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 Had it launched half a decade ago, it would still have seemed outdated.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