Devil May Cry may be revered for merging fighting game’s pugilist science with brawler’s crowd management, but it was driven by its arcade-inspired scoring system. Dedicated fans can easily spend dozens of hours honing their skills against the game’s difficult enemies and massive bosses, all to improve their final scores. With DMC3, Hideaki Itsuno expanded the single player fighting game’s combat and worked in replayable missions. When that amazing foundation jumped to the PS3 and Xbox360 for the fourth release, Itsuno could further distill the series down into an arcade experience and offer new characters for those chasing that high score high. Let’s look at how it succeeds.
Since the first game, Devil May Cry’s famous real-time style gauge has graded players on a host of variables, multiplying consecutive hits by attack variety while subtracting for taking damage. DMC’s point scheme pulls double duty, turning red orbs into a currency to buy new moves and consumable items to help complete the missions. As a game’s scoring system needs to accurately capture a player’s skill, the base gameplay needs to be fair so players want to invest the time into playing- DMC delicately balances its gameplay, enemy formations, and level design, which is especially important when the player’s opponent is the game itself.
But as amazing as it is, Dante’s Awakening’s fast, complex combat created a sky-high barrier of entry, so 4 had to find a way to welcome newcomers to its crazy gameplay. Nero was an attempt to provide a well-rounded, accessible brawler on par with Street Fighter’s Ryu, adding a grapple mechanic to Dante’s sword/pistol base and building smart layers of complexity from there. The prologue mission that pits them against each other was a smart way to introduce Nero’s gameplay against the series’ star.
The central pillar of Nero’s combat is his Devil Bringer arm. Grabbing an enemy with the circle button executes a unique throw that interrupts their attack. When flame boss Berial gets stunned, Nero can uppercut him away for major damage. But the mechanic also becomes a grappling hook when combined with R1 and the left thumbstick, pulling light enemies or zipping you to the heavier ones. With it, Nero can buzz around Berial’s head and avoid the beast’s sword. The hang time is a crucial part of this combat style.
He was also given unique melee attacks and a system that buffs every one. Rather than Rebellion’s three button sword combos, the Red Queen quickly gets half a dozen in addition to new command moves. What’s more, every attack can be modified with the powerful Exceed system, where pulling the L2 button stores up to three levels of sword energy to modify his next swing. The player is given the same boost by timing their L2 press to the moment they hit an enemy, turning the combat into a frenetic rhythm game. This unbelievable system creates four increasingly devastating versions of each attack and is unlike anything else in the series.
On top of all of this, absorbing the legendary Yamato allows Nero to summon its ghostly wielder and enhances all his other mechanics. Rather than simply doubling his damage, the spirit contributes its own slash to Nero’s sword swings, increasing the number of hits. This not only doubles Nero’s attack frequency and increases his range but modifies his Buster throw against every enemy. The Yamato completes the idea of the Devil Bringer, giving Nero a spectral body to accompany his large blue arm. The new kid’s gameplay has remarkable depth that builds upon itself.
With its level-based structure, DMC is able to have self-contained missions where the designers can place obstacle courses comprised of unique enemy combinations that end with a boss fight. While beating a level in Devil May Cry is a matter of survival at first, its replayable levels offers a playground to be stylish, the end score further nudging you to improve. If you’re not satisfied with your performance, jump back in and run it again. By streamlining the level design to remove most of Resident Evil’s item progression, DMC4 avoids much of the tedium from repeat playthroughs.
By the time you meet Dante again, you have a deeper understanding of the intricate gameplay and have gone from doing basic damage to inflicting massive hurt across the screen. So it’s no surprise that this fight is faster than before, and the Son of Sparda unleashes moves that he’d held back earlier, all of which were part of his Swordmaster style in DMC3. But then he snaps his fingers and seamlessly changes to his Gunslinger style to swing his shotgun around like nunchucks. It’s a daunting fight for series rookies, but is familiar and exciting for vets. Dante goes from being Nero’s teacher to a test of might separating him from the game’s true villain. By passing that you get to don his red trench coat, and gain access to his breathtaking gameplay that’s better than ever.
More than the two games that preceded it, DMC3 portrayed Dante as a wild protagonist, and the fun-loving half-demon’s personality was supported by gameplay that let him playfully destroy his enemies. The game’s style system mapped the circle button to one of four main move suites that modified a core gameplay element- Swordmaster added melee attacks, Gunslinger modified ranged shots, Trickster enabled evasive maneuvers, and Royal Guard activated defensive tech. When combined with two weapons that could be swapped with the triggers, Dante had perhaps the largest collection of linkable moves in the industry, making crazy gameplay par for the course.
But with the increased number of animations the HD consoles could hold in memory, Dante’s styles in 4 can be swapped in real time via the D-Pad. Considering the sheer number of moves this made available at once, his total was pared down to the essentials. Even at intermediate level play, this requires an unheard of level of manual dexterity that constantly moves both hands across the controller. In DMC4, Dante’s full potential was finally unlocked.
Though his starting weapons and movesets are built upon 3’s, Dante’s new additions provide powerful depth for every pillar of his combat. Where Rebellion and the bracers are iconic staples, the Lucifer needles, transformable Pandora briefcase gun, and Vergil’s Darkslayer style all add new dimensions to Dante’s combat. Unfortunately the pairing isn’t perfect, and while Lucifer had a lot of strategic depth for those dedicated to learning it, its unique design makes it hard to work into their combat flow, especially since it’s permanently the third melee weapon attached to the L2 swap cycle. The result can be awkward and hampers an otherwise unparalleled design.
One of Devil May Cry’s best aspects is its bosses and it’s remarkable how well both heroes are viable against them all. The key is that they’re all characters with unique behaviors and personalities and are thus built with dozens of mechanics to exploit. For the plant/dragon Echidna, Dante can dash to her or counter her incoming charge while Nero can grapple to her or uppercut her with a well-timed buster grab. While she largely utilizes the same moveset regardless of who you’re controlling, your two characters have different strategies to bring her down. The fact they are complete ideas nearly on par with Dante and Nero is indicative of the game’s versatility and its director’s fighting game roots.
Hideaki Itsuno makes the best argument that game designers should have a fighting game foundation. Because of his past experience, the master fighting director’s design is tight, grounded, and built on a complex logic of causes and effects. He understands that an action game is about managing dozens of elements in real time, from the time it takes a character to execute a move to spending their special meters. Everything in a fighting game happens as a product of its mechanics, and so DMC never falls into the scripted sequence trap. But he’s also carried fighting game’s long tradition of perfecting its titles through iteration. Like he had with 3, Itsuno returned to DMC4 with the Special Edition, tuning the base gameplay and, as any good fighting game should, increased its total roster of fighters.
Despite Vergil’s noticeable absence in the base release he was felt everywhere, and making him not only playable again but completing his design closes important gaps in the game. DMC3 did a great job characterizing Vergil as a cool-headed samurai with agile, lightning fast slashes but the concentration mode in 4SE finally incentivizes the player to act like it: as the gauge fills with attacks and dodges but depletes with misses, damage, and excess running, concentration grants increased attack damage. So move efficiently and strike quickly. And with a full gauge, he gains the screen shattering Final Judgement Cut that succinctly ends the fight. This awesome character is better than ever before.
One of the special edition’s biggest challenges was to fit the new characters into the established campaign, especially for mechanics like the grim grips. Just as Vergil’s Darkslayer teleport easily replaced Nero’s grapple, Lady’s Kalina Ann is a replacement for his Devil Bringer. Pairing her with Trish was obvious, and so the series was finally able to bring its femme fatales together. Fittingly for the Devil May Cry detective agency’s trio, both girls are variations on Dante, one the extension of his gunslinger moves and the other a swordmaster experiment.
As she had proven during her boss battle in 3, Lady is a tough as nails fighter. While her shotgun and pistol get a lot of use, the rocket launcher touches all areas of her combat, as she uses its bayonet for melee, its grapple to lift and slam enemies, and double jumps off its recoil. Her three guns comprise fighting game’s light but quick, medium, and heavy but slow damage scaling, and each has style moves that round out her combat. Despite her smaller total moveset and the lack of Devil Trigger, her high damage firearms allow the sole human character to stand shoulder to shoulder with her demonic companions.
Trish offers something very different, a tricky brawler with area of effect stuns and a host of Devil Sword Sparda attacks. Though she has two pistols and a limited Pandora, mapping her electric knuckles to the triangle button and Sparda to circle provides a ton of interesting combinations. Each of these weapons have their own stuns, as the dive kick can place two diagonal lightning streaks while throwing Sparda catches any inside its spinning radius. What’s important here is that Sparda is part of Trish’s default triangle combo, so throwing it away gives her access to a new barehanded stinger, ground slam, and combo that ends in a Chun Li-esque spinning bird kick. With Trish’s three sets of combos, she easily proves her worth among the others.
It’s generally accepted that the first playthrough of any Devil May Cry game acts as a long tutorial, but it’s amazing how well the entire game scales with higher difficulties- each one throws new combinations of enemies while tweaking many of their moves and behaviors. The series’ classic Dante Must Die mode gives every enemy a Devil Trigger buff after a certain amount of time in play, forcing you to prioritize targets and work on your placement to maximize the number of enemies you’re striking at once. From beginning to end, you’re always striving to be better.
Despite their different combat styles, all these characters share the same underlying philosophy: they have amazingly deep free-form gameplay with a remarkably high skill ceiling built on a solid design foundation. And once you can apply their fundamentals in game, entire new levels of depth open to you, from robust cancelling options to enemy step that keeps you in the air indefinitely by resetting your moves. They are complete fighting game characters whose every move is always available on the controller. Because every move looks rad in motion, racking up massive combos and maintaining that Smokin’ Sick Style rank looks impressive as Hell. The reward for being creative and having fun is spectacular visuals and massive points.
But no single mode in DMC captures its arcade soul more than the purity of Bloody Palace, the hundred level endurance run that throws wave after wave of enemy formations at you and expects you to earn every life-sustaining green orb on the climb to the top. To reach it, you need to know your enemies, the fighter at your fingertips, and yourself. And at the end, you get to face off against the game’s most impressive demon- Dante himself. By the end of Devil May Cry 4 you should know- if ya wanna score big against the main man, ya gotta be stylish.
PLATFORMS: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, XBox360, XBoxOne, PC
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.