Platform: Sony PlayStation 2 – Developer/Publisher: Capcom
Genre: Action/Adventure – ESRB Rating: “M” for Mature (Ages 17 and up)
As with other creative mediums, the videogame design process can take some surprising turns. It’s not exactly a secret that the innovative, stylish mix of swordswingin’ and gunslingin’ action that gamers ’round the world now know and love as Devil May Cry wasn’t originally supposed to be Devil May Cry, or even the start of a new franchise, at all. The air-combo, gun-juggling action game we received was conceived entirely by accident during the drawn-out trial-and-error development process that was Capcom’s effort to create Resident Evil 4; that they would go through at least one other fleshed-out design idea (the well-known “Resident Evil 3.5” build, as seen on YouTube) is a testament to how many stops and starts this process was plagued by. But every cloud has a silver lining, says the optimist, and so the silver lining to this cloud was the start of a groundbreaking new series… one that has somehow managed to have one of gaming history’s most inconsistent track records with franchise quality, in the space of just four games.
The core driving force behind the sense of style that Devil May Cry lives and breaths by is nothing more or less than the word “cool.” The player takes the role of Dante, an incredibly badass Devil Hunter who in the game’s opening scene is impaled on his own sword, blasted with Force Lightning, and then has a motorcycle thrown at him by a scantily-clad demon woman–only to deflect the motorcycle with a pair of rapid-fire handguns, shrug off a sword through the gut as if t’was but a flesh wound, and establish himself as one of gaming’s baddest of badasses before we even knew more than three breaths’ worth of backstory about him. Clad in a long red coat and sporting that patently Japanese white hairstyle, this dual-handgun-toting swordsman was cool. And then we got to experience the creepy, gothic island castle that served as the gameworld, and then the blood-pumping combo-based combat… and at that point, I think almost everyone who played Devil May Cry when it first hit the PS2, before other more refined games of its ilk became the norm, was irredeemably hooked.
Players who take a short trip back in time from this console generation to experience the birth of the franchise, however, will likely see another side of the story–as is the case with many older games. Despite being a fresh and addictive experience for its time, Devil May Cry hasn’t aged well at all, and its design may seem lackluster or overly simplistic to newcomers.
Story-wise, the game doesn’t have much to tell: Dante is attacked by a mysterious woman who knows of his demonic lineage and who wants Dante’s help to stop the lord of the underworld from breaking through to the human world and making life as we know it a literal hell. This woman, Trish, happens to be the spitting image of Dante’s dead mother, for whose murder he seeks vengeance. To some extent, mostly in the names of Dante and his supposedly-dead brother Vergil, the story is a reference to Dante’s Inferno, but it never really bothers to press the point. It’s just kind of “there.” There aren’t many story scenes in the game at all, actually. The opening provides a reason and basic motivation for the player to be exploring the castle on Mallet Island (that’s pronounced ma-lay, by the way), you fight a lot of demons, find a lot of MacGuffins to unlock your way forward, fight a boss, fight that boss a few more times, and then fight another boss a couple of times. Eventually the bad guy shows himself and you play the game the same way you’ve been playing it all along (kill demons, find MacGuffins, fight rehashed boss battles…) until the game remembers it has a story again. That’s not a bad thing, per se; the pace of the game remains more or less brisk enough to keep you interested, and what story there is gets a passing grade. It does what it has to, and despite how obviously “early PS2” the graphics and animation are, is presented well. If you can deal with the sometimes-kinda-bad voice acting, lack of decent facial animation, and Trish’s rock-stiff cleavage, you’ll probably enjoy it. If nothing else, it does what a videogame story is meant to do: it gives the character a reason to advance to the next area.
I wouldn’t really recommend Devil May Cry to players who dislike having their posteriors lopped off and handed to them on a platter every so often, because although other games would eventually come along and make this game look like a piece of cake, it’s not exactly a walk in the park, either. Someone who’s used to the gameplay might blow through without much trouble, but I think it was around the first boss battle that every first-timer back in the day had to grit their teeth and try their damndest not to throw the console at the cat. Devil May Cry doesn’t screw around, and it can sometimes catch you off guard with how much damage you’ll take when you get hit, especially in those early stages before you’ve powered up your health bar a few times. There is an unlockable “Easy Automatic” difficulty in there for people who want a more “comfortable” hack-and-slash, but you have to die a few times in Normal Mode to get it. Being asked if you want to switch to Easy Automatic is kind of like getting stuck in a chess match and suddenly being asked by one of your Rooks if you’d like him to take over for you.
The fun factor is all in the combat; it’s literally the only aspect of the game’s design that is done well. Something about the smoothness of Dante’s swordplay and gunwork, about the simple pleasure of batting an enemy into the air with a melee weapon and holding them aloft on a cushion of bullets, is just so exhilerating. In this reviewer’s opinion, no other stylish-action series has ever brought a combat system quite so fun to the table, then or now–although Dante’s arsenal of weapons and combat moves in this first installment isn’t as impressive as current-gen players may be accustomed to. The player begins with the meat and potatoes of the Devil Hunter’s lunchbox: a basic sword with a basic melee combo, and Dante’s custom handguns, “Ebony” and “Ivory.” As the player progresses through the game, Dante will acquire a number of more impressive weapons, including a massive electric sword, flaming gauntlets that provide extremely powerful martial arts capabilities, a shotgun, a grenade launcher, and a third sword that plays exactly the same as the other two with only minor differences (this last is, for the most part, an extremely cool but marginally useless plot object). Supplementing the arsenal of weapons is an arsenal of abilities, mainly attack moves (although one or two miscellaneous utility talents are mixed among them) that the player can purchase from magic statues scattered across the island. The currency: red, crystalline orbs that are actually the solidified blood of your slaughtered foes. Classy.
One of the coolest abilities that Dante possesses, unlocked upon finding your first enchanted melee weapon, is to temporarily assume what is called a “Devil Trigger” super form. Both the lightning sword, Alastor, and the flaming gauntlets, Ifrit, grant Dante a new tranformation with their own special attacks and advantages. What some players may not know, if they happened to completely ignore the handguns for the whole of the game after getting their hands on a bigger gun, is that these forms also super-charge Ebony and Ivory, temporarily rendering them as close to overpowered as anything ever gets in this game. It’s an extremely cool feeling, going all “Angry Time” and blowing through an army of demon marrionettes as if they were made of butter instead of wood.
Enemy variety is quite good, with exception to boss fights. You have your standard marrionette-type enemies in a number of flavors, which shamble around in a distinctly Resident Evil zombie kind of way, which comprise the rank and file of Mallet Island’s “mook” population. Then you have quite a few enemy types that will give you no end of trouble, such as the scissor-wielding grim-reaper-like wraiths you encounter early on, as well as armored lizard men, sabre-toothed tigers made of pure shadow, giant rock-scorpions, and my personal ironic “favorite,” the nigh-invincible “Frost” demons introduced in the final missions of the game.
The game’s boss demons aren’t nearly as varied. There are a grand total of four boss demons, not counting the final battle, and each of these four bosses will be fought at least three times by the end of the game. One of these bosses can actually suck you into a nightmare battle arena where, during each subsequent encounter with this boss, you are forced to fight one of the other bosses yet again to return to your regularly scheduled showdown. Now, nothing against the bosses themselves–they’re all really good bosses in their own ways–but fighting each of them three or four times per playthrough? Kinda gets a little old after a while.
Unfortunately, the rest of the game’s design is neither as innovative nor as impressive as its combat. The time spent not fighting is usually spent exploring the castle or its surrounding areas, which are all beautifully rendered and even now look quite good, considering this is early PS2 fare we’re talking about. Exploring the castle consists mostly of hunting down those MacGuffins I mentioned, various items which, while they look pretty and sound cool in your inventory screen, are all just basic keys used to unlock your way forward. This is often called “puzzle-solving,” but as there’s no real puzzle element to it, I refuse to address it as such. This fundamental holdover from the Resident Evil series was a passable design aspect in that series for the first two or three games; by the time you complete Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, you’re probably sick of it; but here, in this more action-based genre, it just seems like a cop-out. I feel like the designers should have been more inventive about how the player navigates the island than making nearly everything a key-hunting affair.
Speaking of Resident Evil holdovers, the entire game, combat or otherwise, is viewed from cinematic fixed-camera perspectives that are constantly snapping to and from different angles as you move throughout the environments. This can be very disorienting (in that you may lose your sense of direction and because it screws with movement control something righteous), and while it’s not usually a major issue, can result in the player taking a few cheapshots during combat. It’s not quite as bad as it sounds, though. After a while, adjusting your sense of direction or not changing your heading with the analog stick (so that Dante just keeps moving in the direction he was already going) become second nature. But when a design element requires the player to take time adjusting solely because there’s an element of player inconvenience to surmount, it’s certainly worthy of criticism. This is an issue that would only be somewhat mitigated in subsequent series entries; even in Devil May Cry 4, the camera is still a bit annoying to negotiate with.
One of the most awkward aspects of exploration, however, is the jump mechanic. This is actually for two basic reasons: first, because of the fixed camera, it’s often hard to aim jumps properly. On those occasions when the game is actually trying something more interesting than a generic key-hunt for its exploration segments, this issue becomes really obvious and highly cumbersome. The other issue is that Dante just can’t jump very far, despite having more height to his jump than any human being should ever be able to attain. If the player is willing to invest a large sum of Red Orbs in the upgrade, the lightning sword’s moveset contains a double-jump, but it’s not as useful as one might think.
The game is short, especially by today’s standards, running maybe four-to-six hours per playthrough depending on how fast the player is or how many of the game’s secrets are found. I wouldn’t count this against the game at this point in time, though, since Devil May Cry can typically be found in your local GameStop bargain bin for a whopping sum of seven dollars. It’s divided into a number of stages called “Missions,” but (environmental obstacles notwithstanding), one is usually free to backtrack and explore all of the island’s environments no matter what mission one is currently playing. In addition to these missions, players who are either obsessive about exploration or have a GameFAQs walkthrough on hand will find a series of stupidly well-hidden “Secret Missions” that require Dante to achieve some tricky and/or infuriating trick or objective in order to gain a valuable reward. When I say “stupidly well-hidden,” I mean “you have no chance in Hell of finding most of these without that walkthrough, so you might as well print it out and tape it to your TV stand.” And when I say tricky and/or infuriating, I mean that I gave up trying to complete some of these years ago, and never looked back.
Despite its shortness, the addictive nature of the combat is supplemented by some decent extras for a healthy dose of replay value. Repeat playthroughs will reward the player with additional, harder difficulty modes. The highest level of challenge on offer is the series staple “Dante Must Die” mode, in which not only are enemies immensely harder to kill, but capable, if they aren’t dispatched within a certain amount of time, of assuming super-modes in which they are nearly invincible. Completing the game’s Hard Mode earns the player a costume swap the turns Dante into his father, the Legendary Dark Knight Sparda, complete with his own rockin’ battle theme. (This also grants the player a katana called Yamato and replaces Ebony and Ivory with the handguns “Luce” and “Ombra,” although this is, like Sparda himself, a simple costume swap and serves no functional purpose.)
Completionists are encouraged to replay the game’s missions on the various difficulties to improve their “Devil Hunter Rank” for each one (a standard grading system), although I have a small problem with the way it’s handled in this game. Unlike the typical ranking systems of more recent entries in this franchise and others, which display a number of score items that make clear exactly what is expected of the player to achieve the best rank, Devil May Cry just gives you a rank and your Red Orb payout for however well you did. It’s obvious that the game’s combo style indicator factors into this somehow, but even the way the game determines how good your combos are is a bit on the sketchy side (I often found my combo rank dropping back to the bottom level during combat for no reason I could really fathom, as I seemed to be fighting just fine). Apart from that, there are other tricks involved in getting a good ranking, such as intentionally using weaker weapons (sticking to your basic starting sword and handguns is considered by the game to be a mark of skill). It’s very “Guide Dang It” in that way, and less dedicated players may not want to bother with it.
Your reward for sweeping the board with S-Ranks is “Super Dante,” which is essentially an infinite Devil Trigger cheat. Something cool to play around with, but once you’ve got all of the S-Ranks, you’ve done all there is to do, so it’s more of an achievements-before-there-were-Achievements “bragging rights” ordeal.
I’m not one to bother with higher difficulties or S-Rank challenges in this kind of game, though. I was happy to just coast through Normal whenever the mood struck me, snapping up every hidden health-bar- or Devil-Trigger-gauge boost item I could track down along the way (kleptomaniac that I be). Devil May Cry is just a fun ride to me, that kind of game that’s sufficiently addictive that I can play through it once or twice a year and still have nearly as much fun as I did the first time ’round.
It hasn’t weathered the test of time as well as one would like, and it’s by no means the best title of its kind, but it is the first. Even if one finds Devil May Cry too short or basic for one’s liking, there’s no denying the debt that the action genre owes Dante and his obsession with killing things in the most unnecessarily flashy way imaginable. Devil May Cry‘s pioneering of the “stylish action” game would, by and by, contribute to the birth of a number of other franchises that took what this game began and made it even better. It would also spawn a number of bland, generic knock-offs. What no one could have expected at the time was that one of those bland, generic knock-offs would be the first direct sequel to Devil May Cry itself… and easily one of the most disappointing games of all time.
But that’s a wall of text for another day, I think.