08 February 2017

Devil's Third | Untapped potential or mistaken depth?

"I only make unique games. I only make games that don't yet exist in this world."
- Tomonobu Itagaki; in an interview with James Mielke

And he wasn’t wrong. To play a game like Devil’s Third one has to play Devil’s Third.
To talk about this new game made by the action-game legend requires some look into his background but also his rivalry with other companies and designers. Tomonobu was the one of the three directors and only producer on the original reboot of Ninja Gaiden on the XBOX, a game that at the time almost gave birth to a genre. The game’s legacy is preceded by Devil May Cry, a directed and produced by Hideki Kamiya.

Both games introduced staples to the genre such as how a camera should be handled, the way input commands worked,how levels design were designed but most importantly the game mechanics itself.
Devil May Cry (DMC) was more an experiment that got out of hand, focussing more on its core mechanic of looking cool while you play and feeling cool; forcing the player to always stay on the offensive. Ninja Gaiden (NG) was a more focussed game, enemies were more aggressive and had to choose your moments of attack. DMC found its origins in Resident Evil and NG found its origins in the fighting game Dead or Alive. Both were worlds apart yet together formed the basis for nearly every action game that came past it.

Since then a lot has changed, but every game in the genre (and even some outside of it) owe a lot to these two greats. More often than not a game will simply be a DMC-clone or a NG-hack. It’s surprising how dormant this genre has been when it comes to pushing the envelope, being held back by either predictable sequels (God of War) or unfinished ones (DMC4, NG2).
Devil’s Third was to be Tomonobu’s return to glory, a game in which he could push the aforementioned envelope further with his lessons learnt and a new series to start with. But this isn’t what happened.

Being a game starring a Russian named Ivan who’s sporting a body filled with tattoos of different Sanskrit Symbols, रस  would be the most apt. Pronounced as 'Rasa' it means something along the lines of 'interesting'.
And that word is exactly what Devil’s Third is, interesting. Picture this:
You spot enemies in a distance. A grenade leaves your hand towards your attackers, some scatter, others stay in their place. While the grenade explodes you run to them with your gun ablaze. Bullets scatter, you pop behind your iron-sight for a few precision shots. Bullets fly back at you, you hold the line behind some cover while lighting a cigarette. The bullets stop and you slide up the stairs (!), cut the first enemy to pieces with your katana at close range. You jump at the second one who is cut in half. One thinks to sneak up on you but you throw your sword in between his eyes. And just as a finale you grab the last remaining enemy, hang a grenade to his belt and throw him away. As he explodes into bits you drink a small sip from your canteen filled with some nice whiskey.

This is an description of a set piece you can orchestrate yourself in Devil’s Third. It is a game that in it’s raw mechanics combines the likes of First Person Shooter, Third Person Shooter and Action game. To the connoisseurs reading, it’s Vanquish with melee combat (ironically Vanquish and Devil’s Third each began their development around the same time. Coincidence or just similar market research?).Sadly this is also where it ends. A lot of reactions from fans and critics focus on the game looking dated or feeling unfinished, but that is not the big issue here. What the game suffers from most is the mechanics not fitting with the gameplay.
The game offers melee and ranged combat, but it’s mechanics push you towards melee. You’ve got a jumping slash to close the gap, a shotgun which deals a lot of damage, melee weapons do a lot more damage than guns, you posses an ability that lets you become ‘super you’ for a second which boosts your melee damage (akin to Devil Trigger for the DMC fans), you can slide at great speed towards an enemy, cover breaks fast forcing you to not hide and Ivan has a lot of melee moves at his disposal.

Yet due to the way the enemies are designed and combat scenarios are laid out fighting ranged is always the safest, quickest and thus: best option. Enemies deal a lot of damage and while fighting you have no invincibility-frames, meaning you are vulnerable. So getting up close against one enemy is dangerous, getting up close to three or five is suicide. The jumping slash is slow and not invulnerable, using it will result in the enemies focus firing you out of the air and killing you. And melee enemies don’t have guns, but some gun enemies do have melee weapons. So if you’re in a ranged engagement and you get up close, you will not have an edge. But if you are fighting a big baddy wielding only an axe, you can just run circles around them for years until they drop dead.
The game also tries to give you the option to switch melee weapons constantly, but you’ve got the katana by default which is excellent anyway. Why pick up a sewage pipe or a fire-axe if you have a katana? And so another mechanic exists, without being promoted to be actually used.

Often I would do my best to force myself to use melee, but it would usually lead to my death. Sometimes I would find myself saving the last enemy alive and charge him, but even that could cost me dearly. It’s best to just stay in cover and pop a few shots until the enemy is dead and then focus your fire on the next one. It’s sad because in the few engagements that it does work and the balance between the three genres are met, the game is an absolute blast to play.

With the mechanics covered I could focus on the story, multiplayer, music, design etc. Or the rich history of development this game has had, jumping from one engine to the other and being stuck in development hell. But most of those elements aren’t that polished and it’s in these parts that the long and constantly changing development is really noticeable.
The story’s purpose is to move the plot forward and give Ivan more people to kill, but there are a few moments where the game tries something more with the cards it is dealt. Like portraying the horrors or chemical warfare or showcasing the Kessler Syndrome Theory in action, with varying success.
Left to right: Ivan, Jane Doe and Ludmilla.
The few stand-out character designs from Devil's Third.

When we look at the designs we are at first confronted with Ivan. A charismatic character filled to the brim with Sanskrit tattoos, sporting cargo pants and a pair of simple shades. His design is simple yet elegant. Instantly recognisable and a powerhouse on the cover; a strong design. Good attention was given to his design, both in forms of color balancing but also in giving him an air of mystery like Ryu Hayabusa had at the start of his first adventure. The tattoos ooze mystique, begging for speculation and a rich backstory (which it sadly never gets).

Other characters get the short end of the stick and feel rushed. There are a few standouts like Ludmilla’s skin-suit and Jane Doe’s lingerie mixture of Caucasian skin mixed with Asian design elements. But it all starts to feel like a Metal Gear Solid rip-off the further you deviate from Ivan himself. If we look even further we’ll find designs well at home at every company's ‘bad idea’ bin. Regular enemies seem like an afterthought, soldiers are hard to distinguish from your allies, the zombies are brown blobs that don’t offer any sort of visual threat and the later ninja’s are a bit generic. Full black with their goggles, they are a bit too similar to the Tactical Ninjas from NG2.
The multiplayer was to be a core feature of this game and was played for quite some time by avid fans, even sporting a solo release on PC which was free to play. Sadly this also lead to the online-demise of Devil’s Third on the Wii-U, and the modes are no longer functional.
For me one stand-out mode was Score Attack, a mode in which you would speed-run through stages with your own gear selection. Melee kills gave more points than guns did, so the mechanics slowly edged closer to its original design philosophy. Sadly, this feature was also taken offline. One can still play it but not compare scores or look at the leaderboards.

It is with all these elements that Devil’s Third is certainly interesting and almost completely unique. It at times offers a balance of gameplay mechanics and elements that are unmatched and not to be found elsewhere. But also shows us that a game needs to be designed around its mechanics to fully work, and that bad art-design will always hurt you more than bad technical graphics. It is also a relic of its time, sporting missing features due to the games server being removed. To play Devil’s Third is to experience something fresh, broken, new and unfinished. It is as positive an experience as you make it, but not to be recommended for those who wish a fully finished game with top of the mill production values. But if you’re keen on something new, don’t mind the rough edges and are a fan of the genres…well. I started the review with a quote and would like to end with one.

"Shit. Where's the love?"
- Ivan from Devil’s Third

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