It wouldn't be far off to say that Devil's Third has been one of my most hotly-anticipated games ever announced. Sure, I was never the biggest fan of Itagaki's other big action series, Ninja Gaiden, but I always liked the general aesthetic and atmosphere of those games. Every Dead or Alive up until the abysmal fifth main entry was pretty solid, too. But what really drew me into the original announcement trailer for Devil's Third was not Itagaki's pedigree, but rather, how over-the-top everything looked. Running on walls, shooting limbs off of people in mid-air, seamlessly switching between hack-and-slash and shooting mechanics... it looked absurd in all the right ways.
After nearing death several times, Devil's Third has finally been cranked out by Nintendo. And while the state that the final product in is troubling, to say the very least, and basically none of that initial trailer is in the game, what we get is more or less what I wanted from Tomonobu Itagaki's freshman post-Team Ninja outing.
Developer: Valhalla Games
Publisher: Nintendo (don't tell anyone, though!)
Available On: Wii U
I say "more or less" because, frankly, there's no way around one simple fact: this game is a complete and total mess in more ways than one. The framerate is junk. The shooting mechanics are sloppy. The physics engine is catastrophically absurd. If any of those things sound like things that would make you unhappy, ignore the rest of this review. I preface with this only to give potential fair warning that, in a year full of polished 60 dollar releases, Devil's Third is woefully unprepared to compete for your dollar, especially in a month where the unfathomably good Xenoblade Chroncles X also hit the Wii U.
But does any of that mean that I don't like Devil's Third? Surprisingly? No, not really.
How is this possible, though? Logic dictates that a game which releases in a state that feels incomplete deserves lambasting and scorn. Indeed, my most successful review to date is my shredding of the horrifically bad Assassin's Creed Unity, which released in a buggy, broken, unplayable state that Ubisoft ought to have been ashamed of. What's the difference, then? Devil's Third is certainly buggy, and it could be argued some aspects of it are broken.
The difference between this and a AAA game that releases in a practically unplayable state is that while most games in that latter category are cynical, focus-tested exercises in monotony and repetition, Devil's Third is, for the most part, a total blast. From start to finish, but mainly in the game's far superior second half, the entire experience is a bizarre acid trip of original ideas and cliches, thrown into the psychedelic blender that is the mind of Tomonobu Itagaki, then poured into a cup that happens to be on fire. That rings true for the gameplay, the story, the aesthetic... everything. This game is a wild and wacky trip that's almost incomparable to anything else on the market.
That's made clear from the game's opening cutscene, in which former terrorist Ivan the Terrible is serving an 850 year sentence in Guantanamo Bay. In his cell, he's playing drums with a strobe light set-up while having flashbacks to his days of running with his terrorist peeps. After being called to break up a prison riot occurring inside of Guantanamo Bay, Ivan is forced to confront his past when his old friends blow up every satellite in space and therefore take out every source of electricity on earth. There are also ninjas, mutants with jetpacks, sword fights above a fiery abyss, and a boss fight with a woman in lingerie who uses bedroom moves to subdue you.
If you couldn't tell, the narrative here is completely bonkers, and in many respects, an incoherent mixture of technological jargon, weapon fetishism, speculative fiction, and fantasy. Oh, and samurai films. Can't forget that. Point is, there's nothing quite like Devil's Third out there. Well, except for Metal Gear, which does basically the same thing, but in a much more polished, self-serious way.
Only... I quite like the gonzo, irreverent tone that Itagaki's cooked up here. In a gaming landscape where wacky action games are becoming increasingly few and far in between (even the newest Metal Gear was a disappointingly dour affair,) there's something to be said for a developer who says to hell with consistency and decides to throw everything plus the kitchen sink into their game, blissfully ignorant as to how things could possibly go wrong. Macho one-liners are cracked during ethical dilemmas concerning animal testing and human experimentation. Heads and limbs and blood fly everywhere in a game that's supposed to be questioning the morality of killing. The protagonist literally runs into battles with no shirt on, despite every single weapon being licensed from real companies and depicted exactly how they would behave on the battlefield. It's all a weird, whacked-out, incongruous mess, but in a way that I find aggressively entertaining. One of the things that kept me going was simply wondering what kind of insane crap Itagaki could throw in next, and frankly, the climax of the game completely blew my expectations out of the water in that respect.
That said, lack of consistency isn't always a good thing, and such is the case with the gameplay. Unfortunately, the first quarter to half of the game is, quite frankly, not that fun. It's a poorly-designed series of shooting galleries loaded with cheap kills and bad level layouts. Coupled with a framerate that will dip severely when nothing's even happening, the entire experience seemed like it was going to be an unpleasant slog.
Imagine my surprise when the game finally starts to gain some semblance of fun after the first hour or two. I'm not really even sure what did it, either. The framerate's still bad, and the shooting's still not great. But once Ivan shoots his way through a city of not-zombie zombies, the game's pace picks up, and there winds up being a lot to love. The level designs become increasingly unique, with Russian space stations, feudal Japanese cities, and World War II trenches getting thrown into the mix. Enemies start becoming more varied and fun to kill, and a wider arsenal is opened up for players to enjoy.
Don't get me wrong: the whole package is still wonky, janky, and, by many standards, bad. But in a way, it's the good kind of bad. The kind of bad that Suda 51 and SWERY specialize in, albeit delivered in a less immediately enjoyable way. Bad physics often result in unintentional comedy, baffling storytelling decisions are relentlessly entertaining, and unrealistic violence is both satisfying and hilarious. If the game were a self-serious, joyless, gritty affair that was trying to push a zillion units and become the next big thing, then I'd be a bit more critical. But somehow, I don't get the impression that was ever what Itagaki was trying to do. Instead, it feels like he had a few wild ideas, then pieced the rest together in a strange way that only he could cook up. As a result, the whole thing feels like video game equivalent of a particularly good SyFy Saturday Night Movie.
The visuals are on par with that, too, because they're bad. Like, really, really bad. We're talking Wii to early 360 quality, and that's not even hyperbole. Like, I've played way prettier games on the Wii, and maybe even the PS2. Now, granted, once the cool scenery kicks in, one almost forgets and forgives the lack of horsepower, and in fact, there's a noticeable bump in visual fidelity as the game wears on. Personally, with the overall lack of polish in those sections, it feels like the first 2-3 levels were just slapped on for the sake of explaining the controls.
And honestly, that might be the biggest gripe with Devil's Third overall: it just doesn't feel finished. Honestly, it feels like a game that Nintendo came to in mid-development, then made Valhalla crank out whatever they had with no regard for quality, then abandoned it like a redheaded stepchild when they realized that the game needed at least 6-12 more months of dev time. It's clear, from execution to performance to the early stages held in comparison to the later ones, that this version of Itagaki's vision was not the one intended to see the light of day.
That's unfortunate, too, because what's here is something that I genuinely enjoyed, despite early hours of cursing at the game and wishing it would go die in a fire. Is it great? Nope. Is it polished? Not at all. Does it hold a candle to what I consider to be some of the best titles of the year? Nah, son. But what's here is a blast to play, for the most part, and something that I have the full intention of going through again once or twice. There's even a pretty neat multiplayer mode on top of the campaign, one that has a pretty healthy amount of content.
Devil's Third is the type of weird, wonky insanity that I expected it to be from the get-go, essentially. Only, once can only imagine what kind of game Itagaki could have produced with better resources, and better oversight on Nintendo's part. One can only imagine what this game would have been like had wall-running, different protagonists, and all the other stuff initially promised remained intact. I can definitely see this game picking up a cult audience, one that I'd definitely count myself a member of, but I honestly feel like with better execution, more oversight, and better testing, this could have been more than a cult game. It could have, perhaps, been a hit.
Here's hoping there's a Devil's Fourth, huh?
But that's all speculation at this point. When all is said and done, despite all of its misgivings, my five-year wait for Devil's Third ultimaely paid off. It's not perfect, but it's memorable and fun, if sometimes for the entirely wrong reasons. I'll take that over a big-budget, bog-standard open-world game with same-y missions and microtransactions any day of the week.
- Completely insane from start to finish.
- Unintentional comedy event of 2015.
- Melee combat is satisfying.
- Second half has memorable set pieces.
- Robust multiplayer that people are actually playing.
- A really great soundtrack.
- Abhorrent visuals.
- Framerate is almost as bad as Fallout 4's.
- Artificial difficulty is frustrating.
- Shooting mechanics are janky.
- Treatment of women is laughably bad.