Too many games favour style over substance. The market is brimming with ostensibly awesome titles that feature badass protagonists striking preposterous poses and tossing off one-liners while leveling screen-clearing weapons at brain-dead hordes.

These games seek to be slo-mo HD wish-fulfilment mechanisms, but too often their flash inadequately hides facile gameplay that leaves players feeling hollow rather than empowered.

Like its forefathers, DmC is guilty of a bit – okay, a lot – of showboating: the camera zooms and pans as enemies explode in slow motion, rock music blares during every encounter, words like “Brutal!”, “Savage!”, and “Dirty!” accompany every combo, and Dante looks thoroughly unperturbed by the demon army sent to rip his face off. It's attitude and style personified. But what differentiates DmC from less successful titles is the care taken to nail the fundamentals.

Dante hero

A revamped Dante awakens in Limbo City, a metropolis where the populace have been duped by demons into believing everything is rosy. They exist in a projected world, addicted to mind-controlling energy drinks, bombarded by propaganda, and unable to sense the demons all around who gleefully harvest their souls when they expire. Alerted to the situation and the presence of a resistance group by a witch known as Kat, Dante finds himself dragged into the hidden “real world” of Limbo whenever he is sensed by demons, and thus becomes the de facto defender of humanity.

Enslaved writer Alex Garland is story supervisor here and although the satire is a little on the nose, his writers have penned a decent enough tale. Happily, the dialogue is much better than the snippet of juvenile dribble heard in the demo, and is buoyed by strong voice acting across-the-board. If anything, the character of Dante is just too generic – another unflappable loner with an attitude who actually cares about others after all.

Like the best sexual partners, DmC looks great, but isn’t afraid to get crazy either. The effect of Dante being pulled into the limbo dimension is really well done, with his immediate environment contorting in anguish and twisting in on itself. But better still, these sequences – which dictate the following art style – become more abstract and inventive as the game continues.

Transition effects are initially signalled by a cool if conservative washed-out look coupled with a red wind and an inky tar whose tendrils explore every surface. But subsequent levels become gloriously demented and then shockingly abstract, with some sections reduced to just wire frames and pencil-sketched textures punctuated by the odd splash of colour. Elsewhere are neon electric playgrounds mashed up with renaissance-era religious iconography and an ethereal plane watched over by a massive living statue. The variety and boldness are quite staggering.

It doesn’t all work – the aging Xbox hardware occasionally succumbs to artefacts and pixelation, and some levels such as the Hades section are uninspired by comparison, but they are the minority. Along with the striking level designs are more than a few great set-pieces – a battle atop an inverted stained glass dome that breaks as Dante runs across it being one of many highlights.

Death from above, or below

Ninja Theory has also done well emulating the most important part of any Devil May Cry game, the combat. Even at a disappointing 30 frames per second, it's smooth, fast, and immensely fun. There is also a new hook: most attacks are either angelic or demonic to reflect Dante’s new half-and-half heritage. Angelic weapons tend to be weak but have a wide area of effect and comprehensive aerial component, whereas demonic weapons are typically ground-based and slower, but deal a lot more damage to fewer targets. The latter are often able to be charged up to inflict massive damage as well.

As is usual for the franchise, each weapon has a large move list which may be unlocked more rapidly if the player employs creative combinations and varies their attacks. Crucially, each weapon also has its place, rather than simply being an upgrade of what came before. Everything in Dante’s arsenal has specific strengths and weaknesses, leaving it up to the player how they wish to proceed. Better still, unlock points may be freely transferred between weapons at specific checkpoints, so a player’s style may be dramatically altered with just a bit of tinkering. Going from short-range heavy-handed brawler to soaring scythe-wielder can happen in a heartbeat. Items may also be purchased at checkpoints, but points are deducted from the player’s score upon their use, and they get incrementally more expensive to buy each time.

The series’ trademark combinations are augmented by angel and demon grapples, with Dante able to pull enemies to him or slingshot himself in their direction – both great ways to kick off or continue deadly combinations. The grapples are also handy during platforming sections, or for hastily avoiding the attacks of bosses, but those battles are one place the game is definitely subpar.

Essentially, the bosses are far too easy to defeat, but fighting them is also unpleasant. Some are content to simply be wailed upon until they fall over, whereas others are merely gussied-up environmental puzzles that are exposed fairly quickly with a bit of swinging about. The grappling and platforming sequences outside of these battles is the best yet seen in a Devil May Cry game though, even if the novelty of these extended passages will have dissipated by a second playthrough.

The only other major gripe with DmC is with the camera, which is difficult to wrangle in smaller rooms, determined as it is to find an angle that hides as many foes as possible. The hardcore will not be pleased to hear that the game is also noticeably easier than others in the series – a concession to newcomers, no doubt – but with five difficulty levels above normal, they'll still find a suitably mental challenge here.

All up, against the odds and in the face of much ado from Devil May Cry fans, Ninja Theory has crafted a delightful game full of stylish flourishes, great animations, and sharp combat. For most of its 11-hour-or-so play time it does the franchise proud. So much so that incoming pieces of DLC that add a Vergil-centric campaign of some sort and wave-based survival mode Bloody Palace will merely be the icing on an already tasty cake. With tight, satisfying combat that leaves a lot of room for crafting a creative ballet of violence, DmC has set the bar pretty high for action games in 2013.