Friday, June 7, 2013

DmC had all the elements of an epic adventure, so why did it feel so... insignificant?

at 5:22 PM
Let me first remark that DmC, evaluated solely on the basis of gameplay, was terrific. It was a really fun game, the rare combat-actioner that kept me engaged in the mechanics all the way until the end and left me still wanting more. It somehow managed to grow and grow, always giving me something new to try without feeling like it was overwriting my old techniques. I can't wait to play it again, and I can't wait for the inevitable sequel. But let me save the specifics for the upcoming head-to-head with Bayonetta over the title of Action-Game-of-the-Generation.

Great though the combat was, any game that drags on for 21 hours needs to sustain that with at least some story depth. The quest spanned a number of increasingly surreal locales, but the surrealness of it all eventually became a weakness rather than a strength. When each area tears itself apart into a bunch of floating platforms floating across apocalyptic skies of swirling rubble and firestorms, it doesn't much matter whether it started as an upside-down skyscraper or a labyrinthine soda bottling plant. A bit more grounding would've served to give the environments more character and could've lent a more epic feel to the dreamlike wandering.

The scripting also let down what should have been a spectacular journey to free humanity from a sinister demon crypto-regime. Simply put, we spend far too little time in the actual human world with actual humans. DmC's high concept is that present day society is actually being run as a demonic dystopia without our knowledge - evil world-domination hooliganry is being carried out in a parallel dimension by monstrous overlords quietly enslaving our souls. The real-world components of this dastardly plot are a soda manufacturer that repackages succubus vomit (yeah) as a mind-numbing energy drink ironically titled "Virility", a news mega-corporation broadcasting propaganda and imprisoning dissenters, and the military-industrial complex strong-arming the villains' will. Rebellious but slacking demon-slayer Dante is forced to voyage through Limbo, the parallel soul-world where all of these machinations are visible as what they really are, to disable the Pepsi, Fox News, and US Army counterparts from the inside. This is actually an awesome plot! It sounds great on paper, combining elements of dimension-hopping, dystopian sci-fi, and socio-political commentary.

Unfortunately, a lot of high concepts sound good on paper - the trick is making them seem real. DmC never manages to pull it off because it spends almost 100% of the narrative in Limbo, never giving us a feel for the plight of humanity. The intermittent propaganda-news broadcasts are a nice touch, but we should be seeing how people react to them. Is it like the real world, where we shrug off Fox News or the Liberal media as being biased, or do people actually buy into it? I understand the concept of Virility, but how does it actually affect people? Does everyone drink it? Does it make them stupid, or are its effects unseen? I couldn't even figure out if this was supposed to be the real world, a near future, or an alternate dimension, because no places or names are mentioned. Limbo doesn't have anything to contrast with and thus seems to exist in a void alongside all the other fantasy worlds we experience in games. When I'm in a twisted office building or walking down a crumbling street, I don't feel like it has a real-world counterpart. I just feel like I'm in demon world. And therefore, I don't feel like there's anything to save. This just feels like the post-apocalypse, trivializing the whole story into a small battle between a handful of heroes and villains. The heroes feel less heroic and the villains less villainous - it's just a personal squabble.

Our primary protagonists, Dante and Vergil, should've been humans, and they should've had real day-to-day lives. Instead they have no contact with humanity, being characterized as loner outsiders who hate demons... but seemingly hate humans too. Or at least don't care about them. The fact that they're Nephilim (angel-demon hybrids) doesn't matter at all, it's dumb backstory only used to explain why they're so badass and able to enter Limbo. As every action movie and game ever has evidenced, audiences have zero trouble accepting that a normal human can be essentially super-powered (for Christ's sake, look at how much we love Batman), so this is just stupid. Let them find a mystical artifact or family heirloom to allow them into Limbo. As a matter of fact, it actually makes them less badass that they're born with superpowers - I'd feel more vindicated playing as an underdog human rising to take on the demon threat. But we all know why the Nephilim thing exists - because this is a Devil May Cry game, and Dante has always been an angel-demon. If this game hadn't been saddled with the series backstory, I guarantee Dante would've been human. And since this is a reboot anyway, I don't see why he wasn't.

The token human we do get, Kat, has magical superpowers-by-birth too, so that's fucking stupid. She too is an outsider who's been tormented by demons all her life. So she serves as a really shitty connection to humans, and Dante's claim in the climax that humans are "worth saving" - because of Kat - loses all its meaning.
A token character in more ways than one.
Are humans worth saving because they're all magic? I don't think that's what Dante meant. I'm awfully tempted to side with Vergil, that she was just a tool. She was magic, so she was useful. How am I supposed to sympathize with Dante? The humans couldn't save themselves. So maybe the Nephilim do deserve to rule. Wow, I just realized that this is the plot of The Protomen. Weird.

I'm glad Vergil turned on Dante, it wouldn't have been Devil May Cry without that. An equal-footing duel also made for a much better final showdown than the mundane giant-by-the-numbers Mundus. But I really wish it was better justified and had more impact. Vergil's big emotions line, "I loved you, brother", falls completely flat when we never got any social interaction between the brothers at all. The game seems to take place in like, a day, and they just met. Vergil is left mostly behind-the-scenes, with the woefully weak Kat-Dante romance taking the spotlight. We needed to see more of the brothers working together, get some banter and maybe some shared childhood memories. I wanted to care about having to fight him. The writers clearly knew they didn't have enough to build a real conflict, so they throw in the whole debate about Kat's worth at the end, which feels transparent and perfunctory. And this is where it all comes back to the lacking presence of humanity. Dante and Vergil's fight is over the fate of the entire human race. But it feels like a petty argument because we never see or care about the human race.

This may seem like a lot of analysis for what is supposed to be a dumb action game, but it was so long that it could've been an epic masterpiece. The elements were all right there, which is what makes it so disappointing that it never took off. Hopefully the next reboot will get it right.

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