The alarm bells of gamers everywhere went off when Capcom announced that not only was it outsourcing the production of its next Devil May Cry – the series’ fifth – but that the game would be a reboot, featuring a redesigned Dante. Long-time fans' nerves could be forgiven: Dante’s personality change from brash, arrogant douchenozzle to moody Goth douchenozzle between Devil May Cry and its sequel was universally reviled (and swiftly reversed in the third instalment), and initial glimpses of the revised Dante were not encouraging.
Dante's final design is a marked improvement, although he has been thoroughly westernised. Gone are the trademark white locks and red vinyl trench, replaced by short-cropped dark hair, distressed jeans, and beat-up overcoat. It's as if Dante moved to Los Angeles and joined a boy band, but his transformation is actually explained the comic book way: that DmC takes place in an alternate universe that happens to feature many familiar characters (who may or may not act the way they do elsewhere in the metaverse).
In possibly the most unimaginative and redundant naming of anything since this game’s subtitle, Dante is a dweller of Limbo City, a place where here is regularly dragged into the limbo dimension to scrap with demons. What he sees whilst in limbo – hellish visions, a sentient city, mind-controlling soft drinks – is actually a truer representation of life in Limbo that what its drugged populace behold, and after his trailer is demolished by a Hunter demon, Dante finds the motivation to do something about it.
Accompanied by Kat - a witch whose main purpose beyond showing cleavage and bending over in front of the camera is vomiting exposition at the player - Dante seeks mission advice from series regular Vergil, who has some revelations that will probably be completely unsurprising even for those who have never played a Devil May Cry game. There are some truly horrible dialogue moments and ridiculously expository cutscenes here, but perhaps it’s foolish to hope that developers of games centered around "sweet" fighting mechanics would spend any more time on plot or decent characterisation than is truly necessary.
And the fighting is pretty great. Heavenly Sword developer Ninja Theory has largely reproduced the classic Devil May Cry formula, but also added moves that reflect Dante’s half-angel half-demon heritage.
Angel Mode and Demon Mode are activated by holding the required trigger, and each boasts its own unlockable weapon-specific movesets as well as general abilities. In Angel Mode, Dante uses his whip to grapple towards ledges or enemies and initially wields Osiris, a fast and long-range scythe that is excellent for thinning the ranks of clusters of enemies.
Demon Mode gives immunity to some area-based enemy attacks and allows Dante to pull enemies or specific parts of the environment towards him using his whip. A big axe by the name of Arbiter is the first weapon available here, and it allows Dante to attack in a more focussed and devasting but slower fashion.
Switching between modes happens instantaneously which allows for incredible variation when stringing together combos, alongside some really creative and satisfying possibilities afforded to veteran players. Like many fighting games with deep movesets, the difference in efficiency and potency between beginners and experienced players is night and day. There is nothing quite like slingshotting Dante towards a group of enemies using his whip, launching a couple into the air, pursuing their flailing bodies using the grapple, then pinballing between them, dealing death.
Enemies are nicely defined too, a chainsaw-toting psycho and thousand-pound bull-like tank are likely future favourites.
Beyond the carnage are platforming sections, which are excellent in places and dull as anything in others. The better ones may be traversed in a fluid manner, and see Dante under a time constraint swinging from anchor point to anchor point using his whip and boosting after double jumps to cross wide chasms while knocking enemies off cliffs. The worst are too lengthy and simple to justify the time away from swinging blades at evil-doers, and will annoy those undertaking repeated playthroughs on unlocked difficulties.
Some players may also be disappointed to hear – particularly after the last game was 60 – that DmC is locked at 30 frames per second. However, DmC’s whirling, frantic combat still looks appropriately fluid at this lower setting.
The graphics are similarly polarising. Backgrounds are mostly creative and interesting and the effect when entering limbo in the middle of a city is excellent, but one street level in particular is extremely bland and seemingly lo-res, so hopefully that will see an update in the retail build. Watching buildings and the earth itself shudder and contort in anger at Dante's presence never gets old though, and there are some truly impressive effects are on display.
The world even takes on a personality of its own to an extent, twisting and mutilating itself to foil Dante's progress, and commanding hell's minions to attack by plastering orders in 40-foot high lettering around the landscape. These touches really pull the player into the world and separate it from the silent, static worlds of similar titles.
The build we played – almost half of the game – is shaping up well. The twitchy yet silky combat is terrific, there are some inventive scenarios, and the augmented moveset is bliss in blade form. Dante’s personality is intact even if his hair isn’t, and despite our reservations above, it appears that the franchise is in good hands.
Best of all, we only have to wait a week or so to find out.