As a critic, I endeavour to approach each game I play with an open mind. It's almost impossible, however, not to have some preconceptions when a game arrives for review. Knowledge of the developer, familiarity with the circumstances of its development and experience within its chosen genre are just three of the factors that come into play. Devil's Third is an unusual case in that I came to it acutely aware of both its troubled background and a raft of overwhelmingly negative impressions from those who've played it so far. My expectations, then, were fairly low — and to a point, they were met.
But only to a point. In truth, Devil's Third was unlikely to turn out well given its chequered past. Developer Valhalla Games was formed by Tomonobu Itagaki following his acrimonious split from Tecmo in 2008, with several members of Team Ninja departing later to join him. Since then, Devil's Third has passed through four different game engines, transitioning from a PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 game to a Wii U exclusive, having been dropped by original publisher THQ prior to its closure. It's also changed quite a bit in its design: a 2012 trailer shows a male and female protagonist (neither of whom features in the finished game), suggesting a co-operative adventure, though its blend of hack-and-slash action and gunplay was evidently there from the start.
Glimmers of hope remained nonetheless. With Nintendo obtaining the publishing rights and talk of Valhalla collaborating with Nintendo SPD to get it finished, there was a chance that a game that looked rather scrappy and rough-hewn at last year's E3 would benefit from the spit-and-shine we associate with Nintendo games. Meanwhile, the exceptional Xbox reboot of Ninja Gaiden and its similarly acclaimed sequel were proof that Itagaki had the secret formula to produce a top-tier action game.
Devil's Third is not a top-tier action game. It's not even a mid-tier one. But let's cut through the hyperbole here. No, it's not much of a looker, but its graphics are not PS2 standard. It's not the worst game Nintendo has ever published by a long stretch, particularly when you consider the likes of FlingSmash, Pokémon Dash, Super Mario Ball, and Urban Champion. In the pantheon of third-person action games, it's not as shonky and tedious as Tecmo's own Quantum Theory, nor as outright hateful as the risible Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, possibly the most soul-crushingly miserable experience I've had in nine years of reviewing games. It's a mediocre game with considerable performance issues and some laughable AI, but at the same time I'd be lying if I said I didn't sporadically experience some base pleasures from this knowingly knuckle-headed game.
Which isn't to say it doesn't have a litany of problems. So many shifts of game engine were always likely to cause performance issues, though after a while you can reliably predict when the frame-rate is going to tank. (Fittingly, it's usually when a tank is present.) Plenty of games suffer similar technical woes, but it's more problematic when you're dealing with an action game where responsiveness is key — particularly in light of Itagaki's fondness for challenging his players.
Who brings a sword to a gunfight?
More centrally, the combination of melee combat and first-person shooting just doesn't really work. Many of the early encounters are balanced to accommodate both approaches, and so the AI is heroically stupid. The first boss is defeated by crouching behind a piece of cover and popping out to shoot him as he stands stock still, haphazardly spraying machine gun fire that barely scratches you.
Alternatively, you can wade into the fray with an iron bar, a machete or a pair of kukri, and take down regular grunts simply by bashing the light and strong attack buttons. Later, that changes: melee is far too risky a strategy when you've got RPGs and miniguns to contend with, and so you simply hang back and take pot shots. At other times, you'll be asked to deal with agile ninjas and know it's time to let your sword do the talking (partly because the first-person aiming is so stiff). In other words, the two disciplines are rarely combined in any meaningful way — though it's a cathartic moment when you battle through a testing set-piece and get to hack apart any stragglers you haven't already gunned down.
Beyond that, it's a game that feels like a compromise of ideologies. At its heart,Devil's Third is a Japanese action game that's trying to be a western one. Go back a few years and it seems every Japanese publisher was trying to do this, with varying degrees of success — from Vanquish and Binary Domain at the top end to the aforementioned Quantum Theory and Yaiba at the bottom.
There's definite scope for improvement
And so Devil's Third liberally borrows ideas that had begun to look old hat five years ago: there's a set-piece where you mark targets for an air strike, a vehicle chase, a turret section or three, and a moment where someone takes an unreasonable amount of time to open a door while you fend off seemingly endless waves of enemies. There's no attempt to add a creative spin to any of these: they're simply assumed to be important parts of contemporary western action games and presented as such.
It's no surprise that the best parts of Devil's Third are when it steps through the cloud of smoke and says "tonight, Matthew, I'm going to be Ninja Gaiden"; notably a sequence in a Japanese-style pleasure district against an army of robed warriors. Admittedly, it's not a brilliant impersonation (it's never as slick or as responsive as it needs to be) though at least the camera is rarely so capricious. Meanwhile, the boss battles are entertainingly staged, if occasionally frustrating. Itagaki is still a fan of the one-hit-kill move, though the wind-up animations for these are easy enough to read after the first death, giving you plenty of time to take evasive action.
A score attack mode gives you the opportunity to skip all the cutscenes and make your way through the game more efficiently, and it's here that you begin to see glimpses of the original concept's promise. Most of the levels are too long and too arduous to encourage repeat plays, but there is a modicum of dumb fun to be had, even if it often feels like you're laughing at the game rather than with it.
Still, I found it hard not to grin as protagonist Ivan slid impossibly up a stairwell on his backside before cutting an enemy's head off with a samurai sword. (As an aside, the fact that the game's terrorist group School Of Democracy are referred to by their acronym was a source of much unintentional hilarity. Sample line: "Use any and all methods at your disposal to neutralise the sod.") Such moments are spread far too thinly, but they're enough to suggest that there may be some value in Devil's Third's as-yet-unavailable multiplayer component, which will at least benefit from the absence of moronic enemies and difficulty spikes.
Much has been written about Itagaki's riposte to his critics on social media ("Devil's Third is the game which reflects the player's skill directly/vividly" he posted on Facebook), though I'm surprised anyone was surprised: a man who's spent five years struggling to get his game finished and published, let alone a provocateur like Itagaki, is hardly going to throw it under the bus before it's even out.
I don't agree with him: playing Devil's Third skilfully isn't going to magically solve all its problems. Rather, I think Devil's Third is a game that reflects its development history directly and vividly. Peek through the cracks and you can glimpse a more interesting game struggling to get out. It's a shame we'll never get a proper look at it.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour with a U from the British isles.