Reboots and reimaginings

 

DmC Devil May Cry (391).jpgIt’s 2019 and gaming’s getting pretty long in the tooth now – by gaming’s standards, anyway. New hardware and general technical advances mean last generation’s Triple-A show-stopper is today’s abandoned bargain bin fodder even if it was once paraded around as everyone’s award winning 10/10 Game of the Forever darling. So what can be done with these cast-off classics? For fondly-remembered titles that can’t be “HD’d” any more than they were last time or ported it to the 3DS/Vita/Switch with varying degrees of effort there’s only one option left – some sort of complete do-over.

There are a few ways of handling this going-nuclear level of rebranding:

  • A reboot. A fresh start for the entire franchise, with the aim of supplanting the original. Forget everything you thought you knew, this is what the series is now.
  • A remake. The original, but (hopefully) better. This is either an indulgent second crack at the whip purely for the pleasure of adding new polish to the original, or sometimes what the original would have always been if only they could’ve pulled it off at the time.
  • A reimagining. Perhaps the rarest of all the Re’s, this one isn’t explicitly trying to replace or upgrade the original setting but instead offer it’s own unique and separate twist on a much loved classic.
  • Pachislot hell. This is where great Konami games go to die.

However they choose to go about it the same underlying desire to repackage something old and familiar in a new and exciting way that’s palatable to modern audiences is present in the three Re’s and a reboot can be the perfect kick in the backside a series needs to rediscover that lost magic, offering a clean break from the baggage of the past and a chance to clear out the cobwebs while still being able to cherry-pick the very best bits that everybody already loved before reincorporating them into one perfect refresh that delights long-term fans while giving the series the polish needed to woo new players and stand out from the crowd in these unforgiving modern times.

That’s the idea, anyway.

The truth is reboots and remakes are in a unique and utterly unenviable place: There is no reason for a reboot to even exist unless it can recapture some of that undefinable magic of the original, but at the same time it mustn’t stick too closely to what’s gone before because that would make it nothing more than a much-dreaded rehash – and nobody’s buying a rehash, not when the original’s well, original, and by now probably all of £2.50 in your favourite digital store’s frequent sales. What’s so interesting about this particular sub-genre of gaming is seeing how the quality of the end product is an almost entirely separate consideration from its treatment of the title or series in question: A Nights into Dreams reboot that ends up becoming the world’s most popular e-sports FPS would still be a terrible follow-up to Sega’s magnificent sky-acrobatics and people would be right to complain about the lack of care shown to everybody’s favourite neckless purple wonder. A reboot must always try to honour its past without being suffocated by it, a balancing act with no right or wrong answers until some unfortunate developer has a go and then gets it right or wrong.

Which brings us to the almost unsolvable problem with these games: A reboot must definitely be just-enough-but-not-too-much-like the original, yes? But woe betide the reboot that’s actually like the game it’s named after when in reality it has to be how people think they remember the game, the invisible personal snapshot that’s swimming around in their nostalgia-fuelled memories. Time has a habit of softening the rough edges we choose to forget older titles have: The solution to an obtuse puzzle is bound to feel straightforward when you’ve had the answer rattling around in your brain for twenty or thirty years, and the “natural” flow that makes your fingertips dance as you play through a classic platformer is more due to spending all day every day in the summer of 1992 playing that one game with your friend from school than truly peerless level design. So there you have it: An incredibly authentic and highly respectful reboot or remake is still no good unless it’s chasing a moving target that may have never existed in the first place – World of Warcraft Classic’s “Not A Bug” list is almost the perfect example of historical reality unceremoniously colliding with rose-tinted memories.

But a few brave souls insist on having a go anyway: Killer Instinct, XCOM, Splatterhouse, Silent Hill, DOOM, Tomb Raider… All of these famous titles have been revisited – some successfully, some less so – and offered up very different ideas as to what exactly a good reboot or remake should be aiming for across a wide variety of genres and formats… which would make writing about them a little bit tricky. Luckily a complete coincidence as I stumbled blindly through my endless backlog has given us the perfect pair of reboots to compare and contrast: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and DmC: Devil May Cry.

These two are especially useful to us because they’re in roughly the same sort of 3D action-adventure ballpark, they came out in the same generation (there’s only three years between them), and both were charged with reinvigorating their own well-regarded and much-loved legacies. But best of all is they way they get almost the exact opposite things right and wrong, making playing through them feel a bit like watching some highly skilled engineers painstakingly craft a beautiful unicycle… for a shark.

[A small note before we continue: In the interest of being fair to DmC – a reboot that only had one all-or-nothing go and some small “Definitive Edition” tinkering later on – when talking about Lords of Shadow I’ll be focussing exclusively on the first game and not its superior sequels]

Let’s start with an obvious thing Lords of Shadow gets right – and wrong: Combat. On paper there’s little to complain about here – you’ve got a standard-issue Belmont (a proper one, not a Morris or a Schneider or a Graves), a whip, some familiar sub-weapons that admirably echo the way they used to behave in pixellated times, and a bunch of monsters to unleash them on. So far, so good – in theory. In practise enemies tend to take just that little bit too long to go down, the patience-testing puzzle-platforming has you scouring the landscape for far too many inconvenient doodads that exist purely for the sake of giving you something to do, and there are only so many times you can stifle a yawn as yet another round of “Rotate the mirrors to reflect the light” drags everything to a screeching halt again.

Are we done driving a stake through Lords of Shadow’s proverbial heart? I wish. On top of the moment-to-moment flaws that keep tripping the game up the opening tutorial areas and huge chunks of the second chapter could’ve been merrily done away with without any real loss and the same goes for lingering camera shots of everything you need to notice that are often needlessly underlined by what feels like nigh-constant ” ‘AVE YER NOTICED THE MASSIV’ GLOWY BIT, MISTER CARLYLE?” verbal “help” whenever you have a companion in tow. It’s not bad but… you can’t really say it’s good either. “Hovering somewhere around tolerable” is about the best way to describe it – Lords of Shadow, when evaluated on its gameplay within its own little bubble, will do – mostly. If you’re patient.

Here DmC is the bright sunny day to Lords of Shadow’s dark vampiric night: The game has you essentially filling the boots of Devil May Cry 4’s Nero resurfaced with a Dante-like veneer, creating an immediately cool and approachable Nernte (Danro?) hybrid – and as we all know playing as Nero with his grabby “C’mere so I can hit you some more” demon hand ROCKS. DmC plays like a leaner, meaner, but still thoroughly Devil May Cry experience that is so loyal to its roots I was Enemy Stepping and Aerial Raving away like I’d been born with the game lodged in my brain well within the first hour of play, requiring no more muscle memory rewiring than it would to switch between any other games in the series. Heck, even the final battle against Vergil stuck closely enough to its Devil May Cry 3 template to make everything bar the very last scripted addition feel and play very much the same as always. In all honesty I’d like to see another Devil May Cry play like DmC does; I’d like to see the “real” Dante’s move list freed from the excessive weapon cycling and strictly segregated styles that have started dragging him down into an unfocussed everything-and-nothing mess, I really do think he’d be better for it.

DmC’s scoring system is another aspect of the game that deserves to be showered with praise – there’s no real difference in the normally under-the-hood tallying that’s going on but being able to see exactly what you’re being awarded points for, and seeing those point values go up as you skilfully chain moves together or go down when you repeat something just a bit too often goes a very long way to communicating the sort of approach the game’s looking for from its players in an immediately obvious and easily digestible way. As an added bonus it’s also a small but practical way of giving instant feedback on a player’s efforts – seeing the game “notice” when you perfectly dodge an incoming attack or create an aerial combo chain can help build confidence and understanding in the system even for players who have no interest in chasing leaderboard-worthy scores or perfect SSS ranks.

It’s fair to say that Lords of Shadow has a harder time here because it has by far the weaker foundations to build upon – for all the love I have for the likes of Castlevania 64 and Lament of Innocence I still have to admit they’re more well-intentioned efforts than thoroughly successful modernisations of the style found in the older games – it may well be time to accept that Castlevania’s 2D fan favourites simply don’t translate to the third dimension no matter how many development teams shed blood, sweat, and tears over that particular conundrum. Perhaps this is also why Lords of Shadow chooses to stick so closely to the generic action-adventure checklist of its era without really interrogating which parts make for a good game or fit the Castlevania mould – and because of this the game ends up offering the usual bland array of QTEs, purchasable skills and tacked-on puzzles in a game padded to an acceptable focus-tested length, all topped off with the obligatory paid-for DLC mini expansion. DmC has the benefit of being able to look back on its own stable of genre-defining classics and simply polish or lift from them as it pleases, much of the hard groundwork already laid out and then refined by others years ago.

There’s really no competition here – between Lords of Shadow and DmC, DmC’s the better game by a long shot. It plays well when considered as a standalone title and it feels like a natural continuation of the series when viewed as what was at the time the latest Devil May Cry. But even with all of the problems mentioned above, and even going up against DmC’s silky combat, Lords of Shadow still has an ace up its sleeve: It’s the better reboot.

Here’s where things get a little weird.

As I mentioned earlier a reboot’s job isn’t just to be a good game, it has to also bottle that undefinable “feel” of the original before running off with it in an all-new direction without alienating too many older fans in the process – a request that’s only slightly more reasonable than asking the developers to nail spaghetti to a wall. And yet this is the one thing Lords of Shadow gets things absolutely right: it may only be an OK-ish action game but it somehow manages to envelop itself in the best bits of existing Castlevania lore without becoming chained to its past, making it easy to come away from the game thinking “It may not be the best Castlevania game, but it definitely is a Castlevania game”. From that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Slogra corpse in the ending to Gabriel’s clearly Richter-inspired whip dash there are a lot of little fan-pleasing nods to previous games to be found within and even when they get it “wrong” – an evil werewolf called Cornell, or the vampire lord Olrox looking and behaving nothing like his more famous Symphony of the Night incarnation – they still make sense within this new world and the relative obscurity of these references mean they come across as nothing more than friendly little nudges; nobody could seriously expect these minor characters to return in any significant way, so any small scrap of recognition feels like a welcome touch. Instantly recognisable legends like Trevor Belmont, Alucard, Death, and, uh, Satan – are treated with all of the seriousness and care they deserve, even when things don’t unfold in the way you’d expect them to. Lords of Shadow may change a lot of important details but it does some fantastic things with its take on Castlevania lore and these key personalities never feel squandered or thoughtlessly shoved in for the sake of playing a shallow game of “I understood that reference” Whac-A-Mole. The series’ big new twist – Dracula’s not just a Belmont but the Belmont – creates a rich vein of fresh storylines to explore (which they went on to do an excellent job of in Mirror of Fate and Lords of Shadow 2), adding some much-needed flesh to traditionally skinny bones.

In contrast DmC is Lords of Shadow’s evil eyepatch’d mirror universe counterpart on this front, choosing to not just alter but outright jettison the one part of its original series that you would think didn’t really matter in an action game – the characters. DmC chose to reframe the original Devil May Cry’s pure-hearted cockiness as petty aggression and in doing so it stripped the game not just of its moment-to-moment charm but of its very soul. Ridiculous Cowboy Pizza Uncle Dante, Stoic Disaster Vergil, and Sweary Kitten Nero – whether you like them or not – are just as integral to the Devil May Cry experience as the swords and the guns and the SSStyle. The fun “Woo-yeah!” vibe that so effortlessly spills out of the cast naturally imbues their show-off antics and flashy moves with some real personality and gives their battles a very different kind of flavour and rhythm to the endless parade of cool angry men who are cool and angry as they kill things found everywhere else.

But a game can even get away with going so far as to hack out established essentials if it really sets its heart on it! Just look at Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance: That game is neither Metal Gear-y nor especially precious about preserving its main star’s previously established canon but it works so well while wallowing in its wilful ignorance because it’s a great game that’s also absolutely bonkers and the only thing it cares about doing is sweeping you off your feet and carrying you along on its non-stop fun train.

While DmC… DmC gives the distinct impression it resents its very existence.

Now self-loathing when written into a character can be a useful flaw to spin out into some sort of interesting story arc for the player’s benefit, and if it’s emanating from the creators it can be the perfect catalyst for a wild “I’m going to prove I can do this!” work ethic that sparks their imagination and takes a game in directions most wouldn’t even dare dream of – and that’s just the sort of thing I like to see! Sadly while DmC’s Dante may go through a bit of the former on his journey through Limbo (city) the game itself expends a lot of energy not just trying to consciously distance itself from previous Devil May Cry games but even goes so far as to outright mock them in places, which has the unwelcome knock-on effect of making the few cheeky winks towards pre-existing fans it does have like the “For Tony Redgrave” firearms kills achievement tracker – a reference so deep you would to need to either know pre-Devil May Cry 3 lore or have remembered a specific engraving on the side of the promotional renders of one of Dante’s guns – feel more like a mean-spirited trap than a friendly celebration of a shared past – “Oh, you remember that, do you? We don’t talk about that any more.”. If you try to consider DmC in a vacuum – or if you simply don’t care about any of the previous Devil May Crys – it’s still a game content to spoil what would otherwise be perfectly good scenes with schoolyard-level dick jokes, swearing that’d make a sailor ask the writers to calm down a bit, and wastes a lot of time dragging you through a “mature” retelling of Futurama’s “Fry and the Slurm Factory” episode (no, really) for no discernible reason. It’s very strange to see a game try so hard to pull you in one way (and to do it so well!) only for it to then make such a concerted effort to push you so far away in another, making for a strange and uncomfortable experience as you try to work out which bits of Devil May Cry DmC is willing to “allow” you to like.

DmC Devil May Cry (694).jpg

At the very least we can say that DmC is going to do what it does whether you like it or not, and that is why anyone who can tolerate spending time in an environment that actively hates itself, hates you, and seems to think “whore” is just the way cool kids say “woman” these days will find at its core a fluid action game that rewards skill and practise without overwhelming any new or less committed players in unfathomably complex battle mechanics. On the opposite side of the reboot looking glass Lords of Shadow has no real idea what it wants to be as a game and that is why it ends up as a bland selection of 360-era action-adventure bullet points that doesn’t amount to anything you haven’t already seen done before – but it is at least genuinely happy to belong to the series that spawned it and doesn’t actively despise anyone who can tell their Syphas from their Simons from their Somas. Both games get it wrong. Both games get it right. Seeing both sides of the same coin like this at least gives us a unique peek into the difficulties involved in creating this special sort of game – a game where the starting point is being compared to an idealised and nonexistent version of the very game you’re trying to move away from, a cruel and illogical trap where carefully studying and then repurposing everything good about the original can still lead to utter failure and ugly backlash from fans. I salute you brave rebooters, whether you succeed or fail in your impossible task, for even daring to give it a go.

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5 thoughts on “Reboots and reimaginings

  1. One interesting thing about how crassly different DmC is: For a long time everyone was wildly hateful to Ninja Theory, the western developer of the game. And some still make them acountable for all that’s wrong with it. But by now it has actually come out that a lot of the early design concepts are a lot closer to the original franchise, including the characters. It was actually Capcom, back then under the helm of Keiji “Japanese game design is dead, all hail the West” Inafune, who insisted on making it more and more different to reel in new audiences.

    Anyways, your comparison I think makes me more aware of why quite some people that I know aren’t too hot about Lords of Shadows, saying it’s a big bore, but think DmC is greatly underrated. They care a lot more about the combat then the rest of a game, and being cis dudes propably have an easier time shrugging off Dantes misogyny too when not interested in characters and storyline to begin with. They also often played the Definitive Edition which apparently is superior, though a console exclusive. But I doubt it changes much about the actual bad points of the game and just makes the combat even better anyways.

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    1. Yeah as with any game like DmC a lot of the changes (or the things that must be kept, no matter how badly they fit the new mould) are decrees from on high – Ninja Theory could’ve helped themselves by being less antagonistic even if they could never say “But Capcom made me do it”, though.

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  2. This was great to read, since both DmC and Lords of Shadow (and particularly Lords of Shadow’s sequels) are games that people like to shit on without bothering to actually try them out for themselves. I haven’t played either (yet, I fully intend to!) but they both sound like fascinating experiences for very different reasons. This has made me excited to check them both out!

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