Before I say anything at all, just know that this combat analysis is primarily based on its independent merits, and only partially based on the merits of the old games. A comparison would be unfair since (as far as I know) this was not even touched by the Japanese developers of the first four games, but it's not completely avoidable since it became clear very quickly that Ninja Theory is trying to preserve the mechanical spirit of the previous entries. With that being said, I am joyously, delightfully, enthusiastically, proudly declaring that Ninja Theory has finally made some great combat. I was shocked and disturbed when it was announced that Capcom had given them the reigns, as their previous games (Kung Fu Chaos, Heavenly Sword and Enslaved) were generic combat experiences at best and awkward drunken haphazard combat experiences at worst. But they finally grew up and delivered. Keep in mind this is also based on the downloaded 360 marketplace demo! As of this writing, the full game isn't out yet. Anyway, here it goes:
- If there's anything Ninja Theory can always straight up kill, it's their character animations. The characters all have style, charm, and personality, and the curves are fantastic. I have no idea what is motion captured and what isn't, and that's exactly the way I like it.
- Arcade movement! There is a tiny bit of acceleration when you first push on the analog stick in order to move Dante, but when you let the stick go he instantly stops. This is the way it has to be so that the player doesn't slide into enemy attacks, but it still happens all the time in too many combat systems. Not here.
- They rightfully implemented movement input cancelling and avoided the Amalur Problem. Furthermore, animation transitions between states are solid, and movement input cancelling looks good! (For example, providing movement input when landing does a couple frame transition for prettiness but is still responsive.
- The motion on the weapon swipes are great.
- For the most part, the effects are pretty good. A couple specific effects (pistol bullet impact on wall, angel whip gunk, etc.) are a little weak but most of them are good. Matthew also noticed this great touch where certain attacks provide a blast of wind to the cloth objects on Dante.
- DMC provides the player with three different weapons: a sword, a scythe, and an axe. They're distinct, they look and sound cool, and complement the primary weapon nicely.
- There is an AMAZING effect when you strike the deathblow on the last enemy in an encounter; it zooms in, covers the screen in splatters, and slo-mos nicely. It's a really nice touch that is overly dramatic and powerful without being intrusive or annoying.
- Input buffering might be a BIT overbearing, but it's a billion times better than not having it or implementing it sloppily. This is only partially a quibble because some of the buffers are very very long and it's a little absurd to see a move still come out (for example, dash and then immediately push attack; when you come out of the dash animation a moment later Dante will still fire that attack and it feels a little handholdy). BUT it's not in the cons because it was still done to good effect.
- Attack connections feel good! It's not super weighty but it compensates by being overly splattery (which is appropriate to the game's art style) and it's good fun to strike things.
- The game does a fucking wonderful thing with it's Gap Timed mash flow; it fires an effect when a branch in the combo has been activated by waiting! To see exactly what I mean, swing the sword twice and then pause, but keep your eye on the sword. It indicates to you when you can branch with a flash. The other two weapons do the same thing and it delights me.
- Enemies are all super duper suprisingly solid! Good silhouettes, great tells (check out the off-screen broadcast of the cherub's arrow!), AWESOME sound effects (love love love love to death the sound the cherubs make before they shoot you with their arrow, it's HORRIFYING), and some attacks are game changers in the best possible way (the red shield guys on Son Of Sparda difficulty do a thing where they set a huge area of ground on fire and it's a blast to deal with).
- The air game is a fucking AIR GAME. There's so much to it! They really brought it down in terms of execution but still sent it over the top; where most games let you hover skillfully, DMC lets you rise and rise and rise and it's thrilling.
- The two grappling hooks (despite their cumbersome execution; more on this in the cons) are brilliant. They took what was amazing and remarkable about Nero from DMC4 and took it to the next level. You can bring an enemy to you, or go to them, and expression here feels rad.
- I have to celebrate the standing branch axe combo (attack > attack > pause > attack) because it feels amazing and I've never seen an effect like that. Hands down my favorite thing to finish people off with.
- There are bonus games and key destructibles peppered throughout the game world. It's another classic Devil May Cry trope, and even though I'd prefer to not stop fighting in order to find shit, it makes exploration (yawn) less yawn.
- UGH it has to be said; everything Ninja Theory makes is outrageously gorgeous and DMC is the most incredible looking thing they've made so far. This is going in the combat analysis because believe it or not, the aesthetic gestalt of a game affects your enjoyment of the core gameplay whether you think it does or not.
- While the jump has that characteristic Devil May Cry feel (high but close) I feel like it takes Dante a little too far. The classic jump takes you almost nowhere, and so it can be used as a defensive maneuver but it doesn't really distance you from enemies. DMC's jump can and I'm not a big fan of that. And that's on top of two separate air dashing mechanics. It's just too easy to run away.
- The motion swipes as objects are not remarkable. Like I mentioned in the Pros the motion of the animation itself is great, but the effect is just not very interesting.
- This is my one major problem with DMC; the control scheme is a little painful and fairly inelegant. You utilize the face buttons to jump, shoot, attack, and special attack. I realize this is the post-classic DMC configuration (3 and 4 utilized the special attack input; 1 and 2 used that 4th button for environmental actions like opening doors) but I have always had some core problems with it. The first is that the guns, while necessary for style, are not very deep or complex mechanics. I love the idea of peppering your assaults with gunshots, I simply wish they did more. And for me personally, I have always found the special attack to be very cumbersome. It's essentially just a context mechanic input where the character does different things based on the state they're in when the button is pushed. It's confusing and needlessly frustrating.
- To exercerbate this, your way of accessing the mechanics of the other weapons is to hold one of the trigger buttons, which replaces all of the face button mechanics (except for jump) with new mechanics. Now this is okay for the attack button (I actually really like that) but the special attack's inherent confusion gets multiplied by 3. We've got a button here that does at least 6 completely different things based on your state and the other buttons you're pushing. IT'S TOO MUCH FOR MY BRAIN.
- The cherry on the confusion cake is that the button that fires guns by default becomes a grappling hook if one of the other weapons is being activated with a held trigger button. One version brings you to the enemy and the other brings the enemy to you. This is an awesome idea! But this context pile melts my brain and it is taking me FOREVER to get to the point in which I do the grapple that I want to do. My point with this con and the previous two is that there are always ways to make a control scheme more elegant and less overwhelming, and large amounts of context mechanics is not the optimal way.
- DE-FENSE. DE-FENSE. Soooooo you know how picky I am about this defense shit! But we've got an interesting situation here. First of all, there is a seemingly identical defense mechanic on both bumpers/L1 R1 buttons. This is a little painfully redundant, but it makes sense because this way you can utilize this mechanic regardless of which weapon you are accessing by holding down one of the triggers/L2 R2 buttons. No worries. I can forgive that, except we've got input blackouts on this defense mechanic during certain attacks! Argh! It's frustrating mostly because this is a legitimate design decision, but it's definitely in favor of the hardcore. Not being able to defend at certain moments is definitely classic Devil May Cry so I understand the decision. But it's one of those key decisions that makes a tremendous difference.
- Now I am going to HAPPILY move this out of the cons when I figure out what I'm missing (because I'm certain I am, after all it's the demo and it's not giving me all the info) but there is definitely a way to parry enemy attacks! And it's really difficult and super fun when it happens because there's a cool effect and you get to watch the enemy stumble back...but there doesn't appear to be anything you can do afterwards! There has GOT to be! There absolutely has to be. I'm almost certain I even did it once without realizing it! But upon direct experimentation, I could not find a punishing reward mechanic that can be executed after a successful parry. Will investigate further once the full game is out.
- While I enjoy the bonus games scattered through the game world, some of them teach highly valuable skills, and I think it's a wasted opportunity to not put these right in front of the player and use something else as a hidden bonus.
In summary, I'm gonna call this one nailed. There's a lot of text in the cons, but it's only because the few problems are very nuanced. DMC is not nearly as hardcore as the Japanese entries, but it's not about that. It was given to Ninja Theory to bring the IP to new people and that's exactly what's going to happen. To be honest, I'm just very very happy to be proven wrong. I was fully assuming this was going to fail because of how much I dislike their previous games. But I was able to maintain this inkling of hope given the vast improvement of Enslaved over Heavenly Sword. I'm really happy about about the final product, I'm thinking about the game when I'm not playing it, and I have this weird sense of pride in Ninja Theory for doing the asinine amount of tedious, obsessive, numbing work it takes to make a great combat experience. I'm glad I get to say this, but I can't fucking wait to see what Ninja Theory does next! :) :) :)