Hey, welcome back. How’s it going? Boy, do I hate DmC: Devil May Cry.
Welp, that’s a good way to start off -- with everyone’s jimmies sufficiently rustled.
If you’re just joining me here, then let me offer up a quick summary (and offer up courtesy links to Part 1 and Part 2). I played through Devil May Cry 4: Special Edition not too long ago. And even though there’s new content, the core that it’s built around -- the stuff that made vanilla DMC4 what it was way back when -- is still incredibly solid. I’m not going to say that it’s a perfect, 10/10 game, but as far as I’m concerned? The flaws, while notable, have been a bit exaggerated.
The combat system may have a lot to digest (especially for those who want to be Dante specialists), but virtually every last aspect of it is top-notch -- catharsis at its finest. The story is simplistic, but is no less rewarding for it; if anything, I’d say that it’s not only a tale in line with the DMC canon, but chock full of appreciable niceties and elements. The Special Edition has beefed-up graphics, sure, but that’s a layer of polish added to areas that already have some interesting aesthetics and breadth. The music is exactly what you’d expect from a DMC game, but at once offers the blessed buttrock and unforgettable tunes. I know all of those points are subjective, but I won’t be convinced otherwise: DMC4 was a good game then, and it’s a good game now. I’d even say it’s a great game.
So why the hell did it get rebooted?
Good question. Supposedly, Capcom’s former golden boy Keiji Inafune made a push for a more westernized take on DMC, along with Bionic Commando and Lost Planet 3. The idea was that the company needed to do something different, or they’d end up getting the same results over and over again. Fair point, I suppose -- until you remember that DMC4 was the best-selling game in the franchise to date, and apparently their eleventh best-selling game ever. Soooooo basically, they didn’t want the same results, with said results being…success?
Before he bailed on the company, Inafune went on to say that what was then DMC5 would “incorporate certain western touch to make it more attractive to American and European players.” Basically, the plan was to compensate for the lack of high sales overseas, and as such appeal to a wider audience. We’re far enough into gaming history to know that anyone who uses the phrase “appeal to a wider audience” threatens to invite trouble as well as scorn; taken from a cynical standpoint, it’s come to mean “We want those Call of Duty numbers, and we’re willing to ruin what made our games likable in the first place to do it.”
The plan didn’t work out. Lost Planet 3 is a laughing stock, Resident Evil 6 was deemed a financial and critical failure, and DmC, despite aims to sell five million copies at the outset (which would be adjusted to two million, and ultimately 1.2 million) limped its way to a fifth of the original hopes. Yo, run that back, Capcom. Run that back.
I’ve said before that -- even if I do hate DmC with a white-hot passion -- Ninja Theory wasn’t wrong to make it (though being contracted by Capcom to make it forced the franchise upon them, but you get the idea). They could have taken the game and made it their own. If there are weaknesses in the franchise, then DmC was their chance to fix them. They could have added a good spin, an alternate interpretation, or simply given Capcom what they wanted: a game that would appeal to a wider, western audience.
The problem was, is, and always will be the execution -- of DmC or any product to follow. It’s true that the game itself isn’t the worst ever, and those who enjoy it have legitimate reasons to do so. But in light of the games before it, it’s impossible for me to think that DmC is a step up from pretty much anything. It’s got interesting art and visuals, sure, but the combat is slower and imprecise. It’s too easy to cheese your way through fights. Battering enemies into oblivion is made much too easy, to the point where there’s no satisfaction to be had. Style is pointless thanks to a broken system, and even then you aren’t guaranteed full fidelity with your move set thanks to color-coded enemies that stop your flow cold. There’s maybe one good, memorable boss fight in there, and even then he’s not spectacular.
The assumption with DmC was that it would have a good story, thanks to Ninja Theory’s efforts with Heavenly Sword and Enslaved. But what made those games good, if I had to guess, was the presence of Alex Garland on the staff -- because he’s practically a ghost in DmC, and it showed. Nearly the entire cast is unlikable. From moment to moment or as a whole, the plot makes no sense. The tone and dozens of lines throughout are embarrassing. There’s no self-awareness, no charm, no wit -- only a bunch of million-dollar masses of polygons ranting about “freedom” and “truth” while they try to prove how cool they are. I know a lot of people see the franchise’s stories as excuses for the action, but there’s not even that much action in DmC.
Remember, DMC3 had a cutscene where Dante dives off a massive tower and slaughters a bunch of bloody demons on the way down. DMC4 had a cutscene where Dante showed off his kung fu skills for no reason other than to show off. DmC had -- drumroll please -- a naked Dante spinning in slow motion as he puts his clothes on. That’s at once the best cutscene and the only time he ever does something stylish and crazy in-game; the rest of the time it’s generic non-action (if that) when he switches over to Limbo. So it’s bad enough that the writing isn’t up to par, but worse that they didn’t offer up substantial action to compensate.
I mean…Alex Garland is listed in the opening credits as a “story supervisor”, but a part of me thinks that they just had him run the spell check.
I want to give Ninja Theory the benefit of the doubt. I really do. They’ve got a clean slate now that they’re making an “indie AAA game” via Hellblade; maybe now that they’re not shackled to a big company or franchise, they can put effort and talent into a passion project. Maybe they can deliver on the empty promises of DmC with Senua and their purported exploration of mental illness. Or maybe the game will prove that they’re all a bunch of talentless hacks, and they’ll butcher the subject matter so thoroughly it’ll come off as an insult to those with a genuine plight. We’ll see.
I suppose the question is “Why?” Why did DmC turn out the way it did? Why was Capcom so afraid of the streak they had? Why was DMC4 considered to be so bad? Why did they have to reboot a franchise that was doing pretty well and had plenty of threads to pursue? Why did they not bother to work on the game’s flaws and do better next time instead of taking such a big gamble on a game that would not only be on the cusp of a new console generation, but also do so poorly that it would help hamper Capcom from a dedicated eighth-gen leap? Why would anyone think that a guy who once wielded a devilish electric guitar made from the remains of a sultry vampire is somehow less cool than a guy whose most interesting weapon is a couple of chakrams harvested from a crusty news anchor?
I don’t know. But I do have a theory: nobody knows what it means to be cool.
I don’t know what it means to be cool. Capcom doesn’t. Ninja Theory doesn’t. Even the guys behind the very first Devil May Cry game don’t know. Nobody does. Know why? Because coolness isn’t a concept that can easily be defined or quantified. It’s a subjective measure based on standards and trends that change by the day, if not the hour. Chasing after it is a fool’s errand, because no set of elements exist that will always make people go “cool”.
Okay, sure. People will find something that makes them say “all right, that’s cool” -- but that’s a retroactive, end result sort of thing. Putting in X and Y isn’t guaranteed to bring about a positive response; it’s about people glomming onto something that appeals to them in its entirety, and after deliberation -- however subconscious that may be. The very best thing a creator can do is create the characters, and world, and stories that have unique flair. That spark, that ingenuity, that je ne sais quoi. If someone buys into it, then they’ll say “that’s cool” and give their praise. But not everyone will. Not everyone will sync up with the creator’s good intentions -- and that’s where the problems start.
For a lot of people, I’d guess that DMC4 just didn’t work -- and I might know why. The grand takeaway from the franchise -- from any installment, including DmC -- is that it’s going to be a vehicle for lots of action and lots of cool things happening. The player will be able to do some amazing moves almost from the first minute of gameplay on. DMC3’s opening cutscenes are there to provide just enough context and justification for Dante’s wild antics; they’re a signal of the fun and excitement the player is in for. Dante wants to party, and he invites the player to do the same.
Comparatively, DMC4 doesn’t have that. Sure, Dante’s in there with a cocky swagger, but remember the game’s opening: Nero’s in the middle of some action, but it’s all set to a peaceful hymn rather than ear-shredding riffs. And while the game proceeds to have a big dust-up between Nero and Dante, the context behind it is different. Dante’s (acting like) the villain. Someone died. People are running for their lives. Panic is in the air. The adventure this time isn’t all about fun and games; it’s about duty, and consequences, and more.
DMC4 asked people to care. And speaking broadly, people don’t play DMC games to care.
Even a dullard could tell that DMC4 is a story about love. But there’s more to it than that. It’s also a story about loyalty and respect -- of the struggle against the world itself. It’s a story about sincerity and drive, passion and duty, belief and sympathy. It’s a game about earning the right to exist in an ideal, if selfish world. And yes, that matters immensely because it feeds directly into the gameplay; Nero is a rookie in the franchise, an uncouth and untested rebel in-universe and out of it. Proving himself is done with more than progression through the story; it’s done with the player’s deft hand, using relentless attacks to carve through evil and show Nero’s strength and skill to the game -- to the world that judges him, whether it’s via the hooded believers of Fortuna, or the points that tally up at stage’s end. Nero’s struggle is the player’s struggle. Nero’s desires are the player’s desires.
Nero is designed inside and out to put up a sincere effort, and to earn respect. More than the player’s input, the one thing he requires is a sense of empathy -- and for one reason or another, that didn’t happen. And I’m not accusing the players across the world of not caring, because I’m sure there are fans everywhere who feel as strongly as I do (if not more so). I’m accusing the invisible force that dictates mindsets and decisions. By extension, I’m more than willing to point fingers at Capcom -- Inafune or otherwise -- for the arbitrary decision that Dante, Nero, and all the rest were done, and people couldn’t be arsed to care. And by extension of that, I’m willing to point fingers at Ninja Theory; they’re just as guilty in this situation.
There’s a part of me that’s convinced DmC is a negative knee-jerk reaction to everything that makes DMC4 what it is. Donte starts his game not giving a shit about anything, and even by game’s end I feel like the self-proclaimed “demon-killer” still doesn’t give a shit about anything, despite a pretty girl that hangs on his arm and a devastated planet he claims he’ll protect. He and the gang can rant all they want about freedom, and clash with all the blatant caricatures they can find, but all of it rings incredibly hollow to this day. Even if a “definitive edition” fixes the gameplay (and backpedals on all the design choices Ninja Theory once stood behind), it’s not enough to make the story any better.
A lot of people poke fun at DmC for doing nothing but “trying to be cool”, and in a lot of ways that’s a legitimate complaint. But I think it’s important to remember what Ninja Theory tried to make cool. It wasn’t just a bunch of swears, drugs, and strippers. Nor was it just a band of punks rebelling against THE MAN and THE ESTABLISHMENT. Those feed into it, sure, but it’s important to remember the air of the game -- that air being one of utter indifference, not just “the edge”. Nobody cares about anything besides stuff that’ll resolve the bare-bones plot, or satisfy the needs of half-written characters.
And I’m convinced that that was entirely the plan -- because for one reason or another, things like effort, sincerity, and empathy stopped being cool. Ninja Theory simply played to that.
Honestly? I think that’s complete bullshit. I was under the impression that fiction needs characters and plots that bring out empathy, either in its leads or in its audience. If characters have no stakes in what’s going on -- if there are no stakes or no concerns in their worlds at large -- then why should the audience care? Because destiny said so? Because some stranger blew in on the wind to pluck a genetically-lucky sod out of obscurity? Because somebody slighted a character, and sparked a blood-filled vendetta? No. That’s not enough. Caring about something is what can breathe life into anything, fiction or otherwise; it’s the result of that care and the actions that follow that may make for something special.
In my eyes, Nero isn’t cool because of his sword, his gun, or his Devil Bringer. He isn’t cool because of his superhuman prowess, or because of the way he looks. He’s cool because he’s a person who uses all of those attributes to do something that matters. His drive is his power, and it helps him resolve the plot one punch at a time. He may do it in a way that inspires awe, but what matters are the basics: the spark within is the origin of every single cool thing he does. EVERY SINGLE ONE. And as a result, my greatest concern isn’t that we’re going to get more guys like Donte instead of more guys like Nero; it’s that one day in the future, people are going to arbitrarily decide that something as essential as emotional investment is useless. Creators, fans, everyone up and down the ladder -- they’ll wake up one day and say “You know what I hate? Anything that tries to make me care. Because I don’t care. Just show me lots of action and cool stuff!”
That’s the bleakest future I can imagine. And I pray that it isn’t our present.
Look, I’ll be real here. I’m not trying to say that stuff like spectacle or fancy tech is useless; that’d put a lot of Platinum games on shaky ground. (And despite my words, I’m partial to a nice revolver.) What I am saying is that that cool stuff works, if not works best, when it’s built around an emotional core -- because that’s the origin of the coolness, if not cool in its own right. DMC4 understood that, and balanced its spectacle with an honest attempt to tell a heartfelt tale -- one that I feel was ultimately a success despite some rough patches. Meanwhile, DmC DIDN’T understand that; despite appearing years later, its smug callousness felt like a regression in every sense of the word.
The weird thing about both of the latter two DMC games is that, in a way, they’re both experiments. That’s not to say that DMC3 didn’t have heart or empathy -- Dante’s character arc in that game took him from a pizza-munching joker to a teary-eyed warrior -- but given that DMC4 and DmC are the latest to have HD remasters, it’s interesting to look at them back-to-back. (Interestingly, DMC4’s main theme is “Shall Never Surrender” while DmC has “Never Surrender”.) Both of them tried to be cool, each in divergent ways. One of them succeeded. One of them didn’t. You already know where I stand, so I’ll leave it to you -- and history at large -- to decide the victor.
So I’ll ask something different. Who’s better: Dante, or Nero? There may never be a clear-cut answer, but I can at least give one. And it’s all based on a screenshot I grabbed with my phone.
When I finished the main story of the Special Edition, I stared at that screen for a good while. I sat there and stared in silence as a piano rendition of “Shall Never Surrender” played in the background. And I lost it. I absolutely lost it. I teared up, my throat tightened, and I buried my face in my hand. On some level, it was probably because I’d been taken back to the past -- back to a world where it seemed like games could be anything, and do anything. Back to a time when I wasn’t disappointed again, and again, and again. But I knew I couldn’t go back. And that screen was a reminder of what we’ve lost. It might be something we never see again. How prophetic the ending was, to have Dante unable to tell Nero if they would ever reunite.
I know that other good games have come in the time since. Good games will continue to come out. But I don’t want to forget about what Dante, Nero, and all the rest stood for. Those characters and those games didn’t earn love because they showed off. They earned love because time and time again, they did what we all needed: they showed us what a game could be. In turn, I would love for them to get their chance to come back, and slay the hordes of evil in style. But if they can’t? I want people to remember what they stood for. It wasn’t just about style, and it wasn’t just about looking cool. Their demonic powers, enviable as they are, aren’t what give them power. It’s their humanity. It’s their heart that sets them apart from all the rest. They just happened to take us along for an amazing ride.
So, Dante. Dante, and Nero, and Vergil, and Lady, and Trish, and all the rest -- all the best. Will we ever meet again? I don’t know. I hope we do. But until then? I’ll be waiting right here.
I’ll always be waiting for you. Always.