than slashing the highlighted part of the enemy as fiercely as possible. At least these sections look great, with visual and camera tricks a particular highlight in one of the face-offs.
There's plenty of ear-bursting audio to enjoy while you're in the process of whaling away on a particularly large foe, too. The title's soundtrack features the music of Combichrist and Noisia, and it's eclectic in its range of styles. Make no mistake, there's plenty of screaming and shouting – which, while not our personal preference, fits the context well – but it's also offset by a wealth of dance music, which backs one of the title's best levels, as you're forced to navigate a stylish club environment, packed with disco balls and graphic equalisers.
If the game has a particular weakness, it's that the platforming fails to really develop, and becomes a chore by the end of the game. As with the combat, you need to switch between your Heaven and Hell attributes to grapple onto objects, and create new pathways, but it all gets tirelessly predictable after a couple of hours, and the jump mechanics are far too rigid to make these segments enjoyable. You'll be longing for the next battle a lot of the time, and hopping through the stages out of necessity.
DmC: Devil May Cry is a successful reboot, and one that's worth experiencing regardless of whether you're a long-term fan of the franchise or not. The gameplay is more accessible than its peers, but that's no bad thing, and there's still plenty of depth and challenge on offer to delight hardcore players. Where the title disappoints is in its narrative, which, despite some excellent performance capture and voice acting, fails to ever really get started. Look past the undeveloped themes, though, and you'll find plenty to like here, even if it is a bottle of peroxide short of its predecessors.