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September 17, 2015

Let’s discuss Devil May Cry 4 (Part 1).


So who’s better, Dante or Nero?

Don’t answer that yet.  I’ll get back to it…eventually.  But for now, let’s move on to something else.


For the record: pretty much everything you’re going to read from me about this game is going to be based on the Special Edition re-release from a while back.  I don’t know the nitty-gritty changes between the two versions intimately, except for the obvious introductions of a playable Vergil, Lady, and Trish.  Still, I think that the two versions are similar enough so that you can talk about one and talk about the other (the default story modes are identical, for example).  Either way?  I’m focusing more on Dante and Nero for now.

But for those who have wandered in here and think this is a straight-up review?  I’ll go ahead and say this: if you’ve never played DMC4 but have one of the new consoles, then this is a good chance to jump in.  If you’ve got a 360 or PS3 lying around, see if you can find an old/used copy of the game somewhere.  Failing that, grab the PC version.  Okay?  Okay.  Time to move on.


As you can guess, I’m going to talk about the story another time -- because the draw of the entire franchise really is the gameplay.  Slashing and shooting demons with style is the whole reason Devil May Cry made it to a fourth installment, and rightly so; not a lot of games filled that niche before it got started, and not a lot of games have filled that niche since.  (Platinum Games is doing the lord’s work, of course, but few others have even tried.) 

I guess that begs the question: why hasn’t that niche been filled?  I mean, I’m not going to pretend like making a “character action game” is easy -- playing them is rough enough -- but surely there should be more devs out there that have cracked the code by now, right?  With the resources and manpower available, and some companies employing multiple teams that are at least a hundred men strong, it’s not impossible.  The technical wizardry is there to create good character action games on a regular basis.  So what’s the deal?  Why not mix it up a little?


Maybe there’s no market for them anymore -- at least, not a massive, five million copies sold in a week market.  I don’t want to jump to any conclusions, but I have to wonder: have too many devs, at the mercy of executives playing puppet master, given up on delivering gameplay in its purest form?  Have too many in the medium lost their way?  Have they become so enthralled -- or maybe ensnared -- by graphical one-upmanship and exponential yet shallow growth that what matters most has taken a backseat?  Are we doomed forever more to play as gunners, assassins, or craftsmen in a climate overstuffed with them?

I dunno.  But who cares?  For now, we’ve still got plenty of games that are different -- and they’re that much more precious as a result. 

Enter DMC4.  I’ll go ahead and say flat-out that I think it’s really, really good.  It was good back then -- good in the sense that by late-2000s standards, it was completely fine -- and it’s good now, both as a relic of the past and as a modern-day installment, however recycled.  Is it perfect?  Nope.  There are some legitimate complaints to be had.  But then again, there’s no such thing as a perfect game; the strengths are supposed to cover up the faults.  And that’s exactly what happened here.

So let’s cut straight to the obvious ones.


This point has been belabored, to say the least: you pretty much have to play through the same levels twice in order to make it to the end.  That is, you start off as Nero and move forward through about a dozen stages, then switch off to Dante to head backwards.  In essence, you run right back to where you started your little adventure, and then switch back to Nero to round out the game.  That means you have to fight nearly every boss Nero did as Dante -- which would be okay if you didn’t have to fight them again as Nero in a boss rush.

It’s a safe bet that something nasty happened during the game’s development.  The guys at Capcom either ran out of time, or ran out of money; chalk it up to an underestimation of the time and resources needed, but whatever the case?  We can more or less see the sweat-born bullets imprinted into each room in the game.  And as a grim reminder, Capcom didn’t even try to fix that (or at least hide it a bit better) for the Special Edition.  Granted I’m under the impression that the House of Street Fighter is under dire straits, but it’s hard for me to be sympathetic for the company that made the debacle that was Resident Evil 6.


Back when the game first made the rounds, I remember a review that docked points (or at least complained) about the dice game that pops in during Nero’s segments.  I didn’t think much of it through my run with the SE the first time around, because -- thanks to unnaturally good luck -- I cleared it without a single fight and almost no detours.  The second time around, though?  I circled around the board several times because apparently, you have to roll the exact number needed to land on the exit space.  Go over, and you start over.  Unless there’s some trick to getting the prefect dice roll, I’d guess that some people trying to go for a speedrun or score the top ranking tore more than a few hairs out.  Also, why are there two separate dice games, one of which is inside a statuesque, skyscraper-sized superweapon?  I mean besides the obvious answer of “padding”.

I’ve still got some issues with the game.  Outside of battle, the fixed camera angles can make for some weird transitions from scene to scene -- which is kind of to be expected, given how the franchise has played out before.  But in battle, the camera is still a little rougher than I’d prefer; locking on is a godsend, of course (and you can always change targets with L3, rigid as it may be in the heat of the moment), but there were times when I fought the camera as much as the enemies.  Speaking of which, some of these guys are a pain to fight, especially if you’re going for max speed or style.  There are ways to beat enemies like Blitz and Faust quickly, but it’s still possible -- if not probable -- for you to struggle.


If I had to guess, I’d say that enjoying DMC4, its predecessors, or any character action game ever comes to how much a person can overlook the transparency.  There’s a very obvious mission statement built in here, for example -- that is, players are expected to go from room to room and have one encounter with enemies after another.  You head to a room, the room seals off, the music starts, you fight the enemies, you beat the enemies, the room unlocks, and you head to the next room.  And you do this pretty much until the credits roll.  Oh sure, there are puzzles and boss fights to break things up, and some scenic areas give players time to relax (and characterize the world, however silently), but I wouldn’t blame anyone for calling character action games repetitive.

But that repetition is purposeful.  Think about it: the only thing you do in fighting games is have one-on-one matches over and over again, but that’s the entire point.  Fighting one-on-one battles is routinely amazing.  Likewise, the only thing you do in RPGs is go to towns, and then fight in dungeons.  And guess what?  That can be routinely amazing, too.  You can pare down any game to practices in repetition, but one rule stands tall: if the game’s content is rewarding, then it doesn’t matter if it’s repetitive.  In fact, you know when something’s gone right when you want to keep doing the same basic thing over and over.

And that brings us right back to DMC4.


For those unaware (in which case…I’m so sorry), combat in DMC4 is handled by putting a multitude of tools in the player’s hands.  Guns and melee weapons are on two of the face buttons, with jumping on a third -- standard-fare stuff, of course.  But things start getting complicated as soon as you remember that there are two main characters: series standby Dante and newcomer Nero.  Nero’s the star of the show this time around, and he makes his mark with a brand new mechanic: the circle button lets him use his demonic arm, the Devil Bringer, to interact with enemies.  Reel them in or toss them around -- it’s a way for him to extend his combos or put himself into favorable positions…and also gives the franchise a dedicated grappler.  No, seriously; he’s got Zangief’s Atomic Suplex at the very least.

Even though they both have white hair and bad attitudes, Dante’s a very different character from Nero.  Coming off of DMC3, he brings his styles to the table -- the key change being that all four styles are accessible at once with D-pad presses.  You can specialize in melee, gunplay, speed or defense at the press of two buttons: switch to the style, then hit circle to use its special action.  On top of that, Dante has three melee weapons and three guns at his disposal, as opposed to Nero’s ever-so-diverse one sword and one gun.  What this means is that there are two characters that are incredibly diverse; they’ve got tricks and skills that let them take on enemies in entirely different ways.  Thanks to that, I don’t even care if I have to run through the same game twice -- because I might as well be playing two different games when it’s time to switch.

So who’s better, then: Dante, or Nero?


I have to ask because it ties back to arguments I had with my brother over the original release of DMC4.  Back then, I played on his file so I wouldn’t have to unlock everything -- but the tradeoff was that he used a different controller setup for Nero that I couldn’t get behind.  So I decided not to bother with Nero, and stuck solely to Dante.  Unfortunately, because I hadn’t played the game in full for myself -- and beyond that, I wasn’t all that good at the game -- I didn’t have the skills to get too far in stuff like the Bloody Palace.  Meanwhile, he made into the low eighties out of some hundred floors.  Incidentally, he did that with Nero, AKA the character he argued vehemently was the better of the two.

In his eyes, Dante couldn’t cut it.  The game was built around Nero and his Devil Bringer, so Dante didn’t have the safe options or crowd control needed to make it very far.  I don’t exactly agree with every bit of that sentiment (even to this day), but back then I didn’t have the skills to prove him wrong.  And trust me; he made sure to give me hell over it.  Before long, I took it personally.  I played Dante because I didn’t play Nero, but I also happen to like Dante a lot.  It didn’t matter if outside forces told me the character was useless, because I’m a firm believer in character loyalty.  I’ll suck and lose with a character I enjoy before I win with someone I don’t.


If there’s any DMC expert out there who knows which character is objectively better, then feel free to explain why.  But for now, I’m going to argue that both Dante and Nero have their strengths and weaknesses -- yet no matter where they place on the tier list, both of them are incredibly fun to use.  Nero is the slower and weaker of the two; his sword slashes are more unwieldy with bigger gaps between his attacks, plus his gunshots don’t come nearly as rapidly.  Viewed as a straight-up demon hunter, Nero’s a pale comparison to Dante.  Viewed as a grappler, however, he’s a much stronger character.

The entire point of Nero, by design, is to be slower.  One of his special abilities is the Exceed system, wherein the player can rev up his sword and gain stocks that’ll boost the power of his next attack.  Gain one stock, and one hit gets stronger.  Gain three stocks, and three hits get stronger.  Gain three stocks after you upgrade, and Nero can use Level 3 versions of his attacks.  But the important thing is that you can instantly gain stocks with good timing -- i.e. pulling the trigger in the middle of his attack can instantly give you a stock (three if you upgrade).  My guess is that it’s a requirement for high-level Nero play, but in my time with him?  You can kinda-sorta cheese the system by mapping the Exceed trigger to Square, so that you can roll your thumb from triangle to square and get a charge.  It doesn’t work 100% of the time, but it does work.


The Exceed system wouldn’t work -- or would at least be much harder -- if Nero’s sword attacks moved at a blistering pace.  So the design behind his offense was purposeful, and not just with his sword; he doesn’t shoot as fast as Dante, but in exchange he can charge up his gun to fire some extremely useful shots.  They can be used to harass and launch opponents from afar, or re-launch them from a grounded position, or simply tag a foe with a surprisingly-powerful explosive.  Couple that with his Devil Bringer, and Nero is a character built around at least two things: managing the enemy, and putting them in disadvantageous situations.

To facilitate that, Nero has a natural focus on air combat.  Whereas pressing triangle with Dante will end your hang time immediately, Nero has a full combo by default as well as the death-from-above Helm Splitter.  But Nero can gain even more hang time with one of his unlockable combos, and rush at airborne enemies with a slash that more or less sends him flying.  Generally speaking, the air is a safe zone for Nero; I’m not sure if he can stay up there indefinitely (it takes a bit of dexterity for even a short visit to the skies), but he can stay up there long enough to handle most enemies.  The Devil Bringer makes it all possible, whether you choose to pull enemies up to you, or slam them down to end a combo.

That about sums up my thoughts on Nero.  But what about Dante?


If Nero’s a grappler -- or just has a suite of command grabs -- then a big part of Dante’s game is rushing foes down and attacking at the speed of sound.  He can do some real damage with the basics, but it’s hardly efficient or stylish to rely on the same two combos.  One of Dante’s signature moves is the Stinger, a thrusting attack that clears plenty of distance; the tradeoff is that in DMC4, the thrust launches enemies a huge distance away.  That’s a problem when you play through the Bloody Palace and you’re on the clock, but it’s not an unsalvageable mess.

My theory with Dante is that, like his Marvel 3 incarnation, he has EVERY tool he needs to succeed.  It’s all about using them at the right time.  So yes, his Stinger can actually make a fight more difficult in a lot of cases; any move that launches foes away and requires a chase means that it reduces efficiency and breaks the flow of combat.  What’s the solution?  I can think of one immediately: while in Trickster mode, Dante can teleport his way straight to an enemy he’s locked on to, no matter their location.  Distances don’t mean anything when you’ve got a guy who can move…well, like I said: at the speed of sound.


The sheer number of moves that Dante has is staggering -- and unlike DMC3, you have access to all of those moves at once.  Whether or not that was a good design choice is up for debate, but the important thing to remember is that it’s up to each individual player to find a style that suits them, and then expand upon it over time.  Dante has all of his moves for a reason; it’s true that there’s a steeper learning curve to use him properly (he’s got four meters that need managing, five if you count the style indicator), but the benefit is that his potential is only limited by the imagination.  And the player’s dexterity, but let’s leave the grim reality of leaden fingers out of the equation for now.

Dante can do tons of damage to a couple of enemies ahead of him with his sword and gauntlets, but that’s not enough.  Thankfully, that’s far from what he’s got in his arsenal.  Lucifer lets him pepper enemies with thorns, giving him the power to control crowds or finish off a foe no matter the distance.  Pandora packs a mean punch in its own right, but the more you hit with it, the more you fill up the meter that powers its screen-clearing attacks -- which might be a little useful in a pinch.  Swordmaster and Trickster let you attack and move with aggression; Gunslinger and Royalguard let you play conservatively while negating enemy momentum.  Dark Slayer can hit at both close range and long-range -- against one enemy, or a whole gaggle of them, with a couple of button presses.

Using Dante takes some effort.  But because he can chain so many of his moves together -- and has so many moves to begin with -- he makes up for that with the power of imagination. 


I feel like I can do anything with Dante -- at least I would if I had the brainpower to manage twelve buttons at once in the span of three seconds, but the potential is still there.  Meanwhile, even if Nero doesn’t have the breadth of options his quasi-uncle has, he’s still got more than enough skills and techniques to carve his way through any enemy.  I don’t know who the better character is objectively, but I have to wonder if it really matters in the end.  I don’t think playing as one or the other ensures a bad time or a slew of failures; in a lot of ways, it comes down to who you prefer, and how much you can get out of their tool sets.  And on that note?  That really does encapsulate what makes DMC4 a game worthy of a playthrough, a Special Edition, a rightful place in the franchise, AND its place in history.

Playing as Dante is fun.  Playing as Nero is fun.  The combat is buttery-smooth and flows at a beautiful pace -- but each attack feels weighty and impactful.  The player’s skill makes unbelievable attacks possible, and strung together in a matter of seconds.  There’s plenty of flash to be had in the basics -- the normal combo strings for beginners -- but those who cut even an inch further into the game can find something truly cathartic about blasting a demon away, snatching them out of the air, reeling them in like a fish, launching them and starting an air combo, and finally batting them through the air two stories above the ground.  It’s hard to beat thrills like that.


I said as much when I talked about Bayonetta 2, and I’ll say it here.  DMC4’s difficulty comes from the struggle against oneself as much as -- and likely more than -- the demons that fill every room.  It’s one thing to clear a room with your life intact, but another entirely to clear it with “Smokin’ Sick Style” stapled to the right half of the screen, or with the knowledge that you got to play air guitar with Nero in the middle of a life-or-death situation.  The game puts a pair of badasses in your hands, and the only way to honor that is to play like a badass -- to be untouchable, and stylish, and an offensive juggernaut. 

How far can you go?  There’s only one way to know for sure.

And that’s pretty much the gameplay in a nutshell -- well, a nutshell that can fit some 3400 words, but you get the idea.  I had WAY more fun than I thought I would with this game, and this is coming from someone who’s played a good number of recent character action games.  Again, I acknowledge that there are faults, and that the game might be a hard sell for whole swaths for the gaming audience.  But speaking personally?  I had a blast with it.  I’m glad I played the Special Edition, because it’s satisfied me in ways I never thought possible.

So I guess the next step is to talk about the story.  But the real question remains.  Who really is better, Dante or Nero?  Think hard about it for now, but I’ll give you a hint: the answer is actually John Cena.


See you next time.

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