No one enters into a Devil May Cry game expecting a stellar story.
This left me unsure whether a narrative analysis of DmC: Devil May Cry would be worth doing — not as a criticism but because if delivering a strong narrative wasn’t a primary goal during development, storytelling techniques used would remain standard issue. Every game, after all, is a compromise of limited resources. The first three Devil May Cry games were less concerned with story and more with mood, environment, and of course combo-splicing, demon-dicing gameplay. That type of game is no more or less valid to make.
Yet by game’s end Ninja Theory’s narrative is worth looking at here. DmC a formidable successor to Heavenly Sword and Enslaved after all, even though its focus has not deviated from the series’ origins: style.
1) “INTRO SExQUENCE”
The earliest but loudest profession of this reboot’s emphasis on style is the opening cutscene, where the bulk of Dante’s formative years is glimpsed through a ‘tasteful’ montage of an anonymous, plural-partner romp-in-the-sack. Seeing into his trailer paints a picture of his carefree, rebellious lifestyle clearly and concisely. It’s a superb technique, showing a hero’s home, because it reveals so much so quickly, albeit in broad strokes.
Had this environment been explorable, story buffs could have sunk their teeth into some closer details. But DmC isn’t about a middle-aged man living a empty, purposeless life which needs exposition (ref. the film Sideways). It is instead about an inhuman juvenile bludgeoning demons and being forced to grow up along the way. Beers in the fridge, weights, colorful pills on the nightstand, dirty mags and Trojans under the bed — we don’t need to see these things. We already know they’re there. For his character, the intro does all it needs to.
2) “DANTE MK.II”
Ironically, what humanity New Dante loses in lineage with an angel mother instead of Original Dante’s human one, he gains back in his demeanor. A libido, black hair, a penchant for profanity — he’s every bit the young rebel devs intended him to be, donning traits nearly unthinkable for his preceding incarnation, but only on an outer level. Words like “emo/punk/douchebag” run rampant in criticisms of his re-envisioning, and though the terms are the modern equivalent of rebels without a cause, it really only applies to Dante at his arc’s outset.
Dante enters as a proverbial teenager who resists an Orwellian government only by hiding in its fringes; Dante exeunts as a young man who believes in and fights for humanity’s freedom. The start and finish are great points to explore.
Unfortunately, his character arc skips a few key steps along the way. The biggest of these is how Dante’s change in worldview hinges on exactly one human being: Kat. She proves effective in revealing Dante and Vergil’s divergence on humankind’s fate, but if Dante is to become the protector of humankind, a species as capable of kindness as of evil, he should have met more major or minor characters on both sides of the spectrum. One cannot grow compassion on a seedbed of vengeance.
3) “PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE”
Partly to that end, lost souls could have been a solid narrative solution if the gameplay had supported their context. When a tutorial explains them as essences of the departed trapped in Limbo, attacking them immediately feels wrong. This is because the predominant semiotic meaning of ‘attack’ in DmC is to destroy and kill, and text does little to reverse an understanding constantly reinforced through play.
At the least, the designs could have been more cocoon-like or prison-like, such that attacking them only results in breaking their prisons, not striking the soul directly. But it also wouldn’t hurt to go further. Having the red blob-figure materialize back into a human being who thanks Dante in a very brief cutscene (2-3 seconds max), before it then turns into an out-phased silhouette, would reinforce the act as one of mercy, reinforcing through play Dante’s budding heart.
4) “LIKABLE, RELATABLE, ADMIRABLE”
I’ve concluded that Ninja Theory knew exactly how much flak that fans of Original Dante would lob at them, and for this alone, they should be commended. It’s a bold move to reimagine a character who had no discernible flaws, no weaknesses, who seemed cool and mature, who had charm, strength, and a wicked sense of humor — a character who excelled in admirability — into one who was much more familiar, human, and — dare I say it — relatable.
Characters exist on a spectrum from which their appeal and their likability is derived. DmC is a perfect example of how moving an established character on that spectrum can lead to some backlash, as Dante became less of someone players admired, someone who resembles their idealized selves, and more of someone who players recognized in their real selves. Life may be about reconciling the two, but no one likes to see a hero taken down to ground level.
If fans are to be won over with the reboot series, Ninja Theory’s next challenge is to continue developing Dante into the badass he once was while maintaining his more human, relatable side. It wouldn’t be easy, for sure.
At the risk of sounding posh, profanity really should be number one on the list. It does absolutely nothing for the story. The HBO series Deadwood comes to mind as to how it can be handled to humorous effect, when Jane, an extreme offender, promises to pay a penny to a child every time she curses. I could see Dante in a similar situation, perhaps leading an anti-demon-insurgence team and learning to curb his swearing because it’s “unbecoming of a leader.” The elephant’s in the room already; there’s no harm in poking fun at it.
Praise seems to be universal for the level design in DmC, and it works superbly well with the metaworld premise. Elongating roads, reconfiguring buildings, surreal landscapes — everything strangely comes together. The rules come apart a little when closely examined, but again the game is more about style. The opening has such confidence that players don’t question how Dante puts on clothes if they’re in the real world and he’s in Limbo, or how the world reconciles the Ferris wheel’s damage with that of the black rocks jutting out from sea, or why Kat is vulnerable to Dante’s gun if he can’t touch her at the Order’s HQ.
As a villain, Mundus strikes few chords of fear. His character design is indistinguishable from a run-of-the-mill mob boss, and he spends most of the time delivering monologues to his mistress, to a screen, or to simply nobody. A human character who never leaves his ivory tower comes off fragile, not arrogant or powerful. The movie adaptation of V For Vendetta is a great exception; Sutler is seen berating Creedy from a ten-foot tall screen, while Creedy is an established threat. The power then transfers.
As such, sequestering Mundus isn’t necessarily a bad idea. But the execution could have been better. I may be one of the few players who rather enjoyed the giant block letters that issue commands to the demon hordes, but it’s never clarified from where these originate. These should have been Mundus, revealed through a boss battle with him where we have to stall (as per Vergil’s plan) as he throws waves of demons at us with this command. His presence, albeit indirect, would have pervaded Dante’s quest to slay him, which is absolutely appropriate.
8) “STANDOUT MOMENTS”
For all the shock and horror elements embedded into the game, one moment surprised me the most in that ‘punched-in-the-gut’ way: the capturing of Kat. The level does a fantastic job of building up a sense of helplessness, which again the strong premise of Limbo affords. We catch glimpses of all the armed forces storming the HQ and all we can do is try to find our one friend. Vergil’s apathy colors the tragedy even more, foreshadows the end, and makes that shot so gut-wrenching.
The primary reason? For once, the smug Dante can’t slash or laugh his way out. He has a moment of vulnerability through someone else. I only wish there were a few more of these to smack some sense into him.
Vergil’s turn, I thought, was a quite capable twist. Few seem to agree, though. In some ways, it’s not quite a twist because he’s demonstrated what he thinks of humankind through his low value of Kat’s life already. Making this aspect of his character clear had the price of telegraphing the end. But it sets up a sequel quite nicely. Dante is now a reckless protector, while Vergil leads a demon-insurgence.
It’s a shame that Vergil and Dante got along so well ascending Mundus’ tower, bantering as real brothers do, only to have it deteriorate so quickly — too quickly. Like Devil May Cry 3, Vergil stumbles into the same archetypal villain’s role. When he talks about protecting humans from themselves, there’s no substance to his words. Nothing we’ve seen supports his claims. It’s no wonder Dante doesn’t buy into it. This would have been alleviated with an expanded cast, a human character who proves just as twisted as his demon masters.
But there’s another reason:
10) “BUT ABOUTNESS SHALL JUDGE THEM ALL”
At its core, DmC seems to be about a nephilim casting aside his apathy for the enslaved human race. It’s a very specific, fictional story. But while I can’t find a universal truth within it, there was one way it could have been.
Dante, by all accounts, should have been an incredibly lonely person. No parents. No friends. On some level, he would have always guessed that he wasn’t human. He would have always felt a void inside. Try as he might to fill it with women and drink, it would not stay full. Meeting not only a fellow nephilim, but his own twin brother, should have been life-altering for him. Yet it was played down. Framing the story this way on a rudimentary, bare-bones level would have grounded the conflict with a stronger emotional core and a relatable circumstance.
In many ways, it’s the same dramatic question that structures the journeys of the disenfranchised youth on which Ninja Theory based his design: “will I ever find a place to belong?”