The combat torn apart, the new world examined and Ninja Theory talks about that haircut…
Published on Nov 1, 2012
On the loading screen for DmC, there’s a human silhouette against the white background, with another demon-shaped silhouette in front of it.
The human figures springs into action, slashing at the demon shape with a scythe, smashing it away with a sword, pulling it back into close-quarters with a chain, kicking himself high off its chest and spinning around in the air, pistol fire raining down below. It’s instantly recognisable as Devil May Cry. The flamboyance, the elaborate combo and the seamless chaining of Dante’s trademark moves. It's classic Devil May Cry.
Then the loading is done and we're in game. The silhouette fades away and another instantly recognisable character emerges – Dante circa 2012. Curled lip. Scrawny frame. Downbeat style. And yes, that black hair.
Two very different images, two very different reactions. But two very different games? Not necessarily, as it turns out.
“What was very clear was they didn’t want to make Devil May Cry 5. They didn’t want to make something that looked like the previous four. They wanted a new entry point into the series with a different perspective, which is why they came to us.”
Tameem Antoinades, co-founder of DmC producers Ninja Theory, has started explaining how Ninja Theory designed Dante. Capcom wanted the studio to ‘imagine what Dante would look like if he was in a Hollywood movie’. Tameem talks of rock gigs visited in Osaka to see the difference between the flamboyance of Japanese fashion and about the differences between Eastern and Western characters.
“We weren’t really trying to design his costume,” he continues. “The starting point was never… well actually, at one point, when we first got offered the game, we started by just doing concept images of Dante. Trying to figure out how we’d do a Japanese Dante and it was very clear, early on, that Capcom didn’t want that. They said if we wanted to do a Japanese Devil May Cry, we would do a Japanese Devil May Cry but that’s not what we’re asking you to do. The concepts that we ended up doing looked pretty much like fan-art. There wasn’t anything authentic about it. But that’s what happens when you end up designing a costume rather than a character.”
Why Not Just Call It A Different Name?
Thus far, DmC’s life has been defined by the internet’s reaction to the Dante Ninja Theory ended up creating – a vitriolic, fierce backlash against the redesign of a character who had gone from white-haired flamboyance to dark-haired realism. Tameem doesn’t address the hair issue – the closest he comes is talking about the decision to drop the cigarette smoking from Dante’s persona, an initial attempt to capture the aura of James Dean – but the art team still finds it a sore subject.
“Some people say ‘oh it kind of looks cool but why not just call it a different name’ but it is a Devil May Cry experience, you know?” explained Stuart Adcock, Technical Art Director. “That’s always what we’re going for. So when some of the fans go ‘it looks alright but why call it Devil May Cry because it’s clearly not’, well if you play it, it’s a Devil May Cry experience.
We definitely weren’t counting on a reaction like that and going “here it comes!” but we were, to some extent, taken back and went ‘woah, shit, there’s a lot of people not liking this’. But for us, it never derailed us. We had a journey to tell with the character and if people could see the amount that had gone into it throughout the project… working with the actors, working with the story, getting every bit of his personality and his expressions across, they would think and understand that talking about the hair is such a black and white – literally – decision.”
“Especially when you consider that we do want to give the players these high-end experiences. One of them, of course, is when you start a character not how people know him to be, you have the opportunity to show an exaggerated version of that character in limbo [DmC’s alternate world]. If you start off like that in the beginning, where would you have gone with it? Would it have gone too far-fetched? It wouldn’t have fitted in the human world, We just needed a chance to tell that story.”
And that is that. Line drawn under the hair saga. After all, there’s an actual game to be played here too.
DmC: A Story Of Debt And Soft Drinks
Kyle Ryder wants to take over the world. So do most villains in most videogames, so there’s nothing special about DmC’s antagonist in that regard. But what is different about Kyle Ryder is he’s not trying to fulfil his lust for power through sheer force of numbers but rather, he wants to control the world through debt and a mind-numbing soft drink called Virility.
It’s an example of how Ninja Theory has updated the settings and characters to feel topical and relevant – there are shades of Anonymous in rebel group The Order, newsreader Bob Barbas is Bill O’Reilly with a comb-over and themes of consumer consumption, Big Brother and other modern day ills run deep throughout DmC.
“With the original Devil May Cry, it’s often seen as a very fantastic world with the hero and settings,” explains Hideaki Itsuno, Supervising Director on DmC. “Even though we tried to depict a more realistic world with the settings that were there, it was more of a fantasy which personally I think is fine and I enjoy.
But what we wanted to do this time is have this idea of making DmC more like a Hollywood movie and bring everything down to a more realistic, street-level, where you might be able to walk in the environments in the game. Or meet someone like Dante on the street. And Ninja Theory brought those elements – the fashion, the music, the design – to the game. That’s what we were looking for.”
There are two worlds at work in DmC. The normal world is where Dante is part of The Order, a cult led by his brother Virgil and medium Kat to take down Kyle Ryder. It’s where we learn about Dante’s past and his backstory, as DmC serves as an origin story.
“It was the best way to leverage the existing canon but not be hamstrung by it,” explains Alex Jones, producer at Capcom USA. “It would be very difficult for a Western company to tell the fifth instalment of a Japanese story. You don’t want to throw away all the equity that people have built up, so that was the way to go.”
But the majority of gameplay takes place in Limbo, the alternate world where demons dwell and even the environment is hostile towards Dante. Limbo is punctuated by messages being scorched onto the walls as he – DEBT! DIE! FUCK YOU DANTE! – while demon gates are now longer a glassy veil being thrown over doors until all the nearby enemies are defeated but the environment itself twisting to block his path.
It’s a gloriously abstract world that provides the perfect counterpoint to the sober reality of the ‘normal’ world that occupies most of DmC’s story and as a playground for Dante’s fighting, it’s perfect.
The Biggest Surprise: Combat
Yet the big surprise is how the combat feels like typical Devil May Cry. This was perhaps the biggest area of concern, given how Ninja Theory’s previous projects tended to excel in story and design but falter when it comes to combat – Heavenly Sword and Enslaved: Journey To The West were exercises in button-bashing endurance more than they were tactics or finesse.
DmC has been supervised by Itsuno – director of Devil May Cry 2, 3 and 4 – and it shows through in the combat. He tells us precisely what Capcom’s role was: “When it came to the combat, just playing Ninja Theory’s previous games and even the prototype that they sent us of the early DmC, we took a look at that and we were like wow, their approach to action is definitely very different to what we’re used to! So when it came to getting the combat to the DmC feel, there was a lot of advice given. Even small things, very detailed things.
“Not just controller responsiveness, the input time and how the character moved but things like the linking motions, when the character stops what do they do and when they change directions and the combo branching of the skill trees. Even in those very detailed areas – even down to frames – we gave a lot of advice. That helped them get the combat to what we feel is the DmC standard.”
The face buttons are slash, launch, fire pistols and jump. Veterans will immediately find themselves in familiar territory and begin linking Dante’s array of slashes, flips and leaps together. His trademark moves have made it into DmC – Stinger, Rainstorm, Drive – but there are two new flourishes that will help DmC’s combat stand out with its own identity.
Heaven Or Hell: Let's Rock
The first is the different forms, Angel and Demon. Dante is in human form by default, where he has access to his Rebellion sword, but he can switch to the Osiris scythe-wielding Angel form by holding L2 and the huge, crunching Arbiter sword in Demon form by holding R2. Switching between three forms replaces the styles of previous Devil May Cry games.
“If you just have two styles, for example, in any given situation you think ‘well it’s not this, it’s that’,” Itsuno tells us. “That’s pretty easy to do. But if you have three, then it takes a little more thought and it’s a little more difficult to master. We recognised the difficulty there and though that was a good place to stop. Throwing styles on top of that would make things kind of crazy.”
The second new flourish is the pushing and pulling of enemies, using the ‘whip’ like moves found in Angel and Demon form. This is important on a practical and stylish level – it’s practical to move around enemies and remove shields, stylish because it helps extend combos.
They’re also how DmC manages to work in platform sections without feeling too simplistic, as you have to push and pull platforms in place to navigate gaping voids linking the limbo world together. Describing as a puzzle would be overly generous but it does ensure you have a satisfying element of control and that it doesn’t feel too basic.
It takes a while to unearth the intricacies. You can parry attacks by slashing just as you’re about to get hit, though it lacks the finesse of Royal Guard. What works better is learning the Angel and Demon dodges, done by holding the relevant button and tapping dodge just as an attack is coming in.
The window to nail the move feels a little big – again, it lacks finesse – but the reward is more obvious than the parry. A successful Angel dodge grants you temporarily invulnerability while nailing a Demon dodge momentarily powers up your attacks.
One concern we have is that on default difficulty. It’s a little easy. We had one standard combo that was not only effective but also saw us climb up the style rankings without any real trouble (the style rankings are Dirty, Cruel, Brutal, Anarchic, Savage, SSadistic and SSSensational).
Sometimes you have to make adjustments for the type of enemy you’re facing – Frost Knights are only damaged by Angel attacks, Hell Knights are only damaged by Demon attacks. Sometimes you have to be nimble on your feet and evade depending on the situation. But even with those 'sometimes' situations, you can drift into autopilot on default difficulty. The ease of attaining high style rankings doesn’t challenge you to explore your moveset in the same way Devil May Cry 3 did.
There are different difficulty levels, that run from Devil Hunter (default) to Nephilim, Son Of Sparda, Dante Must Die, Heaven Or Hell and the brand new Hell And Hell. These should, at the very least, inject DmC with the difficulty boost it needs. Those looking to 100% DmC will also have to hunt out Lost Souls, Secret Doors (which contain secret missions) and the keys to open them. That's not an easy task.
It’s also worth noting DmC has Achievements/Trophies ranging from grinding endurance tests (slay 5,000 demons, collect 50,000 red orbs) to those that demand you explore every level (find all the keys, lost souls and hidden doors) to out-and-out skill challenges (complete all missions with SSS rank on Nephilim difficulty).
But one thing difficulty won’t be able to change is the layout of the levels themselves, which are fairly straightforward in design. There’s nothing like the twisting labyrinth of Devil May Cry 3’s castle, as backtracking is sacrificed for forwards momentum.
Whether that turns out to be a good thing or not depends on how Devil May Cry fans receive the change but the straightforward and often funnelneck design definitely adds to the feeling that it’s a little too easy to blow through the game. It's a concern for default difficulty but regardless, it's a concern.
There's no question DmC is shaping up to be a good game. It has the striking art style that Ninja Theory has built a reputation for, where it takes the familiar and finds new angles to twist it up into something new. It has the action pedigree of Capcom Japan backing it up, Itsuno bringing his experience and know-how so everything feels like a Devil May Cry game should.
The only question now is whether it will go on to become an excellent game and whether Devil May Cry fans and accept the new vision for Dante and his world.