DMC is a game light on back-story, so let me offer some of my own: I spent a few years working in a videogame store. It gave me an encyclopaedic knowledge of releases but more crucial was the demographic data I gathered: I learned the buying habits and groupings of the UK general public. There were pre-teens desperate for the trophy of adult game kudos that was Grand Theft Auto. There were the collectors who’d buy games in twos. And then there were the metalheads.
I remember one particular gang of these trench-coated videogame otakus that had an insatiable desire for everything and anything Capcom flavoured. Their enthusiasm was infectious. They’d huddle around the latest Devil May Cry like they were in a sports team planning their next play, poring over every screenshot and bullet-point, haggling over the pros and cons of what was to come in their next pass-the-pad session.
To the general public at large, this group of quirky characters might be considered outcasts, slackers. But in Dante’s shoes they were saviours; superheroes doing battle with the forces of evil. Devil May Cry had clearly tapped into the long-standing relationship between heavy metal music culture and gaming, a relationship that can be traced back to the days of Trent Reznor and id Software’s original Quake, uniting two mediums’ fuck you manifestos in the face of social – and political – demonisation.
The thing is, I didn’t get the impression Capcom was ever fully aware of the nature of the series’ appeal, either in its marketing strategy or within the games themselves. Across its four previous instalments I’ve always felt Devil May Cry to have had an inconsistent, changeable personality. The original, for example, had a strong gothic horror through-line while the third title – perhaps the series’ most revered – was a heavenly slice of heavy metal hack-and-slash that wouldn’t have felt out of place in an arcade.
It’s taken an outsider, then, to capitalise on the thrash-and-slash appeal of Dante’s demonic duelling and bring us what I believe to be the definitive vision of this slacker-turned-saviour in the stylistic context that serves him (and his skill with a scythe) best.
The herd of metalheads I’d court in my store longed for a conduit to fulfil their wildest fantasies and in Dante’s shoes, equipped with his pistols and sharp things, they found it. If there was a problem it was just that he was so very obviously Japanese in his design and conception. Platinum mullet, porcelain features, perfectly measured movements and postures. Dante was a cocked hip away from being a Final Fantasy pin-up. He could have done with a little roughing up to make him more relatable and Ninja Theory clearly agree. Though still a beautiful specimen, in DMC there’s a new cruelness to Dante’s looks, his pretty boy smirk corrupted into a snarl. His crudely cropped hair (now goth-black) and his lanky, lithe frame, is more Lisbeth Salander than the accidental athlete of before and his attire is possessed more of homeless chic than heroic hemlines.
The story’s use of Limbo, a state between earth and the underworld, keenly taps into, and expertly holds a mirror to, the way in which Dante’s fans hop from their own world into his, as our anti-hero’s tiresome existence is invaded by the exciting, the dangerous and the outright hellish.
For me, however, the perfect summation of Ninja Theory’s brash, bold reinvigoration of Dante can be found in a quite simple, seemingly unremarkable animation. In the fourth hit of his Oblivion sword combo, with his final blow, Dante stumbles towards his prey, nearly hitting the deck under the weight of his demon-slaying apparatus. It’s a subtle animation that telegraphs much: Dante is a slacker with a saviour’s job to do; wielding great power but lacking the responsibility required to do so.
It’s unsurprising, perhaps, to find such nuance in a title from Ninja Theory, a studio whose use of motion capture and character animation – from Heavenly Sword’s Kai to Enslaved’s Trip – always propels its output from eye-catching to jaw-dropping. I’d argue Dante’s unsmooth moves are the developer’s finest hour. Dante is responsive and fast but also untidy. He’s not the graceful angel of death he’s been before, he’s hard-hitting and cocksure but lacks grace, and he’s got a hell of a hangover.
With DMC, it feels like Dante – and Capcom – is finally embracing the same culture and fashion of a particular subset of the series’ followers. He’s wish-fulfilment personified for that black-garbed group, huddled in my videogame store. In a bizarre, brilliant twist on the theme of art imitating life, then, he’s become closer to what they are, rather than the unreachable dream of the reverse. He’s a trench-coat wearing outcast, a slacker. A metalhead.