Devil’s Third

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Wii U

Pub­lisher Nintendo Devel­oper Val­halla Game Stu­dios For­mat Wii U Re­lease Out now (JP), Au­gust 28 (EU), TBC (NA)

Six years, four game en­gines and two pub­lish­ers later, Tomonobu Ita­gaki’s latest could gen­er­ously be said to have en­dured a prob­lem­atic ges­ta­tion. And yet, set­ting aside the fall of THQ and the shift to a new con­sole, it’s al­ways seemed to be a game built upon pre­car­i­ous foun­da­tions. On a fun­da­men­tal level, its com­bi­na­tion of FPS gun­play and third­per­son melee com­bat sim­ply doesn’t work. And when you shoot the leg of a man stand­ing a good five feet away from the near­est cover only to sti­fle a chuckle as his head in­ex­pli­ca­bly pops off, you’ll won­der if Devil’s Third would have been much bet­ter un­der ideal con­di­tions.

Ita­gaki’s never been one to down­play his games, but it’s hard to see how he can pos­si­bly imag­ine Devil’s Third be­ing, as he re­cently claimed, “a break­through for the in­dus­try”. Had it launched half a decade ago, it would still have seemed out­dated. It’s the kind of game the Ja­panese in­dus­try de­cided to make a gen­er­a­tion ago, as the coun­try’s big­gest pub­lish­ers at­tempted to tai­lor their games to the lu­cra­tive western mar­ket. With a hand­ful of ex­cep­tions, they failed, and Devil’s Third suf­fers from a sim­i­lar type of ide­o­log­i­cal com­pro­mise. It wrongly as­sumes western­ers en­joy tur­ret sec­tions and QTEs, that they love noth­ing more than a mix of B-movie sto­ry­telling and mil­i­tary cliché.

It also whole­heart­edly em­braces the belief that third­per­son ac­tion games can be im­proved by hand­ing the hero a gun, or per­haps that first­per­son shoot­ers would ben­e­fit from hand-to-hand com­bat. But Devil’s Third is no Mod­ern War­fare: its aim­ing is stiff and un­wieldy, feed­back is poor, and im­pacts lack weight. It’s no Ninja Gaiden, ei­ther. Tat­tooed pro­tag­o­nist Ivan is not a lithe, ag­ile fighter like Ryu Hayabusa, but a steroidal chunk of meat with a sword. He’s ca­pa­ble at close quar­ters, but there’s no fi­nesse to his ac­tions.

Not that there needs to be with AI this dumb. In the early game, en­e­mies are slow to re­act and even slower to fight back, whether you’re crouch­ing be­hind cover and tak­ing pot­shots or wav­ing an iron bar in their faces. Some­times you’ll blun­der into trou­ble be­cause you thought you’d cleared a room only to find one last man du­ti­fully stand­ing in po­si­tion be­hind a crate next to the exit. Ita­gaki’s so­lu­tion as the game pro­gresses is not to in­crease their in­tel­li­gence, but their num­ber, their ar­mour and the power of their ord­nance.

As such, it’s a much eas­ier game when you’re look­ing down iron sights, since sprint­ing head­long at a man aim­ing an RPG at you is rarely a sen­si­ble strat­egy. So, for long spells, melee is all but un­us­able. Only once you’ve de­feated the ma­jor­ity of the ex­ist­ing wave can you break out the kukri knives and dice the strag­glers. Oc­ca­sion­ally, a group of nin­jas will be tossed into the fray, at which point Ivan’s lit­tle-used dodge and block moves come into play, and the light and heavy at­tack but­tons get a fleet­ing work­out. You can throw your cur­rently equipped weapon, which is a one-hit-kill on reg­u­lar grunts, though it’s hardly worth the ef­fort to re­trieve it when you can open fire from range and fin­ish them off just as quickly. In the face of these de­sign fail­ures, a fram­er­ate that tanks when­ever any­thing ex­plodes – and oc­ca­sion­ally when it doesn’t – barely reg­is­ters; like­wise when tex­tures fail to load in or ex­tra­ne­ous way­point mark­ers refuse to dis­ap­pear.

There is, at least, a de­mented energy to the story, with a cast of an­tag­o­nists that re­sem­ble su­per­mar­ket own-brand ver­sions of Me­tal Gear Solid vil­lains. As bosses, your for­mer ter­ror­ist al­lies at the School Of Democ­racy rep­re­sent the game’s high­lights; even their in­stakill moves have long and read­able wind-ups, which is un­usu­ally con­sid­er­ate for an Ita­gaki game. Such is the propul­sive mo­men­tum of the plot that they’re barely in­tro­duced be­fore they’re killed off, and the same ap­plies for Ivan’s col­leagues: who­ever he’s part­nered with might as well be mea­sured for a casket the mo­ment they’re asked to join up with him. Af­ter a while, you’ll warm to Ivan’s im­pas­sive­ness in the face of all this mad­ness, un­til an un­nec­es­sar­ily cruel piece of mid-game vi­o­lence that leaves a sour note in a game that’s oth­er­wise so glee­fully lack­ing in taste or wit it’s al­most en­dear­ing. It’s not with­out en­ter­tain­ment value, but it’s a game you laugh at, not with.

The shod­di­ness is per­va­sive, yet the stu­dio throws ev­ery­thing it can at the mul­ti­player to make some­thing stick, in­clud­ing a clan-based metagame with the chance to forge and break al­liances. Modes where you trail a brood of rain­bow-coloured hens or col­lect water­mel­ons to throw into a gi­ant smoothie maker are charm­ingly ec­cen­tric in the­ory, but a game based on the same fun­da­men­tals as the cam­paign was al­ways likely to suf­fer from the same bal­anc­ing is­sues. One mode bans guns, but the hit­stun on melee at­tacks means who­ever lands the first blow will usu­ally emerge vic­to­ri­ous – as­sum­ing they’re not hit by a third party mid-skir­mish. Re­gard­less, such ef­fort is surely moot. Con­cerns about frag­ment­ing the player­base led Nintendo to launch Spla­toon with just two modes; Devil’s Third’s of­fer­ing of 18 seems not so much op­ti­mistic as pre­pos­ter­ous.

There are un­doubt­edly many un­told sto­ries be­hind Devil’s Third’s de­vel­op­ment, and they’re likely more in­ter­est­ing than the game it­self. There is ad­mit­tedly a per­verse fas­ci­na­tion in watch­ing the whole sham­bles un­fold, in mar­vel­ling at just how badly it can tank, at how quaintly old-fash­ioned it is. But its re­lent­less, pup­py­ish energy can only carry it so far, and in light of Ita­gaki’s past achieve­ments, the pre­dom­i­nant feel­ing is of crush­ing dis­ap­point­ment. The man re­spon­si­ble for Ninja Gaiden worked on a game for six years and this was the re­sult. Ita­gaki has brought a knife to a gun­fight, and the re­sult is a bloody mess.

Its aim­ing is stiff and un­wieldy, feed­back is poor and im­pacts lack weight. It’s no Ninja Gaiden ei­ther

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