New Coke lives on only as a joke. But, imagine if you will, a reality where that reworking of the ubiquitous soft drink was actually good. You won't have to think that hard about such a plane of existence. All you have to do is swap New Dante for New Coke and, bam, there you are in a world where everything can be different. Yes, the re-imagined Dante and the game he stars in—a revamp of Capcom's popular Devil May Cry action series—is excellent.
When the new take on Dante first appeared, fans of the older games grumbled loudly about how this take ruined everything. But, those players who grew up on a diet of stylish action against demonic hordes should be pleased by gameplay changes made by Ninja Theory. And though this is a crasser, more grounded version of the lead character, the tweaks to Dante's affect make him more well-rounded and sympathetic.
As far as the button-pressing goes, the pillars of the formula are still here. You wield firearms and bladed weapons in a rapid dance of carnage against hellish forces. The various attacks at your disposal lets you create unique combos that you get points for. Style is still paramount.
Devil May Cry has always been about panache. The original set of games—produced exclusively in Japan—focused on a particular strain of otaku cool. There was flair, yes, but more than a little cheese as well. Old-school Dante looked like a refugee from a 1980s hair-metal band and his wisecracking dialogue was as clunky as it was memorable.
Differences to Dante go deeper down than just his look. This new guy is still the son of a demon, who slowly discovers his heritage. But he's been created more in the snot-nosed rebel mode. He starts off as a sort of gutter punk, boozing, sexing and demon-killing on the margins of society. Then he falls in with The Order, a bunch of radical activists clearly modeled after anarcho-liberal movements like Occupy Wall Street, Wikileaks or Anonymous. The Order fights against the 1%, only in this narrative the elite are demons who have been secretly brainwashing and enslaving mankind to control the world. Dante, after joining up with the Order, gets pegged as a terrorist by a necromantic newscaster at a fake Fox News analogue.
One could make arguments that using extreme left political groups as a template for heroism in this game is either a stroke of genius or extreme trivialization. But, I found the fact that this subtext dovetails so well with the series' mythology to be appealingly clever. Secret oppression, crushing debt, paranoia that turns out to be justified… all are elements that will definitely ring true to the people playing this game in 2013.
Still, all of these grasps at edginess sometimes feel adolescent—with strippers, f**ktons of cussing, political activism a la Wikileaks—but it's always been play experience that's been paramount in DMC games. And the play in this new title is finely tuned and very rewarding.
Most of the handful of weapons that Dante will wield have either demonic or angelic heritages. This duality gets seeded all throughout the game, adding an element of signal-decoding to the fighting and locomotion in DmC. Certain grapple points only work with an angelic or demonic weapon and specific enemies will only take damage from heavenly or hellish attacks. For example, if a Hell Knight superheats the ground beneath you, equip a demon weapon to avoid taking damage.
Switching between angelic and demonic modifiers creates a great combat flow that extends into the traversal, making the whole affair feel incredibly unified. When you're in the groove, dozens of "lookit what I just did" moments seem to spill out of the game every 30 seconds. A burly launch attack blends into a devastating juggle followed by canny ranged attacks and a deft dodge to set up another cycle of whoop-ass. Pull yourself up to a flying enemy to escape chaos on the ground and blast your pistols at the fools who can't fly. You can mix it up in a variety of ways and they all feel good.
As you journey through the game's levels, you'll find and use keys to open up secret missions, which are usually combat or traversal challenges. Aside from giving you the chance to earn health upgrades, these secret areas—like their predecessors in the old-school DMC games—boil down the attractions of the franchise to their purest form. There's no emo/buttrock cheesiness here, no political commentary aspirations. It's just wave after wave of fast-twitch reflex symphony, with you trying to make the combat look as cool as demonically possible.
Dozens of upgradeable skills let you build a Dante that feels suited to your playstyle. Like to dodge and stay close for counter-attacks? Pick up Demon Evade for a attack boost after making bad guys miss. Like to dodge and create distance between you and the attackers? There's also Angel Evade, which gives you more space and a window of invulnerability. It's the same thing for other defensive moves, ranged attacks and melee slashes. The better you rank in the game's missions, the more upgrades you get. You wind up feeling like you control your own fortunes as a result.
In DmC, advertising deadens your mind. Soda is poison. Debt is the ultimate weapon. The parallel reality of Limbo makes for a neat if heavy-handed conceit regarding the disparity of social justice in the world. Fittingly, things that happen there affect events in the real world. Limbo's visual treatment—a broken, sometimes upside-down version of what we see everyday, filtered through a miasmic haze—is one of the best things about the game, letting Ninja Theory invoke realism without having to stay beholden to it.
One of DmC's core premises is that Limbo is only a shift of perceptions away. The main characters here were told that they were crazy when they divulged that they saw demons but it turns out they weren't. It's that kind of plot beat that exemplifies the counter-culture vibe that the game is going for. Dante says at one point, "I just knew in my heart I wasn't crazy." You also have to wonder if that moment is Ninja Theory commenting on how their own in-progress work was being received by a subset of fans. As corny or hamfisted as the game feels at times, it can still feel like there's real emotion throbbing beneath the surface, a sensation that was lacking in the previous iteration of DMC.
It'd be easy to reduce the game to They Live with liberal social commentary with its demonic robber baron villains. This game updates the elements of the Devil May formula—combat flow, maximizing a moveset in a personalized way and slashing around biblically influenced lore—to make it feel like it belongs in the present day. Is it more grounded and serious? Yeah. This new Dante looks like someone you'd walk past in the street. But the surprise is how much that switch works. Ninja Theory's still mining a vein of self-conscious character creation but the winking is far more knowing than it was in the previous DMC games. However, the play is so good that it makes you reconsider the entirety of the work being done. The new Devil May Cry isn't from the netherworld after all. Fact is, for action fans, it's a slice of heaven.