On Characterizing Potential
Devil May Cry 3’s first fight between the twins Dante and Vergil is set at the highest point of a large tower jabbing from the Earth, lit by the full moon. The differences between the brothers’ fighting styles are as striking as their fashion senses, the hot-headed Dante in his red trench coat unleashing his Rebellion sword and dual pistols a contrast to the cool-as-ice Vergil in his blue jacket and air slicing katana, Yamato. The two rivals clash swords and exchange gunfire, taking advantage of any opening in the other’s defense to chop ‘em down. And then they flaunt their success with a cool taunt, unconcerned by the time it takes to mock their opponent. Every second of this brawl is intense and fast, and, by product of the game’s design, requires the player to fully realize the personalities of the sons of the legendary demon warrior Sparda.
A person is defined by their actions. Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening opens with our young hero kicking back with a pizza in his unnamed office when he’s ambushed by a gang of lesser demons, shrugging off the weapons burying into his body, shooting a billiard ball that ricochets into his enemies, and skating around the room on one while he shoots the rest. This scene is saturated with over the top zaniness and fun action. And then you take control and through the course of the following fight accidentally jump onto a downed enemy’s back and fire your guns, only to watch Dante kick off the ground and tear through the area in the same way he had in the cinematic. The opening scene wasn’t just showcasing a ridiculous character in a crazy world, but highlighting a set of moves and behaviors that you will be exploiting in every fight thereafter. As actions are the core elements of gameplay, DMC3’s design creates behaviors that fully capture the personality of its main character, putting players directly into the untied boots of its wild blonde dynamo.
Dante’s Awakening was a chance to start the series fresh, to play to its strengths while addressing its faults. With the first Devil May Cry, Hideki Kamiya elevated the 3D combat model that The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time had started. DMC turned the brawler genre’s objective-oriented level structure and fighting game’s pugilist science into a single player fighting game framework that actively graded your performance in real-time. But while that game effectively ushered in a new genre in character action, it lacked the refinement and precision of either of the ones that formed its foundation. The fact that jump was mapped to the top face button, guns could only be fired when using the R1 lock on, and multiple sword attacks dedicated the player to facing the same direction as the first, created an awkward play experience. It was no surprise, really, considering Kamiya, and Devil May Cry itself, had come from a legacy of Resident Evil, not fighting games.
Enter Hideaki Itsuno. At the time of DMC’s release in 2001, Itsuno had already cut his teeth on a series of critically acclaimed fighters, from working on Street Fighter Alpha to creating new series with the 2.5D Rival Schools/Project Justice games and the Dreamcast’s Power Stone titles. With these two latter series, Itsuno was morphing his fighting games into 3D brawlers. Though he was brought on to finish the troubled Devil May Cry 2 late in development, it was a chance to address some of the original’s mechanical faults. All of Itsuno’s expertise went into Dante’s Awakening, both the game and the metaphor. It freed him. DMC3 has vertically oriented gameplay that is only limited by the player’s dedication to exploring it.
And dedication it requires. Long before he squares up against Vergil, Dante tackles the three headed hound from Hell, Cerberus, in Mission 3. As if the rotating set of heads that rain stalactites, charge forward, and freeze the ground, wasn’t enough, his rechargeable ice armor has to be broken away before he takes damage. Considering everything going on in this battle, Dante’s Awakening’s complex mechanics and fast gameplay can easily overwhelm the new player, their defeat slapping their ass back to the beginning of Devil May Cry 3’s first substantive chapter. Far from the cool and powerful character that had been portrayed in the opening cinematics, you’re left feeling like an awkward, pathetic scrub.
Fighting Like A Son Of Sparda
Between taking control of Dante in his small office and the fight against Cerberus at the base of the tower, DMC3 had systematically revealed a wide variety of enemies, weapons, styles, and level structure through its progression. Mission 1 introduced you to the first two demonic enemy types including the methodical Pride that simply walks up to you and performs an overhead strike and the quick and agile Lust that scurries around and choreographs its dashing attack by first leaping back. While neither of these enemies is difficult by themselves, the net effect of both units creates a challenge that requires focus and situational awareness, especially in the tight confines of the office and the more limited framing of the camera. With additional waves of enemies teleporting in from all around, including from outside the camera frame, you need to be able to react to the danger coming at you from every angle.
Dante’s ‘cool’ gameplay had been designed around alternating his sword and gun attacks, melee and ranged, fluidly changing on the fly to deal with foes in a range of scenarios. To do this successfully, the game set each weapon type to adjacent face buttons so you can implement changes within fractions of a second. But there’s only so much you can do with a single button, so combos are composed of a pair of three-press rhythms; the more basic consists of strike, strike, strike and the more advanced a strike, pause, strike, strike, but comes with the option of executing Million Stab by mashing the button at the end. In the air, Helm Breaker performs a strong downward slash that slams foes to the ground and crushes those already there. All of these moves have short animation routines, and so create a staccato of button presses in the heat of battle, each short so the player isn’t standing in one place too long. Of course, the sword and guns have different characteristics; any sword strike is slower than any pistol shot but each does more damage and has more weight, the latter attribute adding stuns, interrupts, and kickback, when its value is higher than the enemy’s resistance to it.
Unlike traditional brawlers like Double Dragon or Streets of Rage, fighting games are able to have moves with directional inputs because every player faces one opponent at a time and all inputs happen in relation to them. Ryu can execute a quarter-circle-forward rotation on an arcade stick because he is focused purely on Ken. This isn’t an option for brawlers, where a dozen on screen enemies are par for the course. This is why Ocarina of Time’s Z-targeting system was so revolutionary. By holding R1, Dante locks his view onto a single opponent, a mode that comes with a new set of special moves connected to the analog stick. Now, holding back and hitting triangle activates the enemy-launching High Time. These special inputs apply defensively as well, as a side jump becomes an evasive roll with brief invincibility. In a move that greatly helped Dante’s crowd control game, Itsuno fixed how Dante handles groups of foes by letting him change the direction he’s facing in the slight pause between melee attacks, a move that naturally lets you route your energy around you without breaking your flow. Z-targeting itself adds another tactical layer to the combat, forcing the player to properly shift their attention from the foe in front of them to the three coming up on the sides. No lock means normal moves and tight control in the area around the player; lock means a direct line to one enemy and special moves that attack forward and up. You have access to a full complement of move types, from ones that put enemies in the air to ones that take ‘em back to the floor. Dante has a solution for any scenario and can trigger each on command.
Mission 2’s arena is a space outside Dante’s office that’s larger than the one inside. Since you’ve learned how to catch enemies in a stun with your sword strikes, you only need to worry about making contact with your foes, letting you turn your attention to what’s happening with the rest. After the first two waves, a new enemy shows up, Wrath, which is impervious to sword attacks but blows up after a bullet barrage, taking any within its range back to Hell with it. The flow has been changed to prioritize this enemy for both offensive and defensive reasons. At the end of this mission you meet your strongest foe yet that’s not only impervious to your kickback but can pitch you off balance if you attack at the same time it does. The first two areas’ focus on combat are meant to familiarize the player with the gameplay before setting them off in Vergil’s direction.
The combat construct at this point was solidly built but incomplete. Dante’s Awakening’s largest new feature was the addition of the Style system, move suites that mapped a wide range of new abilities to the circle button and give shape to Dante’s fighting form. Offensively, Swordmaster gives Rebellion a single button launcher and new aerial combo while Gunslinger let Ebony and Ivory aim around the room independently from each other and gives the player a new air attack that focuses fire directly below them. With Trickster, Dante gained access to new traversal maneuvers including a dash, while Royal Guard’s blocking system adds a variation of Street Fighter 3’s parry mechanic to inflict damage to an enemy when timed to their attack. All these styles add incredible depth to the game’s strategic layer. The only unfortunate aspect of the style system here was being limited to one at a time.
All this analysis is to recognize what Dante’s capabilities are at the beginning. Basically every element of the game’s mechanical design has the potential for outward growth, and the obvious complexity that comes with it. The Devil May Cry kernel is immensely powerful and had to be scaled down to a few manageable moves off the bat before incrementally revealing itself. How smart is it that the game’s Red Orb economy expands the combat from that base, where proving to the game that you can defeat enemies with its moves earns you the right to defeat them in new ways? As early as Mission 2 Dante can add the lunging Stinger to his list of R1 specials to zip blade-first at an enemy from a dozen feet away, interrupting their moves and sending them flying backwards. In the middle of Mission 3, you add a shotgun to your arsenal, a press of the L2 button the only thing keeping its double barrels from your combat flow. The shotgun’s short range but higher damage value and knockback provides different opportunities than your two pistols. Since the guns are really only capable of one action by default- shooting- their whole profile is really the sum of the two that you have equipped at one time.
With every new component that gets added to your moves, you’re a more dynamic fighter with immense potential, and inch ever closer to realizing the off-the-wall personality that had opened the game. Here’s the thing: these cool looking moves with quick animations create combat with small beats that drastically ramp up the gameplay speed. But it’s not just that these moves are cool, it’s that they are jaw-dropping when done in a sequence, and redlines its Crazy Per Minute. The first step to success in DMC3 is to open your mind and embrace the insanity.
Poetry In Versus
A fight is a test, not just of your understanding of your opponent but of yourself. You stroll into Cerberus’ den understanding Dante’s complex combat model on a primal level even if you’re not completely proficient at executing it. But experiment with all your available moves and you’ll discover what you need to win. Dash away when his paws lift to avoid his swipes, increase your hang time by shooting when he freezes the ground, and use your shotgun to blast away his ice armor and reveal the vulnerable skin underneath. Learn to execute moves without thought so you can spend your energy finding an opening to whittle away his life. As you gain confidence with the controls you’ll find yourself exhibiting Dante’s cool-headed composure ingame, and will soon be lobbing off dog heads until the last pleads for mercy and grants you a new three-part nunchuck. Bringing Cerberus down is intensely satisfying. But it’s also the first of many more tests to come.
Unlike the shotgun that only adds one move to Dante’s basic set, the nunchucks effectively double it. That’s an impressive increase considering it only burdens the player with remembering one more controller button. With an entire new set of combos cascading from the triangle attack, both pretty similar to the rhythms they were already using with Rebellion, the player can easily swap between the two with a pull of R2. With the fact that every attack is a small complete move that can be linked together and weapon swaps are triggered by a different finger on the controller, changes can slip into the combat flow without delay. The player can easily attack in a sequence of sword, nunchuck, sword, sword, nunchuck, nunchuck without their thumb leaving the triangle button. Thanks to its small beats, DMC3’s fast gameplay flows from your fingertips.
With every additional melee weapon Dante acquires, a realization sets in: they’re all basically a simple, yet complete, fighting game character. It’s not just that Cerberus has different statistical pros and cons than Rebellion, it’s that they have different animation phases than the two short swords that the bosses Agni and Rudra bestow. Things get more interesting with the electric guitar Nevan that generates different fields of static energy around Dante depending on how it’s strummed. That these weapons have similarly basic combos, the player isn’t burdened with needless memorization and can exert more of their energy creatively.
Let’s look at what all this means to see what Hideaki Itsuno was able to create: Dante is a single character capable of many different fighting styles, and that, including the profile afforded by your equipped guns, the player is effectively three distinct fighters at any one time, all of which can be modified depending on which of the six total Styles you equip. Even when a weapon has a troublesome vulnerability, it can be otherwise cancelled or dealt with; the different movesets layer to make up for the deficiencies of any one. Don’t want to use Trickster but wish to have the ability to close in on enemies quickly or evade an attack? Use the forward + attack special with Rebellion or Agni & Rudra and learn the timing to deflect an attack with Royal Guard. Any weaknesses can be overcome with player skill and comprehension and thus nothing is outside your control to change. Regardless of what you choose, you have an extremely flexible set of moves with a mind-boggling number of options that can be swapped on the fly to create custom linkable combos with huge damage potential.
The fact that Dante wields each of these weapons with a confident bravado that borders on giddy exuberance is testament to just how much personality Capcom put into the core elements of the game. When he’s not spinning the Cerberus nunchucks around his forearm like a fan he’s sliding along his knees with Nevan or blindly playing it behind his head. Yeah, every one of these animations is inherently cool in and of itself, but when you’ve linked them together on the fly to wipe out a horde of enemies, doling out massive damage to the group with style, it becomes God damned crazy. The gameplay is characterization. If that wasn’t enough, the game lets you taunt with the select button, an act worth no damage but whose use tells you everything you need to know about yourself: if you improperly time it and get hit before the animation completes, your misplaced pride leaves you feeling foolish and forces you to check yourself; if you succeed it proves your ability to control the situation around you and throws up a middle finger to the very game system that had spent so much time beating you down in the first place. That’s fucking rad.
The second time you meet Vergil is deep in the heart of the tower. More than the other bosses you had fought thus far, he has a robust fighting style that has only further developed since he defeated the monster Beowulf and claimed his set of bracers. With them, he executes a fast series of punches and spin kicks, reminiscent of Akira’s moveset in Itsuno’s excellent Project Justice. When he’s not executing dive kicks or shooting his phantom blades at you, he’s rending the air with even larger slices than before and blade dashing at you with Yamato. This second duel is even more intense and satisfying than the first and requires that you understand who both of these characters are and what they are capable of.
With the release of the DMC3 Special Edition, Vergil became a playable character with his own unique moveset and DarkSlayer style. What’s interesting isn’t just how he plays differently than Dante, but there are few of the AI version’s moves that aren’t put directly into the player’s hands. He can still do the dashing Rapid Slash and air rending Judgement moves with Yamato before executing Beowulf’s spin kick Rising Sun. That means Itsuno’s team had constructed a mechanically complete opponent for Dante to battle out of the same core elements. The DarkSlayer style provides a teleportation good for clearing distances or phasing away from an attack, its level progression gating his more powerful moves from the player. Vergil’s limited scope was represented by his Phantom Blades ranged attack and three melee weapons, which could be cycled with L2 and R2. Just as the output of the gameplay captured Dante’s over the top character, so does it exhibit every bit of Vergil’s cool-headed finesse. They make great contrasts despite their similarities.
The last fight between the twins takes place inside the demon world, Sparda’s birthplace. With the stakes their highest, both boys need to unleash everything they’ve got and Vergil arrives with his final weapon, Force Edge, that gives him his own Helm Breaker and Stinger moves to ramp up the pressure. The result is the game’s fastest, most brutal fight where the only path to survival is to find the tiny gaps in the unrelenting assault to catch him off guard and strike as quickly, precisely, and strongly as you can before he catches his breath and retaliates. If a person’s actions represent who they are, Devil May Cry 3 teaches you to wildly throw yourself into life, to have fun and work hard, to understand not only yourself but those that wish to drag you to Hell. It trains you to be its Hero: confident, cool, and uncompromisingly crazy.
PLATFORM: Playsation 2
Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. For sample chapters and to see his other works please check out his blog.