Recently I finished playing Devil May Cry 4. Well, not finished finished, but I got through the final boss’ first form before giving up on the bullshit that happens immediately afterward. This game got quite a lukewarm reception when it first came out, and I wanted to see whether these critics were full of shit. As it turns out, they kind of were, in the sense that the game does more than it was given credit for. At the same time, it screws up in enough important ways that the level of quality attributed to it is about right. So I guess that makes it a wash, but there are still some ideas I’d like to discuss.
My first observation while playing DMC4 is that the new character, Nero, is not simply a change made for the sake of it. His fighting style is quite well thought out, integrating nicely into the DMC series’ philosophy on battle. This philosophy emphasizes strategy via style; style points are earned by mixing up your attacks and not getting hit, and the more points you get, the easier it is to earn new moves. Nero’s moveset is much smaller than Dante’s, but this makes it easier to become familiar with each attack, and the combo system is smart enough to adjust itself, so that cycling through the same three or four techniques is enough to raise your style ranking significantly. With past adventures with Dante, getting high rankings was a dream for some players, but Nero makes it possible and even very enjoyable. He is also helped by his powerful Devil Bringer Arm, which allows him to grab enemies close and perform powerful throws, even on bosses. There’s often some strategy involved with getting these moves to connect with more powerful enemies, but the rewards are worth the effort. The Devil Bringer’s damage potential makes up for Nero’s lack of options, and its ability to bring enemies into range makes it that much easier to keep a combo going. It isn’t that I didn’t miss Dante, but Nero managed to be a worthy adaptation of DMC3’s core components.
Of course, you eventually do gain control Dante, and the change is significant on many levels. Combat wise, he is sharply executed and poorly implemented. He retains all his abilities from DMC3, and can change styles at will. This leads to an incredible opportunities for huge combos and perfect rankings, but if all you want to do is simply beat the game, there’s no better option than maxing out the Swordmaster style and relying on its additional attacks. DMC4’s enemies are simply geared to work better with Nero than with Dante, at least in the context of the main quest.
Can we have an ambiguously gay character without fanfiction writers ruining them?
From a story perspective, however, Dante exists as both a commentator and spokesman for the player. Over the years, he has replaced his angst with humor and sarcasm, and in DMC4 he is at a point where he can’t help but notice the absurdity of the situations his job places him in. He makes fun of the melodramatic dialogue of his enemies, he makes fun of their belief that demons will triumph over mankind. I spent the opening parts of the game wondering what the hell an ancient looking city run by a religious cult was doing in the 21st century, and sure enough, Dante asks the same question in a flashback scene. DMC4 brings on as much of the bullshit as it can muster. Nero screams his lungs out and uses his Shining Finger to try and seal away beasties. Cackling bosses proclaim that they are “THE NEXT STAGE IN EVOLUTION!!!“. Then Dante comes along and puts a bullet in everyone’s head, destroying and killing the things and people that Nero could only keep at bay, all the while cracking jokes and laying on sexual innuendos with the world’s biggest grin on his face. Ultimately, he casually allows Nero to play hero in the finale because hey, why the hell not? It only looks like an end of the world scenario. Dante has done more than enough to prove that they’re full of hot air.
DMC3 already played fast and loose with its tone, but DCM4 takes things quite a bit further. I can’t think of many other games that so thoroughly recognize (and then destroy) the absurdities of action game tropes, nor can I think of any that set up this destruction by first playing these tropes completely seriously for 60% of the story. It’s a little brilliant, and very ballsy for a series that many believe has lost its way.
Of course, one must not forget that you still have to play through the 60% of schlocky narrative (you can skip it all, and simply enjoy the fights, but then the later 40% loses some its punch). And if you’re looking for an actual challenge while playing Dante, rather than the opportunity to crush your foes with overpowered attacks, you will be sorely disappointed. Then there’s the fact that the final stretch with Nero is a typical, maddening boss rush that serves no purpose. DMC4 is daring, but it is also sloppy, and that sloppiness makes it one of those games that is great to observe and analyze, but not so great to actually play through to the end.
Still, it pains me to see how easily gamers have dismissed its efforts, especially when those same people might praise a game like Bayonetta, which is one of the few games since that tries for the same kind of meta-genre parody. The problem, however, is that Bayonetta follows in the footsteps of modern, self referential anime, believing that making a simple observation with a wink and a nod is enough to pardon itself from the many absurdities it revels in. DMC4’s approach is much riskier, but it is also a lot more honest, and as a result its point comes across much more clearly. Perhaps the better way to put it is that DMC4 actually has a point, while Bayonetta merely tries to excuse its own behavior. I have no idea what plans Capcom has for the future of this franchise, but it isn’t merely as dire as I once thought.
PS – Looking very closely at the visual design of DMC4, I can’t help but wonder if Bayonetta is a reaction not just to Capcom as a whole, but against this game specifically. The town design, the angels – I wonder if it is more than coincidence.