With the recent release of Ninja Theory’s reboot of the series, DmC, interest in the Devil May Cry franchise is higher than it has been in quite some time. A retrospective look, then, at the title that started the franchise with such success is timely and also coincides with Game Over… Again’s reacquisition of the three PlayStation 2 titles for a meagre £9, compared with DmC‘s suggested retail price tag of £39.99. Whether the interest in the first Devil May Cry title is borne of genuine interest in a game that essentially sired the genre of high-octane action games centred around the style of the player’s combat choices or in the financial implications of playing three games when compared to one is an open, ultimately empirical question: what is answered, however, is that Devil May Cry remains a wonderfully rewarding gameplay experience, in spite of a multiplicity of flaws.
The player’s first interaction with the game, in the selection of an option from the game’s main menu, makes its genesis incredibly obvious: Shinji Mikami and Hideki Kamiya’s fingerprints, in the form of a menu option selection sound effect straight from the legacy of Resident Evil, are shamelessly evident. Coming into Devil May Cry blind having played Resident Evil and Dino Crisis (another game which shares the same selection sound effect), one would be forgiven for expecting a game full of horror, concerns of merely surviving the game’s world and unerring tension. While the latter two are definitely realised in the game, it is not in the way one would have expected: one is worried about their survival and is tense due to this mainly due to the game’s hectic pace and unforgiving difficulty. Players used to the prolific checkpointing systems of modern games will be in for a shock with Devil May Cry: failure means starting the mission from scratch. Much as this risks descent into overindulgent whining about how easy games are today, Devil May Cry is challenging in the way games should be: firm but fair in the way that Dark Souls is, but from an age where this wasn’t a selling point.
While the gameplay was not even particularly unique at the time of its release, the majesty of its execution makes it something spectacular. Directed by the one of the minds which would later bring us the fluid, high-definition spectacle of Bayonetta, the hidden depths of a combat system premised around an ability to jump, dodge, use a sword and fire a gun are hardly a surprise. Devil May Cry is a game that relishes in providing a virtual infinity of options of combination of bladed weapon and ranged, projectile weapon and combinations of the two’s abilities (which can be, in the case of bladed weapons, upgraded at the player’s discretion) and then further providing the player with a metric by which to assess their understanding of and ability to use the options presented to them in the game’s style meter. Combos are scored from D to SSS, depending upon the variety of moves used, the length of combo and the amount of damaged done to enemies, and there is the greatest satisfaction to be found in even reaching an A ranking.
The vast majority of Devil May Cry’s gameplay can fairly be described as combat sections stitched together with platforming elements and fetch quests for the opening of doors that are eerily reminiscent of simpler tasks in Resident Evil. Where this pattern is broken, however, is in the game’s many boss fights. Though there are only truly four different bosses, each is faced three times before they are finally defeated, but offer a unique challenge on each appearance. The sheer scale of these opponents makes for an impressive element of the game’s overall narrative, but when this is combined with the genuine need for strategies to be devised and implemented to limit the punishing amount of damage that these bosses are capable of dealing something truly special emerges in the form of highly-cinematic set-pieces that do not become weary on replaying the game.
Much as praises can be sung for this game to a hideous extent, there are a number of issues that prevent it from the title of “timeless classic.” The first is where Ninja Theory’s DmC departs from the spirit of the series to the greatest extent: the story is weak and is a transparent case of “some” story being necessary to stitch gameplay sequences together, just some motivation for the characters to be where they are. Dante has no characterisation aside from the the loss of his mother at the hand of the game’s big bad being shoved down the player’s through as a motivation to fight. Trish, who acts as a key motivator in Dante’s journey to the Underworld is, to avoid any spoilers, just incredibly changeable even across the mere four instances of her appearances in cutscenes across the entire course of the game. Secondly, the camera is atrocious at times: it is the fixed-angle camera typical of all-too-many games of its time, which makes for difficulty in the accurate judgement of the required movement necessary to dodge an enemy’s attack – something unforgivable given the amount of damage that can be inflicted by even the more basic enemies. A minor niggle that remains is that, in spite of the emphasis put on quick action in combat, Dante is infuriatingly slow outside of combat and finds it infeasibly difficult to change direction at times – something a little incongruous with how we experience him elsewhere.
There are games that do not age, with their mechanics remaining fresh-feeling over time, the quintessential example being Super Mario Bros. 3: Devil May Cry is not one of these games. Certain questions around its narrative and the camera plague that seemed to affect any game that involved 3D platforming in the early 2000’s stand tall in the background of some excellently thought out gameplay mechanics. There are elements of majestic greatness in Devil May Cry, but supporting elements let down the full package.