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August 24, 2015

DmC: Devil May Cry (feat. Kamen Rider Kiva)


Even though I haven’t played the previous game, there was something about Rise of the Tomb Raider that caught my interest.  The announcement trailer showed off a Lara Croft in therapy -- which makes sense, given what she went through.  I’m pretty sure she got gored by a spike within Tomb Raider’s first hour, and the assault only ramps up from there; I don’t want to meet the person who can shrug that off. 

Granted the 2013 game makes me imagine a Lara that would never ever want to go exploring again, but for what it’s worth?  Having her deal with the issues and consequences of the first game (and tend to some of the common complaints thrown its way) is an interesting idea.  It’s got potential to add depth to a character in an unconventional way.

So of course, the devs immediately decided to backpedal on that.  What a perfect idea.



You are not ready for ToQger.  You just aren't.

To be fair, they’re saying that Lara isn’t suffering from something like PTSD (in name, at least).  They recognize that she went through trauma, so my guess is that she’ll deal with it in the full game.  That in mind, it feels like they’re preemptively missing an opportunity.  Maybe it’s poor word choice or misinterpretation, but based on the wording in that post, it’s like they’re afraid to give Lara a problem that can’t be solved with a few magazine rounds. 

I’ve said as much before -- in bold print, no less -- but I’ll say it again: A CHARACTER SHOWING WEAKNESS IS NOT A FAILURE STATE.  If anything, it’s the opposite; done well, a character with clear issues and weaknesses is stronger for it.  Their struggles give them depth.  They reveal more to us.  They can make a character feel more human -- more real, even.   If video games are going to keep pining for overarching narratives and cinematic heft, then they’ll need to figure out how to inject that quality.  And a character with weaknesses is one pretty solid way to do it.

And that brings me to the subject of the day: a game that’s been a sore point since its first reveal a thousand moons ago…and some other thing nobody knows about.  Oh, and SPOILERS IMMINENT.


I’ve made it no secret that I don’t care for DmC, to the point where I cringe at the thought of giving it the privilege of its full title.  But this isn’t purely going to be “Donte, BOO!  Kamen Rider, YAY!” sort of rant.  It’ll have shades of that, sure (because I’m a nerd with biases the size of narwals), but here’s the thing: taken as-is, I consider Kamen Rider Kiva to be one of the weakest installments in the franchise that I’ve seen yet.  I can’t bring myself to say it’s bad, but it’s got some glaring weaknesses -- which I’ll touch on when I get to that section of the post.  For now?  I’ll do something I never thought I’d do: defend DmC.

So let me say this to start: Ninja Theory wasn’t wrong.

A reboot of Capcom’s fast-and-furious Devil May Cry franchise may not have been necessary, per se, but Ninja Theory wasn’t wrong just because they wanted to step away from the old games (which I’m going to avoid talking about as much as I can here).  They had a chance to spark a revolution with a shocking evolution.  They could make the game their own, and take players out of their comfort zone to enjoy something they never would have guessed could be enjoyed.  And if they had executed DmC well, it would have been -- for the most part -- fine.  It’d still put a gulf between fans, but hey.  It would’ve been something.  But they didn’t.


I know that a lot of people had the expected reaction (and I was one of them, for sure), but let’s think for a minute about what was in that original reveal.  A hero that’s been captured, beaten raw, and strung up by the authorities?  A fighter capable of inhuman feats of fancy, but clearly hampered by inner turmoil even after wreaking havoc on demons?  A guy who’s up against the wall and treated like some naughty dog, but still manages to show off quiet resolve with one look of his eye?  There’s potential in there.  I can’t say I’m too keen on him smoking -- or using a cigarette as an impromptu weapon -- but in the context of a new character, it could have worked.  It was his vice.  A coping mechanism.

Whether it’s in the distant past or up to the minute, games have been very, very, very good at putting power fantasies in the hands of the player.  Be a cool guy!  Be a strong guy!  Be a tough guy!  Be a guy that can do anything!  In days of old (and in some cases today), we didn’t need much else, especially if it could have interfered with the gameplay -- or the ability to get back into it, at least.  But it’s 2015 now, and I’d like to think gamers are ready for something hardier.  Call me optimistic, but I think we can handle a character with some genuine issues and weaknesses.  You know, every once in a while.


I guess what I’m getting at here is that I wanted a Dante who actually had to deal with shit.  I wanted someone who had something to react to, and things that would have made me recoil so much I’d practically fuse with whatever chair I sat in.  I wanted someone who had a bad reaction to things in the past, and continued to react throughout the story.  Would that have been so wrong?  Was Ninja Theory afraid that gamers wouldn’t be able to handle a character that wasn’t just maximum coolness all the time?  I ask this, because if they were afraid, then they ended up reinforcing the pointlessness of their reboot -- all because they tried to play it safe.

I don’t mind if people disagree with me, but I’ll disagree with them right back: I think Donte is an absolutely awful character.  It’s not simply because he’s an asshole (though that does figure into it).  It’s because by and large, there’s nothing to him but what everyone expected from the moment he was revealed -- a surly, narcissistic edgelord who thinks he’s a lot funnier than he actually is.  He’s got no charisma, his head might as well be empty, and I have my doubts that he cares about anything but a girl he just met, even more than the brother he never knew he had.  (I guess he should’ve worn hot pants and a low-cut shirt.)  He’s a character engineered to be cool that isn’t cool.  There is no greater hell.


I’ve said as much before, but I have to repeat it: Donte doesn’t really struggle against anything, internal or external.  In the latter’s case, the enemies aren’t enough of a challenge to make Donte reconsider himself, his abilities, or his chance of success.  They’re just enemies -- things to be cut down without a second thought, with barely a moment of rapport and banter between them (except for the cutscene).  What would have helped him immensely is a sort of rival character for him to fight. 

If the demons had an ace swordsman on their side that could push Donte’s skills to their limits, then it would have made for a more interesting game all around.  Those fights -- and the conversations, too -- could have added an element of conflict to force a character evolution.  Indeed, if only there was someone who shared his blood -- a blue blade-master who could take on the red-clad hero, with ideals and goals in direct opposition to the joker of a lead.  A preposterous notion, I know.


The only weakness Donte has -- if you could call it that -- is his romance with Kat.  It’s something, I suppose, but it’s not realized nearly as well as it could have been.  Kat is less of a character and more of an ink pen, scribbling in notes on the script to lead Donte to the end of his “arc”.  It rings hollow, or at the very least is utterly forgettable -- and it’s got some negative connotations (besides the whole “the woman only exists as motivation for the man” issue). 

Given how little Donte interacts with other people and the sheer lack of concern he shows for anyone but Kat, would he have cared about the world at all if he didn’t have her to drag him toward the next act of the plot?  My gut instinct says no, because he has no drive, no personal stakes, and no reason to improve himself or his lot in life (let alone the lots of others).  He doesn’t have any of those, because he doesn’t have any weaknesses; he’s a guy who’s only allowed to be strong and cool, but paradoxically ends up weaker.  There’s no better proof of one’s strength than seeing firsthand their struggles to gain strength, not just have them start at some arbitrary point full of drunken threesomes and quasi-immortality.


I know it sounds like I’m focusing on the story of DmC a lot -- because it’s kind of my thing -- but the more I think about it, the more I realize that there are gameplay opportunities missed because “lol, half-demon half-angel”.  The game took a lot of heat for its Style Rank, because you could go from D-rank to SSS in a matter of seconds just by spamming axe attacks -- which in turn made the Style Rank and the whole underlying concept of the game virtually pointless.  Now, I’m under the impression that the recent rerelease ironed out those issues, but the changelog implies that Ninja Theory had to backpedal virtually everything they once staunchly defended.  Faces were not saved.

The Style Rank isn’t even remotely essential to beat any character action game, or even win the average skirmish.  But this was Ninja Theory’s chance to make it an important piece of the puzzle -- to weave gameplay and story into one another for a powerful experience.  Pared down to basics, getting a SSS-rank is pretty much there for bragging rights, or a cheap thrill.  But imagine this: what if earning and keeping a high rank through skilled combat was essential?


So let’s say that in addition to the Style Rank, there was a Psyche Meter.  You start off at a neutral position, and depending on how well you do in fights -- if you consistently get/maintain SSS-ranks or scrape the floor with Ds -- that meter goes higher or lower.  If you’re doing well with Donte, then the meter rises, and Donte enters a peaceful state -- clear-minded and calm, if a little cocky.  If you’re constantly getting hammered, then even if you win a skirmish, Donte will be off-balance; he’ll be nervous, shaken, and quick to anger.  Or more specifically, he’ll let his paranoia and psychoses get the best of him -- so depending on the state of your Psyche Meter, you’ll go to different sections of the level and fight different enemies.

A Donte that does well has the luxury of a serene state of mind, and can mosey on through to the world as it should be -- and with it, a slew of tougher enemies.  A Donte with a bottomed-out Psyche Meter travels down a different and distorted path, where he’ll see (even more) absurd sights, most of his own hallucinogenic creation…but since his enemies are largely based on imagination, they’ll be less of a handful once you crack their attack patterns.  It’s a gameplay mechanic that makes levels more in-depth, incentivizes skillful play (albeit with a risk-reward system), and could even go so far as to add in multiple endings.  And it’d only mean triple the work and resources required for devs!  So yeah, not the most practical of mechanics, but what’s important is that possibilities are there. 

Now then.  Time to switch gears.  Or, alternatively, go batty.


For the uninitiated, here’s the gist of Kamen Rider Kiva.  There are these stained glass monsters called Fangires running around, and assuming human forms so they can lure innocents to their doom.  Luckily, the reclusive violinist Wataru Kurenai is on the people’s side; he transforms into the titular Kiva and punches the crap out of the Fangires…and also has a half-castle, half-dragon eat their souls for some reason.  Yeah.  Kamen Rider is weird.

But the trick to the show is that there are two stories running parallel: Wataru’s crime-fighting in the present (or 2008, at least) and the exploits of his late father/wannabe playboy Otoya in 1986.  Because of that, the show is as much about defeating the Fangires as revealing the origins of pretty much everything and everyone, including the ultimate plan and processes of the Fangires’ aristocracy.  Well, I say as much, but all of that might as well be in theory.  In practice?


The best way to describe Kiva is to call it “a beautiful goddamn mess”.  It’s ambitious, for sure, but a lot of its parts simply don’t come together as well as they could.  The plot more or less spins its wheels for a good 40% of the show’s run.  I never felt like I had a solid grasp on what the Fangires were or did.  Individual episodes have to balance the two timelines, and don’t always do a good job of it, which makes some of the fights token as all hell. 

It feels like the vampire hunter organization can’t get anything done, to the point where they may cause more problems than they solve.  It’s got one of the most asinine resolutions to a story arc I’ve ever seen, the byproduct of not one, but two faux action girls.  There are at least three love triangles throughout, one of which involves a werewolf.  You could call the whole show Power Rangers X Twilight, and you wouldn’t be far off.  


Pffffffffffffft.  Our hero, folks: going on dates and riding in teacups.

So why do I still like the show?

If nothing else, Kiva is ambitious.  It could have been nothing more than a bunch of fights strung together by an excuse of a plot, but instead (once it gets in motion) becomes something much more interesting.  Yes, it deals with love and love triangles.  Yes, it deals with beating up stained glass quasi-vampires -- which you’d be forgiven for associating with Bloodstained these days.  But the undercurrent of thought is what makes the show so unbelievably fascinating -- a true example of a dark story, coupled with some surprisingly complex themes.  And there’s no theme that rings louder than that of acceptance.

That theme is expressed -- as it should -- through its main character, Wataru.  But before I explain why or how, there’s something worth noting.  Like Riders before and after him, Kiva is a force of nature.  His go-to move is a barrage of punches that wouldn’t be out of place in Tekken.  He can kick monsters so hard that the ground explodes below him, and leaves his insignia in his wake.  He can power himself up by taking on the weapons and attributes of a werewolf, a merman, or a golem -- and at one point uses all three at once.  He’s a character I wouldn’t fault anyone for thinking was cool. 

But before that happens?  Anyone who watches the first episode -- and dozens of episodes after that -- gets to see what he’s like before he puts on the mask.  And it’s not exactly ideal.


I called him “reclusive” earlier, but that’s an understatement the size of Saturn.  In some of his earliest scenes, Wataru dresses like he’s patient zero in a snowstorm under the assumption that he’s allergic to the world -- and is only outside because he wants to harvest bugs to make the ultimate violin.  He’s so timid he could potentially go for entire episodes without saying a word (besides “henshin”), and more or less latches on to anyone who can boss him around, up to and including a girl who might still be in elementary school. 

He’s a dope who ends up helping out a stalker and can give some truly stupid answers to obvious questions.  Outside of his suit, he’s apparently a weakling that can barely handle a few push-ups.  Almost the entire first half of the show has him running to the bathtub to mope and lament about how much he sucks.  There’s a pretty strong argument to be had that he only fights Fangires because a violin tells him to.  Yeah.  Kamen Rider is weird.

I spent the entire series under the assumption that Wataru had his brain messed with every time he transformed.  Given that he A) gets bitten by a vampire artifact, B) gets stained glass patterns on his skin, and C) goes into a “chin down, eyes up” pose, I seriously thought that turning into Kiva brought out the Hyde in his social clod of a Jekyll.  Honestly, I still kind of think that, even with the show’s reveals and his character development.


It’s absolutely true -- if not expected -- that Wataru stops being such a mess and becomes a stronger person.  He’s more confident, friendlier, capable, and can actually hold a conversation with people.  At one point, he even manages to have an increasingly-deep relationship with a girl just as socially inept as him (which leads to him giggling and blushing profusely via CGI effects).  So on one hand, he learns to accept his weaknesses and his issues, strives to improve himself, and does so -- and he’s rewarded with what one can assume is a better quality of life.  Once he’s no longer confined to his empty mansion and toiling away with violin crafting, he manages to befriend models, rockers, bounty hunters, and even CEOs. 

And then the plot happens.

I’ve seen people argue against it, but I think that Kiva handles Wataru’s arc in an interesting way.  The key thrust of it is that even if Wataru works on his issues, it doesn’t mean he’ll be A-OK for the rest of his life.  There’s still a lot to be done, and his core personality and habits haven’t been erased.  The show recognizes this -- and in doing so, builds Wataru up so that his fall is that much more impactful.  It uses his inherent weaknesses to its advantage, on top of saddling him with even more weaknesses and issues for him to try and sort out.  In a way, you can think of him as having multiple arcs instead of just one.  Double the heartbreak, double the fun.


Here’s the thing about Wataru: in a reveal that should surprise absolutely no one, he’s actually half-human and half-Fangire (thanks to his dad’s emotional and eventually sexual affair with the vampire queen).  Beyond that, he staunchly refuses to reveal his identity as Kiva to others, mostly because Kiva is a hated and feared enemy of mankind.  His unwillingness to tell the truth to his friends -- for fear of them rejecting him, at the very least -- ends up causing more problems than it solves, up to and including the death of his girlfriend (who in her own right couldn’t trust Wataru with her secrets).  Then there’s this whole mess about his vampire blood threatening to turn him into a berserker, and a clash with his half-brother over the vampire throne, and on top of all that the old vampire king is threatening to break free.  You know, like on any average Tuesday.

The chain of events leads up to Wataru’s relapse -- and in a lot of ways, he ends up worse off than he started.  He practically spirals into a depression, and at one point gets so desperate to undo the plot that he resorts to time travel in his castle-dragon to erase himself from existence.  (Yeah, there’s time travel in this show.  Don’t ask.)  It doesn’t work out for him, given that Wataru ends up partially creating the circumstances to become Kiva in the first place -- and more importantly, ensures that papa Otoya ends up dying -- but the important thing is that he comes back with renewed strength to kick the crap out of the old vampire king…after becoming the new vampire king.  Oh, and he turns into a dragon by playing the violin.

Have I mentioned that Kamen Rider is weird?  Yeah.  Kamen Rider is weird.


The important thing is that across roughly fifty episodes, Wataru makes his journey from a total nobody to -- well, he’s still a total nobody by the show’s end, but he’s at least a happier guy.  And the audience got to see that struggle, because his issues and weaknesses were made intimate from minute one of his first appearance.  There might have been some goofy moments throughout, but Kiva understood that even if it owed its existence to the need to shill merchandise, it could still tell a thoughtful and impactful story.  Practically everyone in the cast has one thing or another to accept (and those that don’t occasionally face the penalty of death), which makes it that much easier for an audience to accept.  Because Rider Kicks aside, it felt perceptibly real.

I can’t say the same for Donte and DmC.  It’s true that his backstory implies some heavier stuff, but those struggles and the weaknesses born from them feel more distant than Neptune.  There’s only lip service paid to it in a couple of cutscenes, so it’s more reasonable to trust what’s on the surface.  And what’s on the surface is someone who’s utterly grating from start to finish.  He’s only allowed to be cool and only allowed to be strong, even though there was no ironclad call for it.  Even though the original reveal implied an entirely different -- and potentially better -- Donte.


Even now, I can’t help but think back to the ending of the game -- where after beating his brother Vorgil, he says “I don’t know who I am anymore.”  I could answer that for him (he’s an asshole), but what really drove me up a wall was that this conflict was as sudden as it was unearned.  Donte didn’t have any issues with his Nephilim blood, and took his acts of anarchic rebellion in stride. 

Nothing mattered to him except Kat, and even then it was an ingenuous relationship -- because she’s a non-character, remember -- that went through the motions of the worst Hollywood schlock.  Also, I’m not going to take any internal or external conflict he has seriously when he says as much while overlooking the wreckage of a city he helped ruin with a poorly thought out, poorly executed plan…which apparently doesn’t seem to concern him, even though he declared that he would protect humanity.

So the guy who spent his days in a drunken stupor in a trailer by an amusement park is going to act as the people’s champion, even though he showed the foresight and empathy of a lemming.  I DON’T BELIEVE YOU, DONTE.


I once asked if video games needed good stories, and I got plenty of responses to that.  Still, there’s a belief that I have in mind that I had back then: if a game is going to have a story -- especially one with a straight, dedicated narrative -- then it had better have a good story.  DmC doesn’t even come close to that, because its leading man is complete garbage.  He didn’t have to be garbage just because he was new and different, but the shoddy execution made him and his game into that.  They were so focused on making him cool that they forgot to make him a character.

So once again, I find myself baffled by how thoroughly Kamen Rider (even on its worst days) managed to whoop a modern-day, multimillion-dollar production’s ass.  I wouldn’t blame anyone for taking one look at Wataru and thinking he’s a weak, pathetic shell of a man -- but even well before his character development kicks in, he’s at least interesting and likable.  He has those weaknesses, but they contribute to his strengths as a character; they give him something to try and conquer, and even before that they give him something to make him different from his forebears, well before he puts on the suit.

In a perfect world, maybe all game devs would be required to watch a Kamen Rider season before they even start on their game.  At the very least, they’d be driven to add more Rider Kicks.


So, I hope that explains -- or over-explains -- my theory and opinions to all of you.  It should go without saying, but with this being the internet, I’ll say it to be sure: what’s written here is my opinion.  It’s not fact.  As always, I wish I could share the opinions of others who actually like stuff without obsessive hole-poking.  And honestly, I don’t think I would’ve minded (too much) if the new continuity replaced the old one…but in order for that to happen, the new stuff had to be as good as or better than the old.  Opinions may vary, but sales figures aren’t so easy to shrug off.

It’s a shame that such an illustrious franchise had to reach this point -- and a point where so much is left in the air.  Far be it from me to cling desperately to the past in the hopes of reliving the glory days, though.  I’m the sort to move on and look for something new and better.  I’ve argued that we should always keep looking forward.  We should ask for more, and expect more, and strive for more.  On the other hand?


Well.  Maybe it’s not so bad to honor the past…


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