a review of Devil May Cry 4
a videogame developed by Capcom
and published by Capcom
for Microsoft Windows, the microsoft xbox 360 and the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by Ario Barzan
I guess the point where I really started to expect more of the Devil May Cry series was the point where I got to God Hand. Recently, I had to economize my belongings for a move, and DMC3 turned up in my bin of games. I’m, uh, sure I grabbed the first few games on top of my Playstation 2 Game Stack, which is in a state of categorical flux, and stuffed them into the cardboard, so . . . it wasn’t a super-conscious choice. Now, I’m not aiming to label DMC3, its prequels, or sequel, as wretched things (maybe 2, on second thought). Most things in life just aren’t as good as God Hand. And, yeah, I sort of did bring DMC3 along because I know that a handful of the missions are tight and right. Yet the problems of Devil May Cry, itself, have been there from the get-go. Instead of being exterminated, they’ve become unsavory icons, and having God Hand around, with its conviction and rock-hard impact, only makes them flash in brighter tones of neon.
The first released footage of Devil May Cry 4 showed an older-than-DMC3-Dante standing in a wintry landscape, faced by a castle. General reactions involved talk of “going back to the series’ roots,” because there was an Older Dante and a Big Castle. Later still, screenshots surfaced and exhibited a Dante with a five-o’-clock shadow clashing swords with what looked like a younger doppelganger, purportedly named Nero. “Theory” threads began emerging on forums; all of a sudden, spots of the Internet burned with the flames of speculation. In hindsight, and foresight, this was as silly as people getting all curious-like whenever a new Castlevania game showed a protagonist who looked like Symphony of the Night’s Alucard and ended up not being Alucard or a dhampir. It was silly, most of all, because the canon of Devil May Cry has always been something to swat away with the proverbial hand. Still, here were people coming up with family trees and whatnot to preemptively explain Nero’s similarity to Dante, furrowing their brows, serious as a heart attack in their affair with the clunky characters and timeline of a video game . . . stuff that’s pretty synonymous with “Serious Business.” And then Devil May Cry 4 came out and pandered to that Serious Business. I could only shake my head.
Really, I don’t know what happened. Maybe employees at Capcom witnessed the Internet-centric reactions to Neo Contra’s special epilogue movie. In the movie, a samurai cuts the world in half, and then swims through the debris in space with another man. Both of the men are wearing loincloths, and an omniscient being is humming. I swear, that was worthy enough of an event to be put on a graph of human history. Yet it had a certain enraged group questioning their sexuality upon its closure, asking out loud, “Whoa: am I, like, gay?”, swiftly going to a man-on-man pornography site, waiting to see if they attained an erection, and then wiping off a teaspoon of sweat when their fears were put to rest with flaccidness. Later, they would arrive at Youtube to remark on Neo Contra‘s cutscene with hate and disgust.
Devil May Cry 3 was like a god-damned revelation after the I-piss-tears-and-stuff-icicles Dante of Devil May Cry 2. It seemed, with DMC3, that Capcom was ready to do away with one of The Terrors – the weighty pretensions of character and plot – and let the series exist in a more natural form: in the irreverent, bombastic swagger of a guitar-wielding punk who slams his fingers in the car door. The game began with Dante juggling pizza, fighting scythe-wielding demons in his shop, and watching said shop crumble after he sneezed. Later, players saw Dante running down a tower, slicing up wave after wave of huge bats, at one point throwing his sword, spearing several of them on his blade, and firing a bullet at its handle to make the sword go faster. At the apex of the violence, Dante leapt off the side of the tower and was matter-of-factly swallowed by a flying whale. The game’s makers recognized the ridiculousness inherent in their ideas, and detonated them in awesome-stupid events. The pants fit better than ever.
Devil May Cry 4 ditches this humor for its first half and shoves itself into pants five-sizes too small. In the second half, it brings smidgens of the dopey glee back, though when fifty-percent of your product is all business, and the other half is, well, half-hearted in itself, you’ve got a hell of a counter-intuitive balance act to perform. Capcom couldn’t hope to pull it off, and we shouldn’t have to work our way through hours of bone-dryness to get to something that doesn’t make us want to blush . . . not very hard, anyway. I think I knew stuff was going to hit the fan with too much reverence when Nero spoke, and I realized it was the same guy who did Vash the Stampede’s (lol he likes donuts!!!) voice, and that he has never been involved with something that didn’t make me irritated.
I’m kind of joking, there. Kind of.
Remember how DMC3 began with you kicking the piss out of crews of demons in a junk yard? And then near a bar? And then inside of a strip club? And then how you fought a huge, three-headed dog? And then how . . . you got to the tower and, uh, had to figure out how to unlock doors and make gears click. What was that about? Who was responsible for that? Honestly — the more realistic these games get, the more banal and unbelievable these fetch-quests become. I mean, how do Dante or Nero, with their textured hair and glossy coats, process these things in their heads? How does Dante – how do we — know to walk through a blue door, through a green door, through a yellow door, fall down a pit, enter a red door, head through a door on the upper level, walk back to the central room, use the Astronomical Board on a pedestal, get the Vajura, use it on a crank in another room, acquire the Soul of Steel — I mean, what the hell is all of that? There is no internal logic driving any of it, and Devil May Cry 4 does the same god-damn thing: getting you geared up with a couple quick missions, putting you in an awesome castle, and then having you track down “Gyro Blades” to break a barrier.
That Devil May Cry keeps pairing autistic sleuthing with its Stylish combat almost feels more wrong than if it were totally based on “exploration.” At least be consistent, for christ’s sake. No one buys a Devil May Cry game and thinks, “Be still, my quivering genitalia! I sure can’t wait to look for keys in this latest installment of a critically acclaimed franchise!” (and if they do think like that, they should probably be put under the care of Science). People are buying a Devil May Cry game because they want to beat up waves of enemies and feel good about it. Such joyless hunts reek of the developers being scared stuffless that someone out there wouldn’t notice the care put into the environments’ visuals if they didn’t insert points of dead time, instead of just letting us, you know, play the game and trusting in our priorities. I’m not calling for the abolishment of quieter moments – the act of just walking up to certain monuments in Devil May Cry 4 can be exciting. But when we’re walking up to something because we have a piece of metal and maybe we have to stick it in the statue’s mouth . . . It’s time for the divorce, Devil May Cry. You’ve been abused long enough by this relic from Resident Evil.
And then there’s the music. Some of it is thrashing rock-trash that has a guy grunting what is, no doubt, a mess of “hardcore” verbiage. Some of the other songs are well-produced electro-beats that might as well be thumping in the background of a liquor commercial. Some of the rest involves ambient doodles with low-octave piano notes and wind through a pipe. It’s the first type of song that makes my skin crawl. The “rock” in Devil May Cry 4 is as rancid as ever. It sounds like Nine Inch Nails taking a shower. It sounds like the soul of a man who, when hungry, reaches into his pocket, pulls out a live rat, and bites its head off. DMC3’s official OST has a monstrous number of tracks, though if you think about it, really hard, even, the game seemed to harbor less than four songs, and two of those were pieces that played when you fought anything at all. So bad were these songs, they gained the ironic status of “Minor Internet Meme.” If someone on a message board posts about Devil May Cry 3’s music, either negatively or positively, you can bet another poster shall respond in kind by copy-pasting a section of a song’s lyrics in capital letters and letting that fragment speak for itself.
I tried playing Devil May Cry 4 in front of my roommate and felt the walls, the curtains, the whole world collapsing around me. Before anything worse could happen – I had the notion he was about to punch my face and throw the game system out the window – I grabbed the remote and turned the volume down, two notches above silence. When Devil May Cry crawled from the darkness and merged its gothic veneer with electric guitars, it was kind of quirky. With Devil May Cry 4, it becomes glaringly apparent that the styling needs to get a sense of humor and take itself more seriously, already. At this point, the sound designers are likely into the swing of the option for custom soundtracks, and they might’ve figured if anyone didn’t like what came out of the speakers normally, they could go into their play-list and override it. With that attitude, though, why even bother producing the official music? And if anyone is going to argue that blood, sweat, and tears were put into the music, it’s surreal as hell to imagine a human stepping back from the Satan-scaring rock and boring Others, nodding their head, and truly being happy with the work. Nowadays, there’s the idea that once an initial game sells a lot, the company has to remain beholden to that initial “feel.” Kick this atrocious music into the trash, Capcom – track down that Belmont’s Revenge guy who disappeared – and insert things we, as people who have gotten over black-haired Neanderthals cursing to axe-shredding (or knew it was bullstuff to begin with), can groove to; stuff that lives for what it’s been placed into.
The real sore spot, I suppose, could’ve been that, in between the pretensions, relic-hunts, and embarrassing sound, Devil May Cry 4 was an amazing piece of work. But it’s not: it’s just okay. The previous title stressed a “choosing of style.” DMC4 gets interested in the idea of juggling enemies, in the idea of a self-perpetuating, chain-linked violence; a Japanese ad for the game translates to “How cool will my action get?” That sounds splendid, so start the game up and get into a brawl: knock an enemy in the air with your sword, jump up, use your Devil Arm – Nero’s left arm extends/grabs if you press the circle button – to slam it back down, use the circle button again to drag it up while boosting your aerial time, give it a few slaps to send it away, grab another ground-based foe before you get too close to the ground, bring it up to you, beat it with a flurry of sword swipes, fall to the ground, juggle it with a few gun shots, wait for it to meet your eye level and do a dash-strike, et-cetera. Dampening all this, though, is the fact that the stock enemies aren’t as aggressive as the ones from DMC3, even on harder difficulties, and the new emphasis on catching air conflicts with their inability to overcome gravity. Devil May Cry 4 is objectively better when you’re controlling a crowd of higher-ups, like the lance-bearing angels, and not when you’re dispensing with the dorks.
Another problem is that when you get to the second half — once you get to controlling Dante — you realize what you’ve been missing out on when you played as Nero (though . . . you might’ve already noticed this if you had played Devil May Cry 3). With Dante, there’s a selection of weapons and styles that opens up more routes for improvisation and exploration. Nero’s Devil May Cry, even in its “objectively better” bits, never seems to encourage you to substantially transcend the techniques you use in the beginning. Which is troubling on two levels: one, because of what I, uh, just said, and two, because the game never allows you to move beyond those initial mechanical stages anyway. Here is this fascinating system that blazes onto the scene in a sleek car, steps on the red rug in clothing that would make your mind melt out of your ears, a cigarette dangling coolly in its mouth . . . and proceeds to keep standing there on that red rug with its hands in its pockets. Move your ass, hot shot, and show us what you can really do. On the one hand, I applaud the developers for miraculously daring to lessen the load of a sequel. On the other hand, Devil May Cry 3‘s variety wasn’t a load, so much as it was what it was, and when you take all that away and decide to focus on just a couple things, you’re going to need to make those couple things work their rear ends off. Even with the Exceed and Timing elements, DMC4 doesn’t get the A-OK to launch into the atmosphere.
I’m not going to get into any lengthy ideas as to what the series “should become,” but it’s always going to be a struggle until it ditches the ugly baggage. If you’re wondering, the game looks about as good as the last one, except with more detailing and better textures. Not to be snide, since Devil May Cry 3 had dandy graphics. Now and then, it will let you know all about its ability to apply the Next-Gen Sheen, which has the unfortunate tendency to plasticize figures. Finally, to the people who flooded their house with tears over DMC4‘s installation — look: my friend and I got the game, put it in, and then sat on the couch and talked as the bar increased in length on the television set. And then we played the game when it was done. Can you imagine that?