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DMC Impressions- Doofuses May Cry, But This Game Rocks

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One of the worst- and woefully dated- things about Capcom’s Devil May Cry series is Dante. Sorry to send those of you who still think that a guy with white hair in a red trenchcoat is “cool” crying into your Trigun cosplay jacket, but Dante is a bad character that really ought not appeal to anyone over the age of 16. It’s that charmingly clueless sense of whatever Japanese “cool” is that’s kept him afloat all of these years, and the fact that he’s starred in at least three great action games that all have their share of clunk and junk ranging from terrible writing to bad pacing to unbalanced design.

So after all of the fan rage over Dante’s makeover, we’re left with the new title in the franchise, DMC, and a host of things that Ninja Theory has done with this long-running brawler franchise. I’m just a couple of hours into the game, having just ushered what the game calls a Succubus to a rather gruesome death in the bowels of an energy drink factory, but I’m not hesitant to state that the new game is the most refined, slickest game in the series. It’s by far the best-written, it’s the best looking, and it is the most seamlessly fun.

I’m going to shoot down any kind of comment about Ninja Theory “dumbing down” DMC right off the bat. The Devil May Cry games are as a whole incredibly fucking dumb. But they’re dumb, rock n’ roll fun, and that’s a good thing. In DMC, when the Z-grade Fear Factory cover band they got to do the soundtrack kicks in and you’re juggling bad guys, spinning around in the air with guns blazing, and hearing the new, chic-er Dante proclaiming awful one-liners it’s just as much fun as the first, third, or fourth game could be. Sure, it’s easier- at least on normal. The combos are simpler and it’s kind of shocking to fight the first boss and never get hit one time. But I’ll be damned if I’m not enjoying it more.

I’ve been constantly surprised by the game, in particular that I actually like the story and not in an ironic “oh, those crazy Japanese writers” way. Hell more or less controls the world with energy drinks and subliminal messages, Dante and Vergil attempt to stop head demon Mundus. It’s really overblown, ridiculous trash- but it’s at least self-aware, smart trash that bites enough from John Carpenter’s They Live to make adolescent-friendly messages about, like, the government and stuff, man. All of the eye-rolling nonsense about angels and demons getting it on and spawning bad-ass swordslingers is present, but the sense is that it’s a game written by folks smart enough to realize that the original games could be both playfully mocked and reverently respected with a single stroke of the pen. Oh, I’m 100% sure the writers (one of whom is apparently screenwriter Alex Garland) were very aware of how terrible some of Dante’s comments are.

I’ve also been surprised by the platforming, which is actually not terrible at all. This time out, Dante’s abilities are split between angel and devil ones and each has a whip associated with it. Angel whip is a grapple, devil whip pulls things. There are some rather nifty jumping sequences that use both of these, and there are plenty of opportunities to explore or wonder if maybe there was an argent key up that way that you didn’t go. Fortunately, it’s a game built for replay so there’s always next time. Challenge rooms, multiple mode unlocks after completion, pursuing the higher rankings, and beating folks on the leaderboards gives this game far more legs than is usual for AAA action titles these days.

I’m also really pleased at how the game is developing in terms of gameplay. New weapons, abilities and concepts are unlocked almost constantly, and it seems- so far at least- that there’s always something new to do around the corner. This is a very accessible game, yet it is not at all a dopey button masher. I love that I can try-before-I-buy all of the upgradeable abilities for every weapon- you can get a feel for how Roulette or Stinger fits into your rhythm before dropping the ability points. Don’t like it? You can respec any time.

It all comes back around to the fighting, and man, is it good. At first, there was a bit of an adjustment period and I didn’t feel like the game was as smooth as the past games. But once I found my particular flow, I was hitting the S rankings and feeling like a total killing machine. It has been disappointing that the enemies are pretty dull and repetitive, but the big boss fights have been memorable if not quite up to the standards of some of the others in the series. That said, at least you don’t have to retry fights 50 times to get it right.

So yeah, DMC turned out really damn good. Probably the biggest surprise of all is that Ninja Theory actually made a really great game, particularly after the sub-mediocre Enslaved. I’m really happy that the team had enough respect for and understanding of the original Capcom designs to look at what worked best, what had grown long in the tooth, and what needed to be completely changed. I’m sure there are still old school Dante fans claiming that this game is some kind of sexual assault or that eeeeevil Capcom is at it again, but for those looking for a great, highly stylized and very modern action game this is your first stop in 2013.

Now, the ultimate question. Is it better than Bayonetta? The answer- absolutely not.

DmC: Devil May Cry in Review

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When you spend a lot of time covering games, either professionally or for a hobby, it becomes very easy to think that every fan of games falls into the same shrieking hell pits of frothing insanity brought about by this change or that ending. The reality is that most of the people who play games not only don’t know about the various “Insert game name here”-gate style brou-ha-has that pop up, seemingly every day, but they don’t care. They see games that they may like, buy them, play them and usually enjoy them. If they don’t, they move on to something else and live happy lives, unencumbered by the nautical miles of internet rage that accompany almost every release these days.

I mention this because, in playing DmC: Devil May Cry, Ninja Theory’s reboot of Capcom’s brawler, I had a brief shining glimpse of what it’s like to live in that rarefied air of Not Giving A Crap Mountain. As I have mentioned here before, I have no connection to the Devil May Cry series, so I don’t care what Dante looks like, or what clothes he wears. I played DmC because I heard it was good and lo and behold, it was.

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Don’t get me wrong, I can certainly understand a fan’s trepidation over a reboot of their favorite series. “Reboot” is such a generic term that it can mean anything, and the potential is there for all that you loved about the series to be swept away in the rebooting process. Granted, there’s “trepidation” and there’s “bat-shit insanity”, and if you find yourself petitioning the White House over a reboot, trust me, you are firmly in the latter category. Luckily Ninja Theory understand what makes a good brawler, namely a bevy of weapons, each with their own advantages and disadvantages, a slick and intuitive combat system that rewards those willing to put the time into learning it and an array of enemies that range from cannon fodder to “I just took away half of your health because you were stupid.” Make no mistake, Dante is still a brawler. Whether or not he’s your brawler any more, well, that’s between you and Dante.

I, personally, have never been into the idea that games have to be incredibly difficult just to make those able to finish them feel better about themselves as players. Well, that’s not entirely correct. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be difficult games and that you shouldn’t feel good about yourself for completing a difficult game, but if you can’t feel good about yourself for beating a game at a higher difficulty level simply because the game allows less skilled players to beat the same game on a lower difficulty level, well, that makes you kind of an ass. I played the demo of Devil May Cry 4 and couldn’t get past it, I played all of DmC, mostly on the easiest difficulty level, and had an absolute blast. In my mind, letting people like me play the whole game is a good thing, because it makes me excited for the next one. If my enjoyment somehow negates your enjoyment, I’m not sure how to help you. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to waste time figuring it out.

But enough about me, this should be all about Dante because in DmC, Dante is pretty damn cool. That’s his job, to be cool, so it’s good that he pulls it off. He goes through a not-at-all surprising transformation from lone wolf, demon hunting, shagging girls in a trailer bad boy to protector of humanity over the course of the game and despite it not being surprising, it totally works. Well, not totally. Ok, remember at the end of Thor when Thor is all like “The Earth is under my protection”, and you should be like “Wait, what?” but you’re too busy being all choked up because he just got his armor back and sweet, heavenly Jesus, Chris Hemsworth is gorgeous? Yeah, it’s kind of like that, only without Chris Hemsworth. I mean, Dante is very good looking and is all swagger and sex appeal but he’s no god.

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Dante starts off fighting demons because only he can see them, and they have a tendency to pull him into Limbo, the hell dimension that exists just under our dimension, complete with twisted geometry, flashing commands to kill Dante and demonic inhabitants. Soon he finds out that not only is he not alone in his ability to see demons everywhere, but he has a brother, Vergil, and that both of them are Nephilim, a product of the union between their angelic mother and demonic dad. Turns out their dad Sparda committed a big n0-no for lying down with an angel and Mundus, the current de-facto ruler of Earth, had their mom killed and their dad imprisoned. In a last ditch effort to save his boys, Sparda had the brothers split up and their memories wiped so that they woudn’t figure out their supernatural heritage.

Meanwhile, Mundus put on the face of a banker and through years of controlling debt, has managed to rise to power, a “ripped from the headlines” approach to villainy if ever there was one. Through the use of energy drinks and a Fox News-esque media presence, Mundus ensures that humanity is fat, happy and doesn’t ask any questions. While I was more than ok with the finance industry getting the demonic skewering, the whole energy drink/Fox News jabs were pretty lazy. If you’re going to paint the media as being complicit in the subjugation of the human race, there’s plenty of bullshit on both sides of the ideological fence to call people on. The game’s story felt like a lazy jab at the Right, allowing lefties like myself to feel good about themselves for never doing anything at all detrimental to the world, as if all of those iPhones we used to Tweet pictures of the last inauguration sprang fully formed from the earth. That being said, I loved the boss fight at the Raptor News Network, so I won’t complain too much.

The game follows the usual structure of a brawler, namely fights connected by corridors, but the gradual ramping up of new weapons and new enemies that require using your new weapons, means that things never get boring. The game is happy to point out when certain techniques would work best against certain enemies, provided you purchased the necessary upgrade, and usually gives you like, one guy, on which you can try your new technique before throwing a ten more at you. It’s as generous and gradual a learning curve as I’ve ever seen in an action game, and I appreciated it greatly. Similarly, at any point you can go and try out your new moves, should the timing prove tricky, and, in a move I wish every action RPG would replicate, any upgrade point applied to a weapon can be removed and applied to something else should you find that you either can’t pull off a move, or it’s not as good as you had hoped.

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Add to this the fact that the button presses needed to pull off moves are repeated across the various weapons, meaning that you only have to learn the timing once, even if you have to relearn the application of said moves, and you have a combat system that eases new players in gradually but has the flexibility and gosh darn coolness, to let you pull off combos and long streaks of controlled mayhem with surprising ease. I have no idea if it’s as easy on the hardest difficulty level to get style bonuses and SSS combos as it is on the lowest difficulty level, but honestly, I don’t care. Whipping between sword, pistol, scythe, grappling hook and giant, demonic fists through measured application of button presses and trigger pulls made me feel like a dude who had been fighting demons his whole life, which is exactly who I was playing as.

If you’re really into Teh Hardcore, there are plenty of other modes to take for a spin once you’ve finished the game’s story. Some have remixed enemies and higher difficulties, some have one hit kills for all parties involved, Dante included, and one has enemies at full strength and health but give Dante a health bar so small that he goes down with a punch. You can also replay the main story to find all of the lost souls and keys and then use those keys to unlock secret missions full of timed platforming and combat mayhem. I would think that there’s enough difficulty there to appease the most masochistic of brawler fans, but I play games on Easy, so what do I know?

I know that it sounds like I’m slamming people who don’t like DmC, but that’s not it. If you’re a huge Devil May Cry fan and the reboot just doesn’t do it for you, then I’m sorry you played a game that you didn’t enjoy. My point is that if you’re a fan of the series, don’t discount Dante’s new look and new story simply because it’s more inviting to newer, less skilled players. Don’t worry, Dante has more than enough swagger for everyone.

Dragon’s Dogma in Review

Had Dragon’s Dogma presented itself as a Japanese-style action game with light RPG trappings, I might be writing today about one of my favorite games of 2012. With a development team including alumni from some of the better Resident Evil and Devil May Cry titles, it’s a game with a great pedigree and huge ambition. Brilliant ideas abound like the Pawn concept, which essentially simulates playing a MMORPG asynchronously with vaguely intelligent party members that learn how to fight more effectively over time and speak incessantly in a faux archaic patois. If your main Pawn gets hired by another player, he or she comes back with items or knowledge about quests or how to deal with certain monsters. There’s an excellent item enhancement system that’s as streamlined and straightforward as any I’ve seen, there are well-designed dungeons rich with atmosphere, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more exciting video game moment than scaling a hydra wound around a watchtower to lop off its head.

But it’s not exactly a Japanese-style action game, although elements are present. Despite offering some singular, possibly innovative hack-and-slash RPG concepts Dragon’s Dogma makes the mistake of thinking that it can compete with Western RPGs like Skyrim. It’s a shame because this is a far better and more compelling title in terms of action and gameplay than Bethesda’s OCD morass of enervating sidequests and unfocused narrative. Yet here is a Japanese-developed game that trucks in the worst qualities of the open world genre. The story, such as it is, is almost completely an afterthought and the world-building offers little more than a bland pastiche of Western fantasy tropes. NPCs are little more than Westworld-like automatons, standing by patiently for you to interact with them in their lifeless world. Nowhere is this more apparent than when you stand on a rock outcropping overlooking a vast valley and you can see bandits literally standing around doing nothing.

The world of Gransys is empty and soulless to the point where it makes Kingdoms of Amalur’s setting look inspired. Vast areas of nothing, tediously coupled with no fast travel option in the early game, mean lots of walking and wishing that there was something- anything- to fight or do. The quest log tracks laughable you-gotta-be-kidding-me gigs like finding flowers, killing X number of rabbits, and escort missions.  The story missions have no more urgency or dramaturgy than menial, void-filling tasks issued by question mark-haloed quest dispensers, urging you to the next spot marked on the map- if you can find it before you tire of lumbering around the map looking for a route. As for the narrative line, after twenty hours of play I’ve got that a dragon ate my heart and that’s irritating the local royalty and that’s about it.  There’s probably something about a prophecy in there somewhere, and your character is called the Arisen- as if any of that matters when the game is at its worst when it’s pretending that it has a story to tell or game world to express.

Yet in its best moments, most of which have nothing to do with the paltry narrative or sandbox aspirations, the game celebrates its Eastern lineage. The patrimony of the Souls games is evident in its sometimes staggering difficulty and its willingness to punish the unprepared, hasty, or unskilled player. Fighting some of the larger Monster Hunter-like beasts in the game- Chimeras, Hydras, Gryphons, Cyclopses- is grueling, awe-inspiring, and you can climb on them to hit weak points a la Shadow of the Colossus. Fussy details abound like worrying about keeping your lantern dry, food in your inventory from spoiling, and a Giant from seeing the women in your party. The ladies drive him crazy.

And oh, that fighting. Eschewing the sludgy tank battles of the Bethesda titles, the ersatz Gears of War pop-and-shoot of Mass Effect, and the ever-present MMORPG cooldown ability trope, the combat system is brutal, complex, and completely successful. It’s not tactical or measure like in the Souls or Witcher games. It’s much closer to the Japanese brawler idiom and it’s a better game for it- there’s combos, juggling, charge attacks, and more. Swinging a sword, slinging a spell, or blasting a goblin with ten flaming arrows is completely satisfying and all actions are tied to stamina, weight, speed, strength, and other traits. Classes, abilities, and specializations are strict- the trend toward characters that can do whatever in the name of accessibility is here refuted.

The idea is that you’ll hire, fire, and rehire Pawns by either entering “The Rift” at Rift stones or by running across them wandering the game world to suit your current needs and to augment your character’s abilities. You might run an all-Fighter/Warrior party to handle conventional foes, or recruit a team of Striders and Rangers for some long-distance bow-work backed with up-close dagger-work. Of course, without a supply of curative herbs and potions you’ll want to bring mages to provide healing and combat support. The AI isn’t terrible and the abstract simulation of learning works, I just wish that they wouldn’t constantly remind you to cut off a Saurian’s tail first once they figure it out.

Too often, these chatterbox Pawns ruin the game’s moments of sensory grace with their unasked for advice or commentary. And there are wonderful moments where the game is immersive. Before you go hacking the tails off of those Saurians, you might stop for a minute to admire the vista, with the alligator-men sunning themselves on the rocks in a creek. Or a swarm of bats might explode up a shaft circumferenced by a massive spiral stairway, leading to a horrible Thing in the Pit-style creature. Castles are imposing, the flicker of a lantern feels warm, and the sound of the clash of arms is impactful. This is a very well made, good-looking game with an art style that is more Elmore and Hildebrandt than Blizzard and Games Workshop. Framerates aren’t always the best and the camera, of course, goes haywire when you clamber onto a gryphon, but technically this a very polished, mostly well-appointed game that a lot of care and attention went into.

But the problem with this sometimes brilliant, utterly hardcore, and relentlessly clumsy trainwreck of a game is much the same as we’ve seen with any number of Japanese-developed games where the creators stray from the unique qualities of their national design idioms. Attempting to emulate the successes of Western designers is a tragic mistake. When this game looks, feels, plays, and even sounds like a classic, AAA-class Japanese title I’m loving it. When it’s trying to be an Elder Scrolls game, befuddling me with labyrinthine menus, or constantly reminding me with pop-up messages that I can buy more quests or special weapons through DLC I’m hating it. I don’t recall another game in recent years where my opinion has swung so wildly, often within a single hour of playing it. I do like this game, and quite a lot sometimes. But not always. It’s the dilemma of Dragon’s Dogma, a game that too often turns away from its own strengths and character in pursuit of elusive and unlikely foreign success.

Barnes May Cry…Over Modern Gaming

The most surprising thing about playing through Devil May Cry via the new HD remaster collection isn’t that I wound up absolutely loving it, having somehow never played it since it was released eleven years ago. It’s that the game made me terribly sad. Not because the barely-there narrative of Dante, Trish, and the awesomely named Mundus, but because it reminded me of how video games used to be before the industry began strip-mining and over-monetizing itself under the banners of DLC, preorder bonuses, and online passes. The classic Capcom title also recalls a time when game makers were working with technology that wasn’t really anywhere near approaching cinematic technique with any seriousness or effectiveness. Instead of employing quicktime events and prattling z-grade scriptwriting to tell stories, the thrust of the game’s narrative is almost completely in its gameplay, setting, and atmosphere.

Devil May Cry is definitely an old fashioned game, and I mean that in the most affectionate way possible. The save system is obnoxious and you’ve got to buy these stupid yellow orbs that look like some kind of gummy candy to continue without redoing the entire mission over. Voice acting and dramaturgy is the pits, but those were the par-for-course Achilles heel of Japanese design in the early 2000s. The camera angle is fixed despite it being a 3D action game, and this undoubtedly would chafe modern gamers used to panning and tilting a clumsy camera around a character. Locked doors requiring weird keys and simple adventure puzzles abound.

That makes sense because the game was originally conceived as a Resident Evil entry, and it looks, feels, and even sounds like a pre-RE4 franchise effort except that instead of Panzer Jill or Abrams Chris the character is free-moving, limber, and has an unlimited supply of bullets. The game predates Itagaki’s Ninja Gaiden by a couple of years and Kamiya’s title lacks that sixth-gen masterpiece’s depth and variety. It’s a basic hack and slash game that exists somewhere halfway between Golden Axe and Bayonetta.

But all of the above doesn’t matter, because the game is a great example of how timeless, solid gameplay overrides technical limitations and dated or obsolete concepts. Control is great, the combat system is simple but laced with flourish, and exploring the castle is compelling. It’s not quite the great location that Arklay Mansion was in the first Resident Evil, but it has a similar sense of architecture and space. It’s expertly laid out, with every furnishing positioned with the precision of an expert propmaster. But boy, does Dante hates furniture- who knew that chairs contained so many red orbs. The set is left a shambles.

It’s a sub-ten hour game, but it’s the kind of thing that’s worth coming back to. Performance rankings are a powerful incentive to replay, as are secret areas and alternative paths within a relatively linear framework. The game is meant to be replayed at higher difficulty levels, and since the gameplay isn’t tied so specifically to narrative it doesn’t feel tedious to revisit completed missions. I love the structure- 23 fairly short missions, each with a specific goal. It’s almost casually bite-sized. You can either buckle down and burn through a string of missions or just do one in ten minutes or so. It’s almost a modern concept.

It surprised me that I was able to get into the game and without a sense of feeling like it must have been great for 2001. I feel like it’s great for 2012. I recently tried to play Ico and Shadow of the Colossus and although I appreciated both, I liked neither for exactly this reason- I felt like I had missed the point at which those games had the most impact.

But what I keep coming back to is how refreshing it was to play a game that was 100% complete without any DLC, marketing gimmicks, screechy “community” politics, controversy over endings, or other modern quibbles. It was also refreshing to play a game that was very clearly a video game and had no aspirations to multi-billion dollar sales and no ambition to compete with any other form of media. It also exists a million light years away from the pretentious indie attitude that video games can be revolutionized by rhapsodizing about how great the 8- and 16- bit generations were. Its bluster and attitude are now quaint, but Dante’s silly swagger and ridiculous anime look are still not redolent of the off-putting hyper-male, locker room machismo of many modern games. There’s a certain glam rock patina to the game that I just love.

It also reminds me of how much I really do like Japanese design and how much I miss that pervading sense of cross-cultural strangeness that games going back into the NES era often had. Goofy internal logic, nonsensical storylines, ludicrous incongruities. It made me miss the days when Japanese designers weren’t trying to emulate the West- and gamers wanted the quirk, strangeness, and charm more than they wanted AAA polish, blockbuster sheen, and Michael Bay wallop. At least Platinum Games still carries the torch. They remember.

Playing Devil May Cry for the first time circa 2012 was hardly a trip down memory lane for me. I had no nostalgia for it. I wasn’t frothing at the mouth that Dante’s hair isn’t white in the upcoming- and very awesome-looking DMC from Ninja Theory. I just wanted to play a good brawler with great gameplay regardless of its vintage. But by being reminded of how much has been lost in this console generation, I got more than I bargained for- depression!