Yeah, that’s right. I’ll say it again, just to make sure I’m getting my point across. In spite of everything I’m about to say, and in spite of all the discussion and dissent, DmC is not a game you should get angry about. Ignoring the fact that it’s just a game (and there are plenty of other things worth raging about in this big blue world of ours), it’s a game that’s already been released. It’s finished. The damage has been done, and lines have been drawn. Eventually, we’re all going to have to get over this thing and move onto something else; it’ll leave scars, no doubt, but even then it’s destined to become something remembered with groans and eye rolls instead of death threats and Metacritic bombings.
But even with that in mind -- even if the game is justifiably deserving of its hatred (because it’s a ramshackle mess, IMO) -- it’s still not something you can stay mad at for long. If at all. Why’s that? Well, I’ll explain in full before this post is done. But that’s a ways away.
We have a lot of things to discuss. A whole lot.
WARNING: Spoilers to follow. And because this is the internet, I’m required by law to awkwardly cram in a reference to “filling your dark soul with light” somewhere into this post. So let’s put it here and be done with it. Also, let’s keep the comparisons to the Devil May Cry games to a minimum. In fact, let’s just not mention them at all unless absolutely necessary.
…I miss Old Dante.
(Or: That Helm Splitter is Something Else)
You know, for a while I wasn’t sure how exactly I wanted to start this post. Should I just break out a list of points, praise, and grievances, like I did with Halo 4? Or just a straight rundown, like with Ratchet and Clank? It could go either way, even though I’m leaning toward the former (and the story stuff is going to take a post in itself, so look forward to that). But there are things that I want to say immediately, so…yeah, I’ll go ahead and say them immediately.
If you don’t have good characters in a story, you might as well not even write one. I’m sure there are ways around that little statement (a story with no characters that focuses on nature or something), but it’s an idea that stands strong in the world of fiction. Doubly so if your story DOES have characters, which it generally will. And of course, my claim is only strengthened in regards to main characters; if your leading man or woman isn’t even remotely close to par, in my eyes your story is an automatic failure. No exceptions.
Maybe that’s part of the reason why I judge DmC so harshly -- because all of its main characters are pretty awful. Dante, Kat, Vergil, Mundus, Lilith…if they have a name, then chances are they’ve managed to tick me off at some point. Whether a character is good or evil, naughty or nice, they have to have some element that makes them compelling. If a story doesn’t have that, the audience isn’t entertained. If the audience isn’t entertained, their minds tend to wander -- either off-topic, or to a point where they become resentful of the story…and because of that, more likely to nitpick. I’d argue this is part of what made The Avengers so engaging; even if there were plot holes and issues (and there most certainly were), audiences were willing to overlook it because of the sheer amount of fun to be had, most of which came from its colorful cast. In a way, you can think of good characters as a sort of distraction, larger-than-life collections of ideas that shine so brightly that you’re more likely to ignore the dimmer segments of the story. Of course, how bright the characters are depends on them not doing stupid things…but the general idea is there. It’s basic nature, something we all know without someone spelling it out.
With that in mind, let me ask a question: if DmC was a movie, would you want to watch it?
I sure as hell wouldn’t, for a LOT of reasons. But that’s the problem with this paradigm shift in the industry: if developers (Ninja Theory well among them) are trying to push games towards becoming more like movies, they need to be judged accordingly. If they want to expand the scope, we need to do them a favor by taking a deep, critical look at what they’ve offered. If they want to be taken seriously, they need to prove themselves to us. If DmC is supposed to be the game that takes the entire medium to the next level, then clearly the next generation of games is about to become as worthwhile as a mound of elephant shit.
The fundamental flaw to DmC (beyond its piddling cast) that proves that it’s all ambition and fluff without any understanding of how to fulfill that ambition is this: for all its posturing of an epic scale and a globe-spanning threat, the world of DmC is horrifically empty.
This is a story where we’re told that the people are brainwashed and enslaved by their addiction to the soft drink Virility -- a construct by the demons -- but we never actually see them acting brainwashed or enslaved. What does it mean to be under the demons’ control? What, exactly, makes them any different from what they would be like without Virility’s influence? As the players, the most we see are posters that paint Virility as something that poisons the mind and body, or is vaguely implied to dull the senses and reason. But why don’t we get to see the effects in full? The most we get is Dante slapping a can of the stuff out of a fat guy’s hand -- and even then, the scene is more focused on Dante than it is on the fat guy. Is he addicted to it? Will he have withdrawal symptoms immediately? Will he attack Dante? Beyond that, what are the bodily effects of Virility? It can’t possibly make EVERYONE fat, because there are occasional glimpses of average-proportioned people. Worse yet, Dante and the gang put an end to Virility’s production, meaning that the people should be coming out of their trance (so to speak). But we never see the positive effects of their actions. Or an effect at all. How will people act without their favorite soft drink readily available? How will the media respond? Will this be the wake-up call the people need to think “Wait a second, something’s fishy here…”?
This is the inherent requirement for a story like DmC’s. Dante’s character arc (as you’d expect) has him going from a misanthrope who’s only out for himself to someone who’d willingly stick his neck out for the human race. Likewise, this is just one of thousands of stories where the end goal is to “save the world.” But in order for that idea to be carried across effectively, the audience needs to be shown the effects of every action. If the people of DmC are blissfully unaware of demon activity, show that. If the people are having their lives turned upside down by Dante’s efforts, show that. If the presence of this terrorist group inspires fear, show that. If the media shapes people’s minds in ways that completely axe free speech, opinion, and even rational thought, show that. Give us framework. Give us payoff. Give us a reason to care about the world you’ve sunk millions of dollars into rendering. Don’t make your world a cardboard cutout.
But I guess it’s too late for that.
I’m going to get back onto this topic another day, because there are other examples that I’ll probably bring up before this discussion is done. But for now, let’s get in deep with what really matters: the gameplay.
1) Dante’s animations are kind of nice.
Let’s start off with some praise, because there IS some that I have to offer. I know a lot of people were worried about DmC’s frame rate being bootstrapped to 30fps instead of 60, and for plenty of folks that may be a game-breaker. But even so, I don’t think that automatically makes the game bad. Real effort went into the combat system (as you’d expect), and it shows; there’s a wildness to Dante’s attacks that I can’t help but admire. He doesn’t fight like someone who’s got a handle on melee combat; he fights more like a madman swinging around improbably-large weapons -- because that’s exactly what he is. He’s got wide swings, he stumbles, and he’s attacking with a real sense of momentum and weight. It’s not inherently “stylish-crazy”, but it does say a fair bit about his character, as any fighting style should. In fact, Dante’s movement feeds directly into…
2) The “impact factor” is handled fairly well.
I’m of the opinion that any game with a heavy focus on combat (which is to say more than half of every game ever created) needs to have some serious feedback and weight -- i.e. the impact factor. And remarkably, DmC is a pretty good example of how to pull it off. The benefit of Dante’s animations is that you get visual confirmation of weight and force, and with it anticipation; when he’s winding up for an attack, you sense it. Charge up for a heavier blow, and the camera will zoom in a bit; release said blow, and you’ll get a bit of visual distortion. But the audio does its job, too -- you’ll hear plenty of satisfying crunches and splashes, especially when using your demon weapons. And a number of bosses in this game -- befitting their size -- have some heavy-hitting attacks that you’ll definitely be feeling, whether they hit you or not. (Better hope they don’t, though; Dante’s still pretty fragile.)
3) Combos, combos, combos!
If you haven’t heard, the combat system in DmC relies on three “stances”: the neutral form, angel form, and demon form. Each form has access to only a handful of weapons at a time, but you can switch between stances by holding one of the triggers; hitting an attack button while in a form will let you use the corresponding weapon. Press Triangle without holding any buttons, and you’ll swing Dante’s sword, Rebellion. Hold L2 and press Triangle, and you can use the angel scythe, Osiris. Hold R2 and press Triangle, and you’ll take hold of the demon axe, Arbiter. Angel weapons are weak, but speedy and emphasize crowd control; demon weapons are slower, but do huge damage, and the neutral form is somewhere in the middle. Compounding all this is the use of grappling hooks that take the place of your guns when in a different form; the angelic grapple pulls you toward enemies, while the demon hook reels them toward you.
It sounds like a complicated system, but it’s really not. In fact, it’s pretty easy to make some fancy-looking combos before you’re even halfway through the game, no matter what your skill level. Here’s an example of an average fight: you start off in neutral stance, Rebellion at the ready. You rush an enemy with your Stinger attack, and keep hammering Triangle to use your Trillion Stabs. Before the final hit lands, you hit Circle to launch them into the air, and hold down Circle to follow them. Once you’re there, you hit ‘em with a series of Triangle attacks, launching them even higher. That’s when you start holding L2 to go into angel stance, and then press Square to pull yourself up to the enemy you just launched. Thanks to that, you can hit the demon with Osiris, continuing the assault to launch them even higher. Once that attack string is done, you go into demon stance, pull them back toward you, and pound them with Arbiter for some heavy damage.
It takes a little getting used to, but it’s a system that’s accessible and works well…to an extent. One of the biggest issues is that…
4) No lock-on feature severely hurts DmC.
As others have noted, there is absolutely no reason why an ability to target enemies was omitted. The player has not one, but two dodge buttons; why couldn’t L1 be the target button? Why is a feature that’s been in video games since 1998 (and even before that, I bet) completely missing?
When I started playing the game, my brother warned me that I’d be missing the ability to lock-on before the game was over. He was wrong; I was missing the ability to lock-on before the first level was done. Throughout the game, there are flying enemies that shoot bullets and/or bombs at you, and if you want to avoid being sniped in the throat (especially if you want to keep your style meter up), instinct commands you to kill them first. Except hitting them always takes several more steps than it should. Yeah, you’ve got your guns, but Dante’s as likely to target a grounded enemy as the flying enemy lining up its sights. It gets worse when said enemy comes with a shield, meaning your bullets will just bounce off; you have to demon-grapple the shield off, then either try firing at them or demon-grapple again to attack with your far-stronger melee weapons…and this is all while you’re regularly surrounded by other attacking demons.
Crowd control is something that’s pretty important in DmC, but the problem is that without the proper tools needed -- without the ability to target and take down high-priority threats with ease -- you’re going to end up wasting time trying to get oriented and regaining your advantage. But the lock-on issue is made even worse because…
5) You don’t have as much freedom as you’d expect.
In general, I think the combat system works. Part of the fun is figuring out what you can do with the tools given to you, just like a fighting game. It’s that ability to experiment -- to wonder “Does this work?” and then figure it out on the fly -- that makes DmC worthwhile. When you get a chance to let loose and go combo-crazy, the game can be genuinely fun.
So of course, the game devises ways to limit your tool set dramatically.
It’s one thing to make certain weapons more effective against certain enemies; it’s another to make certain weapons the only way to even touch some enemies. Try swinging the Rebellion against an enemy shrouded in a red aura, and it’ll bounce off harmlessly, leaving you open for attack. Try to use a demon weapon against an enemy shrouded in blue, and the same effect occurs. In theory, this isn’t exactly a problem, and it SHOULD make for some counter-strategies on the fly. In practice, however, it’s forcing you to use one weapon only -- and if you’ve spent most of the game devising awesome multi-weapon combos, there’s a pretty good chance you’re out of luck.
Being forced to use certain weapons only reinforces a certain opinion of my brother’s -- and my opinion as well, now that I’ve finished DmC: a lot of these weapons have severe weaknesses. I’d argue that the Rebellion is the best weapon in the game, not just because it has speed and power and a pretty damaging, multi-enemy-hitting combo, but by far the most available upgrades. If enemies don’t have an aura in place, chances are it’s your go-to weapon. Before release I assumed that I’d be making use of the angel weapons more than anything, but they’re incredibly flawed; sure, they’re quick and good at crowd control, but you’d better be ready to hammer Triangle A LOT before you do even basic damage.
The demon weapons have the opposite problem; they do huge damage, yes, but they’re extremely slow, and can be pretty impractical outside of combos or downed enemies (more so for the flaming gauntlets than the axe due to range issues, but the speed and move set are both meager at best). The later weapons may be cooler, but they sacrifice practicality; why use the zero-range, incredibly-basic gauntlets when the axe can do its job much better -- doubly so after putting all my upgrade points into the axe and now have to put even more points into the gauntlets to make them any better? It’s constricting, it’s annoying, and it’s making the game less choice-heavy than it already is vis a vis the plot. But all this feeds into the next point.
6) Combat can get really messy, and not in a good way.
(Wait, is there even a good way to have messy combat? Eh, whatever.)
You can’t target enemies with a button press; the most you have is a “soft lock-on” feature where you point the stick at an enemy and hope for a hit (though in my case, this led me launching a Stinger attack right into a trash can on the sidewalk). If a red enemy and a blue enemy are close enough, then attacking a blue enemy with the scythe will also hit the red enemy, cancelling out the attack. Leave some aura-shrouded enemies alone, and they’ll pester you with long-range attacks. There are heavy enemies that’ll shrug off most attacks, and fling your skull across the state if you try to combo them head-on. Shielded enemies make an appearance from the second level onward, requiring either a heavy offense with your demon weapons or lucky strikes to their backside.
The game is programmed so that enemies that are off-screen won’t hit you (which I’m thankful for, and is indeed a smart move on the developers’ part)…but enemies that are on-screen will gladly screw up your combo with a deadly rush or fired shot. And there are still plenty of flying enemies -- and stronger ones, as the game progresses -- that you have to contend with, especially if you want to avoid a hit and maintain a SSS ranking. Except you will get hit and will lose your ranking, because inexplicably most enemies can smack you while you’re in the middle of a combo if you’re not dozens of feet in the air. Even the dodge mechanic is a little suspect; as noted by my brother (the battle expert), a game like DmC needs an ability to cancel your combo on a dime with a dodge move…and lo and behold, there isn’t one.
So how is a player supposed to deal with any mixture of these enemy types? Well, I found one answer: flail about and hope for the best.
Spin Osiris around and launch enemies as needed. Don’t bother dodging; just jump around and get out of trouble (you can’t target anyway, so repositioning isn’t as much of a problem). Slam enemies to the ground by hitting Circle in midair, opening them up for combos. If you’re in a tight spot, use the Rebellion’s second combo to absolutely ruin most basic enemies’ day. While in midair, throw around Arbiter, or use its launcher that moves across the battlefield. Your inability to quickly (and therefore effectively) take down a number of enemies means that you have to get by not with skill and strategy, but wailing on whatever’s nearest to you and easiest to kill. Is that a problem inherent in all action games, not just DmC? Probably. It’s possible. But even so, there’s no denying that…
7) DmC really is too easy.
My brother’s always quick to yell at me for being able to find ways to exploit game mechanics; it didn’t even take me thirty minutes of playing PlayStation All-Stars to figure out virtually-inescapable kills with Sackboy. So in some ways, it’s not really a surprise that I found something that works when dealing with some of the more annoying moments of the game.
But now that I think about it, I’m starting to realize something: I shouldn’t be rewarded this much for so little.
Thanks to the way the air combos, gravity, and the grappling hooks work, abusing the system is as easy as it is effective. Outside of a certain few enemies that can go all C-C-C-C-COMBO BREAKER on you, once you’ve got a demon in the air, there’s nothing they can do to stop you as long as you don’t drop the combo. And you won’t drop the combo, because doing day-long combos is incredibly easy. Now, it’s arguable that creating easy, faux-infinite combos won’t exactly net you a SSS ranking (along with the game screaming SENSATIONAL at you), and I assume that just doing the same attacks over and over won’t get you over the hump either.
What WILL get you over the hump is the fact that in DmC, getting a SSS rank is as simple as doing high damage and not getting hit. That seems obvious enough, but the underlying mechanic is skewed; there have been times when all I needed to get the game’s highest honor is to use a basic attack string with the Arbiter, and watch as I jumped up several rankings in an instant. The same goes for an upgraded Stinger/Trillion Stab; my jaw almost dropped as my ranking leapt up three whole letters just because I was mashing Triangle. Incidentally, this means that if you’re using the angel weapons in your combo against a single enemy, you can smack them and smack them and smack them, but you’ll be lucky to gain even a single letter past C-rank.
I played on Nephilim difficulty (the hardest one unlocked from the start), and I can’t say there was ever a moment when I felt challenged. I died some, yeah, but never did I feel like it was because I couldn’t handle a certain enemy. Nor did any enemy feel like a threat -- just an annoyance. Their moves are slow and telegraphed, most of them -- i.e. the highly-vulnerable cannon fodder -- can easily be picked off, and even the ones with auras and such can be quickly dispatched once you disable the gimmick of the day.
I guess what I’m getting at here is that there’s a severe imbalance. This is a game that (in theory) is all about making the player look and feel badass. But I don’t feel badass when I’m playing this game. Certainly not when my weapons are bouncing off enemies. Certainly when I’m not allowed to use the combos I want. Certainly not when I’m getting smacked around while trying to do combos. Certainly not when my efforts at managing enemies could be done by slamming a palm against my controller. There are moments when the combat system clicks, and the player is allowed to go on the offensive freely -- make no mistake about that. But there are just too many moments where that joyous element of combat gets lost and buried under gimmicks and requirements that grind the flow to a halt. Doubly so if those gimmicks and requirements are used in place of actual challenge.
And on that note…
8) Boss battles? Nah, man.
All right. So, the boss battles. How are they? Well, they’re boss battles. They’re pretty much like the regular enemies -- slow with telegraphed attacks -- but even more so. Only this time, a fair number of them have obvious weak points to exploit. And instead of beating them with raw skill and ingenuity, you get to have cutscenes that can leave bosses in stunned states for you to exploit.
At least there’s only a few of them. And to be fair, there is one boss fight that isn’t just a matter of dodging wild haymakers and the occasional projectile. Unfortunately, it’s so piss-easy that I can…that you can…that an animal with paws can…can…
You know, I’m trying not to be too negative when it comes to this game and this post. I know that if I keep this up, I’m just going to end up going “I hate this game” at the end. I’m honestly trying to bring up some of the high points here, as you can probably tell. I’m trying to find some good in DmC, something that justifies the existence of this game. Do you think I like jumping on the Hatemobile, especially for a game that’s earned so much hate already? Do you think I like repeatedly having to face stupidity and disappointment in my favorite pastime, watching as time and time again the medium that I love so much continues to fail me? I’ll tear games apart, sure, but it’s a dirty service I’m undertaking for your part, readers. I’m doing this to protect and serve you, so that you’ll know what you’re getting into. What to do, and what not to do if you ever want to make games, or write a story, or whatever. I believe in the next generation of creators, more so with each passing day because I know they can do more than this generation with its constant, constant, constant failures.
I’m trying to find something to defend about DmC. But if it’s this hard to try and stick up for it, I’m starting to think that it’s not worth defending.
…Excuse me, I need to go smoke Buckingham Palace’s weight in cigarettes.
9) Here, have some platforming.
All right. Where were we? Oh, right, the gameplay. Uhhhhhhhhh…let’s see here. Oh! Yeah! Something positive for once!
If you haven’t heard, most of DmC’s action takes place in Limbo, a twisted, demonic dimension that runs parallel to the normal world. And you know what? Since its reveal, I’ve actually thought Limbo was a pretty cool idea. It’s a colorful, shifting world that threatens to harass and even kill Dante at virtually every turn. Certainly praiseworthy stuff, if a little on-the-nose with its messages.
And it would be more praiseworthy if it actually delivered on that promise. Outside of one or two sequences, Limbo isn’t as much a constant threat as it is a backdrop to the action and a way to show off the purchasing power of a few cool million. Yes, Limbo will shift around you, but never in any threatening way; it creates the illusion of tension by twisting around you or suddenly ripping to shreds, but navigating even the most “dangerous” areas just comes down to moving forward and jumping as needed. It’s a very artificial tension; the dynamism that one would have expected is completely missing, and like plenty of action games before it, they’re little more than connective tissue that binds one mini-arena to the next. It’s also worth noting that while I’m thankful there are more colors in Limbo besides brown and gray, sometimes the game veers too far in the opposite direction; the palette is too extreme, and can be a nightmare for anyone with a working pair of eyes. (There’s actually a phase of one boss fight where the colors are detrimental; everything is bathed in blue, making it harder to see incoming attacks.)
Navigating each stage doesn’t just come down to walking and jumping, though; once you get your grappling hooks, that becomes your key means of traversing Limbo, either by tugging debris out to make platforms or pulling yourself toward ledges (as examples). Again, this is a concept that works for the most part, but it has its flaws. For starters, you can only use one or the other -- angel hook or demon hook -- at certain positions. Not exactly a game-breaker, but the fixed position of grapple points leads to some missed opportunities; it would have been awesome and open up new paths for exploration if you could pull this rock or that bus over where you wanted (especially considering that there are a lot of collectables to grab). But the bigger problem is that there’s not much interaction to be had when grappling from one glowy point to another…which leads me to suspect that it’s less about platforming and more about showing off DEM GRAFFECS. Also, I have a sneaking suspicion the platforming is just there to pad the play time.
Wait a minute. Wasn’t I supposed to be positive on this point?
10) Follow me! Set me free! Trust me and…et cetera.
Who the hell thought it was a good idea to have sequences in an action game where you follow someone around? Similarly, why have a level where you follow around a teenage girl in a completely dull, nearly-colorless set of corridors and the most you can do at that point is pull on glowy bits? Similarly, why is there a level where all you do is jump around and pull glowy bits so you can move debris out of the way of a car, but because everything is going down in slooooooooooooooooow mooooooooooooooooooooootion there’s virtually no way for you to fail and you can stand around for a while or go searching for collectibles?
And now we get to the real meat and potatoes. I’ve put it off long enough; now, finally, it’s time to talk about…urrrrrrrrrrgh…the story.
…Next time. Hey, don't give me that look; what, are you willing to read through eight thousand more words? No? As I thought; so I'd say a little nap is in order, fair reader. Have at it, and check back in a couple of days. By then, we'll have some very interesting issues to talk about.