DmC(Devil May Cry) is a gamer’s game. It relishes its systems. The game allows a total of 9 difficulty settings(with one “hardcore” modifier), many of which require an incredible amount of technical skill to complete. Every level, every encounter, is graded. Your final score is announced in an ominous voice, like the judgement of a vengeful God. Yet, this is a game that wants to be for everyone. Levels on lower difficulties are tough to master, but simple to complete. The story is completely removed from the lore of previous titles and introduces its new world with grace and class. It wants to scale itself to allow anyone with the taste for play to play. It succeeds at being a fine game, but fails at being a truly accessible experience. To be accessible, it needs to have more than efficient and well-developed combat, it needs a soul and purpose to back it up. While its attempts at narrative are admirable, they remain just good enough. DmC stays a gamer’s game.
DmC, a reimagining of the classic game franchise Devil May Cry, tells the tale of Dante, a punk vagrant who lives with little purpose. However, as he discovers his divine, and devilish, heritage, he teams up with his brother, Virgil, and a mysterious girl, Kat, to destroy the demon king that killed his family.
You do this, of course, by killing thousands of demons. At first, you have a sword and duel pistols to do your dirty work. As the game progress, you are steadily given new demonic and angelic weapons. The basic point is to hit enemies, without being hit, and combine different moves from each weapon to build a high score and efficiently take out enemies. Although I died rarely, I was constantly overwhelmed by the depth of the systems on display. I racked up a smattering of C and D grades as I stumbled my way through ever stacking levels of complexity. Mastering DmC requires constant presence of mind, awareness of enemy positions and types, memorization of the various moves each weapon can perform, the strategic power to use them well, and the reflex-like skill to do all this quickly. Watching a pro-player is truly something to behold. However, DmC has its joys without having a great deal of skill. Defeating enemies requires some level of cleverness and awareness, but never requires perfection. Even if you aren’t efficient or skillful, the feel of the game is punchy and fluid. The game is generous with second chances. It truly achieves the balance of being accessible while having depth. Many other games accomplish this (i.e. Mario, Minecraft, Hearthstone, etc.), but it is nevertheless a tricky feat, worthy of praise. The narrative is where this appeal to accessibility falls flat.
While the game does not fight itself, it is still divided between game and story. In games like Hyper Light Drifter, Dark Souls, and even Wolfenstein: The New Order, the lines between *is* story and was *is not* story become indistinguishable. In DmC, there are barriers. Here is a cut scene. Here is gameplay. That is not to say that there is nothing redeeming in this game. The core narrative is focused on Dante’s, Virgil’s, and Kat’s relationship and thus it maintains human stakes throughout. The game’s strongest moments come when it is about these characters, who become surprisingly real and human. As an example, Dante is gruff and snarky, typical of video game protagonists. However, he is so because he grew up in a culture that called him a delusional for the things he knew. He chose to reject that world and its rules, but quietly longs for what everyone else seemed to have. Therefore, he lashes out and hides himself. In short, Dante is sympathetic. You understand why he is what he is and why he wants what he wants. The game is also well structured. The plot consists of action and consequence and thus has a satisfying momentum that is well served by the game’s structure. DmC is competent and aware in a way many games are not. Still, the divide comes back to haunt it. No matter how interesting the characters are in cutscenes, it is strange when the game itself says little to nothing about them or the problems or questions they face. For all the mechanical intricacy the game has, none of it means anything.
This fundamental narrative problem extends to all aspects of the game. It gives hints at deeper ideas about the nature of reality, the role of media and consumerism in modern society, and the conflict between freedom and control, but it never becomes more. Nothing personifies this like the game’s attempts at satire. There is a Monster-like energy drink that the demons use to placate the population. There is a Fox News like channel, complete with Bill O’ Riley alike, that the demons use for propaganda. These references amount to nothing more than “energy drinks and Fox News are bad.” There is no bite, no insight, just surface level jokes. The game hints similarly at other ideas, but never gives them weight. It is structurally tight, but ideologically scattered. Despite its competence, DmC never made me care.
The lone example of holistic storytelling in the game is Limbo, an alternate reality space where the supernatural parts of the universe dwell. The magical nature of Limbo allows the space to be filled with video game logic, but remain grounded in the game’s world. The visuals are a combination of Super Mario, They Live, and medieval religious art. Considering that the game’s plot involves the relationship between the truth and the reality we see, Limbo is an apt summary of the DmC‘s literal and ideological battlegrounds. This is an example of how a game world can be both functional as a gameplay space and as a narrative space. The rest of the game does not fare so well.
In many ways, this game is admirable. It dares to be political and story-based. It shows dedication and craft in its system building. It attempts to make its narrative propulsive and fluid. Despite all this, the game is just good enough for a video game. It is above average, but lacks cohesion between its separate parts. It reaches for an audience that it cannot emotional engage or sell itself to. In order to appeal to mass audience, games need more than intricate mechanics and a competent story, they need soul and life. Characters to fall in love with and ideas to explore. DmC comes close, which makes its ultimate failure all the more disappointing.