This seems like a straightforward proposition, but what is Devil May Cry? It's a third-person fighting game that more or less invented a genre, then with Devil May Cry 3 raised the bar once more and, with Devil May Cry 4, had its biggest-selling entry (2.9 million). In 2008 the series did not seem in bad shape - and then the next Devil May Cry was DmC, a reboot developed by the Cambridge studio Ninja Theory. This switch was much-maligned by series fans, persistently and often unfairly.
This is not a straight-up review of DmC: Definitive Edition, though Eurogamer's original review is here, it remains a very good game indeed, and we'll come back to the details later. But this release provides an opportunity to reflect on DmC with something we don't often have - hindsight.
It is curious that Capcom, first of all, one of the industry's greatest fighting game specialists outsourced a flagship fighting game to an overseas studio. Then there's Ninja Theory's role, an independent developer buckling to the market in some small way by working on wholly publisher-owned IP. And finally the fact this is a western reboot of an eastern game.
In the years between 2008's Devil May Cry 4 and 2013's release of DmC, something had changed at Capcom. One of the problems faced by big Japanese publishers and developers is maintaining a foothold in the western market. Companies that rose to prominence in the 8- and 16-bit eras, like Hudson Soft and Irem, are long gone. Capcom is still one of the most important third-party console developers around, and an increasingly PC-friendly one to boot.
There are several major factors behind DmC being outsourced. The first is that Capcom had experience in outsourcing franchises to western developers, but in the switch from the PS2 to the PS3 generation of hardware this became a strategy. Dead Rising was developed in-house, directed by Keiji Inafune, and established a foundation strong enough that the two subsequent sequels were made by Blue Castle (now acquired and re-named Capcom Vancouver). Pause for a moment on that final detail, the acquisition. One definition of success. An unmitigated failure, however, was outsourcing Lost Planet 3 to Spark Unlimited (Capcom has only itself to blame for this one).
So Capcom was looking to outsource all but the very biggest of its in-house brands, and through this strategy also make those brands more appealing to western audiences. One more detail, specifically with reference to how we end up at DmC, is the dissolution of Clover Studio in 2007. Though Capcom had enjoyed enormous success in the PlayStation/PlayStation 2 eras with Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, and several other titles, Clover was a dream team of the company's best young talent - Atsushi Inaba, Hideki Kamiya, Shinji Mikami - and output like Okami and God Hand certainly attests to that. Which means that, when Clover was disbanded and the main creative forces behind it left to form Platinum Games, Capcom lost an entire slice of its top-end creative talent - and gained a competitor.
Why did Capcom outsource Devil May Cry? Probably because it felt, after the superlative 3, there wasn't anywhere else to go. Of Devil May Cry 4 Hideki Kamiya once remarked "I hear they had an enormous number of people working on that. Didn't help them, did it?" Capcom's Dante had moved over the four games from gothic rebel to high-glam camp, with a forgettable supporting cast and a sense that things were a little played-out.
Needless to say, many 'hardcore' DMC fans swear Devil May Cry 4 is one of the best entries in the series. Hideaki Itsuno directed Devil May Cry 2, 3 and 4, after which he moved on to Dragon's Dogma - in his words a dream project. "With DmC this time," said Itsuno, "we wanted to avoid the problem that befalls some series where you keep making it with the same team, same hardware, and it tends to decrease and the fans move away from it. We wanted to avoid that. We don't want the series to die."
Itsuno was focused elsewhere and so, though he would be a supervising director on DmC's development, Capcom didn't have the option of business as usual even if it had wished. The company could either build a new in-house team or outsource the development. Ninja Theory would turn out to be an inspired choice, not least because it was made on the strength of Heavenly Sword and Enslaved - presumably the latter's outstanding environments, the former as a foundation for what DmC's development would demand.
The brutal truth behind this being, and I'm guessing, that Ninja Theory's two attempts with original IP didn't sell well enough to allow them to continue down that route. Devil May Cry is obviously a plum game to work on - and rebooting the whole thing, no less. But on this project Ninja Theory began a relationship that - if everything went too well - might eventually swallow it.
On the other hand a studio that had in some eyes so far flattered to deceive gained a crack team of Capcom expertise - DmC was developed by a team of around 90, with 10 of those developers seconded from Capcom. Compare something simple across Heavenly Sword and DmC: the impact of attacks. In the former Nariko's blades have a tinny clank and, though the animations are often beautiful and enemies react to her attacks, her limbs flow through their bodies or hit staccato with a dull thwack. When Dante whacks something in DmC he's rooted in position for a split-second as it hits home with a crack and an instantaneous 'rip' of light, while his constant grunts and shouts keep time over accumulating blows, and enemies explode in a delicious death-crackle that spills out lightly-blooping orbs.
DmC took some of the best parts of the series' combat system and used them in building a new one. At the same time this is a much more accessible and visually attractive game than any other in the series - a reflection not just of changing times, but also the fact that it needs new fans. The objection to this on principle is irrational, because the core of a third-person fighting system is scalability - these are games where, for every player, the value is found in the journey from neophyte to master. There is no contradiction between making an accessible fighter and a systems-driven skill game - no less a director than Hideki Kamiya went to enormous pains, in Bayonetta and The Wonderful 101, to offer difficulty modes for first-timers.
As someone who adores these games, and particularly on the harder difficulties, I consider DmC among the best of the modern era - an opinion reinforced by the Definitive Edition. The system looks absolutely amazing in motion and, in the way Dante can fluidly switch between five weapons and three guns mid-combo, takes a cue from Devil May Cry 4's Dante and builds something new. When new Dante is traversing enemy mobs using his whips, DmC is taking the best idea from Devil May Cry 4's Nero and making it new. When you begin to start parrying, executing last-minute dodges and incorporating air juggles then you suddenly feel the classic spine holding together the new style. More important than anything else, learning to do all of this is never less than fun and - when you start getting into the tougher modes - soon becomes exhilarating.
Call it what you will: an adrenalin rush, endorphins, too many cups of coffee. The sign of a great fighting game is when you've unlocked all of the basic moves, been battered a few times, and are starting to feel the rhythms and logic underlying this new system. Curiosity turns to delight as odd ideas you have, and combinations you try out, work - often even better than planned. And then, as you begin to master things, you start to get the hardest enemies the developers can throw at you - no more safety wheels. DmC has this feeling.
What it doesn't have is Devil May Cry 3's 'style' system, or 4's supreme realisation of classic Dante. Obviously any Devil May Cry fan has a tender spot in their heart for a bit of Royal Guard. But it is important to recognise that there's really nowhere to go by building an original game around that style; the best parts of it have already found their way into other games. So DmC creates a new system that works beautifully, and gets taken to task for not delivering the old one. Ninja Theory suffered an enormous amount of unwarranted criticism for daring to take on the task of DmC, mainly from 'fans' of the series, and this is always what it came down to.
Or was it? By far one of the most curious flare-ups, one that always stuck in my mind, was when Ninja Theory gave a GDC talk about DmC's art direction. In the course of several slides showing 'old' Dante photoshopped into movie posters and the like, intended to demonstrate why the character needed updating, they included a slide of Brokeback Mountain with Dante superimposed over one of the cowboys. This was a rather blunt way of emphasising how camp the character had become. The community kicked up a gigantic stink. How very dare they!
This has always seemed to me interesting, not least because an oft-heard response to people (mostly women) uncomfortable with a sexualised character like Bayonetta is 'deal with it.' Ninja Theory were completely right in that there's something of the gay icon intrinsic to Dante's character. He is a Bowie-esque figure in a scarlet jacket and jet-black trimmings, bare midriff exposed and everything topped with a shock of white hair. The supporting cast and bosses are 'sexy,' in that incredibly unsexy way typical of Japanese developers. He's a stylish fighter, witty, and you're in control. Anyone who thinks male sex appeal isn't part of this character's success is crazy.
Some people don't like you pointing out the obvious. Ninja Theory's Dante is a younger, less garish figure with a slight punk edge, cocky as hell but surprisingly endearing - not that this is what I play a Devil May Cry game for, but in the course of a single game he's a more interesting character than old Dante ever was. The game world he exists in has a more interesting concept behind it, with stages twisting in on Dante to give a sense of Hell's encroaching power, and the bravery to insert more abstract environmental design is a winner - it is impossible to imagine the Raptor news host boss fight, where Dante dives into each of his eyes and fights through a breaking report, in the old games.
None of this is to dismiss what the original series achieved. Fighting games would not exist in their current form without Devil May Cry and the Kamiya-led Team Little Devils. Yet things change, and many of the same personnel would later make up Platinum's Team Little Angels and create Bayonetta. Standard-setting competition like this required more from Devil May Cry than just another iterative entry.
DmC is a great fighting game. Is it Platinum level? I'd say not, but it's close enough that the comparison isn't ridiculous - and this in a genre that Platinum's MVPs pretty much invented and own.
When I got my hands on Ninja Theory's Dante, I never looked back. It marks a leap for the studio and a much-needed new start for a favourite avatar. Dante's not really a character; he's a collection of quips and a cool jacket. We love Dante because of what we can do with him, not what he says in any cutscene. And this is what the fans who got all het up about new Dante never understood: if you've got the moves, it doesn't matter what colour your hair is.