Perhaps it’s enough that Devil’s Third exists at all. A game best known for being mired in development hell almost since it was announced in 2010, the game has been passed from publisher to publisher. It’s been jury-rigged over and over, as the world of technology shifted underneath it. And when it finally did come out, it was rendered nearly invisible—an exclusive for Nintendo’s poor-selling Wii U that garnered no mention on the front page of that system’s digital store, and, less than a week after release, is already a rarity on disc. But at last Devil’s Third is here now. And there’s no place for it in contemporary society.
Devil’s Third feels old, and it would have felt old in 2010. In its single-player campaign, the game tells tale of Ivan, a tattooed cipher serving 850 years in Guantanamo for his time in a militia of colorful grind-house villains. That menagerie has since knocked all of the satellites out of the sky, and so the American government calls Ivan and threatens the safety of his beloved guitar until he agrees to murder his friends.
So far, so nonsensical. Ivan then wades into this strange cartoon of Cold War bogeymen with nothing but his sweet sunglasses and bare hands. There’s a mechanical, but serviceable, face-to-face combat system here, and fists quickly give way to a variety of blades and bludgeoning implements. It’s combined with simple blocking and dodging into a reasonably diverting mayhem delivery system, even if it doesn’t always feel like the controls are listening to every little button press. But then Devil’s Third introduces fights that can’t be won with hand-to-hand methods, because Ivan is bringing a knife to a gunfight.
Ivan can bring a gun, but maybe he shouldn’t—the gunplay in Devil’s Third is thoroughly antiquated. Hip shooting is uselessly inaccurate. Looking down the iron sights works more often, but even that requires an excessive amount of precision aiming and, since Ivan slows to a crawl while he’s aiming, stalls the momentum of play. Maybe this isn’t a terrible crime, as most of that momentum propels Ivan down offensively lo-fi rectangular hallways. But Ivan needs to move forward to fight his friends, and while those fights are still often uninteresting, they are at least bookended with the sort of delightfully unhinged cinematics that used to be ubiquitous in games of a certain age. Dying men in snakeskin suits will rant about what it means to have honor. Straightforward sexual advances will devolve rapidly into ninja combat. Devil’s Third would have felt so at home with the video games of 2005.
It continues to show its inexplicable premature aging in the multiplayer component, which represents the majority of the game. At its most basic level, the online play just takes Ivan’s marginal repertoire of violence and grafts it onto the most typical of player-vs.-player structures: your death match, your point captures, and so on. The extras that it layers on in the early goings are galling. Devil’s Third asks you to spend real money on a currency called Golden Eggs, which can be traded for a lot of things—too many things. It asks for Golden Eggs in exchange for clothes, which provide small advantages like additional health. But it also demands Eggs for certain weapon accessories. This is the only way to get the flamethrower add-on, which is possibly the best close-quarters weapon in the game. That this pay-to-win mindset is one of the only nods to modernity in Devil’s Third is appalling.
Stick with it past this, though, and Devil’s Third starts to slowly reveal surprising moments of entertainment. In the American release, additional play modes are being unlocked over time. The most recent addition, Chickens Mode, has everyone battling for the same limited pool of barnyard fowl. The winner is the one who controls the most chickens for the longest time. This feels genuinely creative and amusing, and because the best strategy is to collect as many chickens as possible and then avoid every other player, it plays to the games’ strengths (the parts without fighting) while hiding its biggest weakness (that nobody is playing it). Reports from other regions, where the game has been out for a while, state that we can expect other weird modes, including one involving fruit and blenders. That could be something.
For those who are willing to get even farther into Devil’s Third, the game does eventually grant a collection of interesting, interconnected systems to toy with. It gives everyone their own base camp, which can be customized with a variety of buildings, traps, and choke points. At the same time, it opens up a system of player clans, which have their own resources and large-scale military hardware. Clan battles take place exclusively in player bases, with the winning clan taking resources directly from the loser.
When this all works together, it’s legitimately thrilling. When attacking with a clan, it’s impossible to know what surprises the defending team’s base has in store. When defending, there’s a real anxiety over whether this other player bothered to shore up their base at all. And then there’s the worry that the game would have your clan defending your base, which might be such garbage that you’d be letting the whole team down.
Fortunately for my terrible preparedness skills, Devil’s Third only works this way less than half of the time. Usually it goes something like this: I would meet up with one of the few active clans and join an attack. We wait three minutes for the defending team to show up. They don’t, and we would win by default, which earns us no prizes. We wouldn’t have to defend our own bases, because nobody was there to attack us.
It’s here that Devil’s Third has its next problem with chickens and eggs. It can’t succeed because it is, at heart, a multiplayer game that has no players. Its caretakers won’t bother telling anybody about it because it can’t succeed. And so it sits, largely unloved, as a game that was never given a real shot. Did it deserve one? Maybe, long ago. Today, Devil’s Third is a fossil, its best ideas buried under layers of strata. And almost nobody has—or should have—the patience to dig them up.