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September 24, 2015

Let’s discuss Devil May Cry 4 (Part 2).


I used to watch wrestling a lot more than I do nowadays.  Smackdown aired on basic cable, so I could flip it on and watch some body slams and muscular men getting uncomfortably close together (as if they wanted to kiss each other); I remember there was one fight between Rey Mysterio and Batista that was more or less amazing.  But when it hopped channels, I didn’t have the will to chase after it -- and I never really watched RAW in the first place, so I was out.  And the last wrestling game I played was Smackdown vs. Raw 2010 (I think), which was pretty fun IMO…but my brother decided to trade it in just ‘cause.  Either that, or he hated spending most matches unconscious and flat on his face.

I don’t know a lot about wrestling, but I know some stuff.  I know who John Cena is, and not just because of his sudden memetic uprising.  And it’s my understanding that, as of the last Wrestlemania (at the very least) he’s the WWE’s face.  He’s its hero.  He’s someone they’ve been pushing as a good guy, even if that’s with the grace of a cinder block to the gut.  But even if he and the WWE are way over the top, I have a hard time ignoring the motto of “Loyalty, Hustle, Respect” -- especially in the face of Devil May Cry 4.  Because the more I think about it, the more I realize that’s part of what makes the game great.  What do I mean?  Well --

Oh, right.  I played WWE All-Stars, too.  Man, what a sick game.


So here’s the setup (and for those unaware, the series chronology goes 3, 1, 4, 2).  The Order of the Sword -- situated in Fortuna -- is a religion that reveres the franchise’s esteemed demon Sparda as something like a god.  But during a holy ceremony, Dante drops in and shoots Sanctus, the Order’s leader and totally not the pope, square in the face.  That throws everything into a panic, and shortly after demons begin their infestation of the city and its outskirts.  Not a good situation to be in.

Enter Nero, one of the Order’s recruits.  With a crisis well in their midst and the soldiers forced to pick up the pieces, Nero begins his pursuit of Dante to find out the truth -- and by extension, make sure that his more-or-less girlfriend Kyrie stays safe.  What starts out as a simple mission becomes much more complicated, though; Nero stumbles upon a plot that threatens to unravel everything he knows and loves -- and he’ll have to deal with the awakening devil within along the way.

So let’s start with the obvious issue.  Show of hands: does anyone here actually think that Dante is the game’s main villain?  No?  Did anyone ever think that Dante was the main villain?  No?  Didn’t think so.


I don’t know who Capcom was trying to fool.  Anyone coming off of DMC3 knows that Dante isn’t the sort to turn heel, especially since that game was all about his transformation into the goofy-yet-earnest demon hunter we know today.  Really, it was patently obvious that Sanctus and/or The Order of the Sword would be full of nasty folk, because of course they are.  Sanctus is old and wrinkly and in a position of power, and a religious position no less -- so naturally, he’s the main villain who gets more demonic as time passes and scoffs at the idea of love and decency.  Likewise, The Order is obviously not what it appears to be, because it’s an organization full of protocol and built on dogma.

I’m not saying that those archetypes and story beats are forbidden (and I’ll explain why in a bit), but it’s no less frustrating to see them so bold-faced wherever or whenever they appear.  You can do a lot with a good set of villains, and DMC3 proved that by putting Vergil in direct opposition to Dante -- someone who not only shared his blood and skills, but had a strong bond that created inherent tension.  Meanwhile, Sanctus is evil because he’s the pope, and clearly you can never ever trust the pope, or anyone with a fraction of authority.  It’s such a cop-out.


Also, I know that DMC4 originally came out in 2008, but it’s hard not to feel a little uneasy in light of the discussions going on right now.  To be specific: this game has a really unnerving problem with its female characters.  Example: Gloria (an Order official who’s actually series mainstay Trish in disguise) is introduced as someone who’s more or less a prototype of Bayonetta, with all of the baggage that implies.  But really, she only gets to have one cool scene before she A) spends the rest of the game standing around and talking and B) drops out of the game entirely.  So it’s easy to view her as an awkwardly jammed-in purveyor of fanservice.  Also, female boss Echidna lives solely for the sake of her children, and explains that she plans to merge with one someday.  That’s unfortunate and unsettling.

The special edition tries to fix this by adding in Trish and Lady as playable characters -- and let’s not think too hard about their redesigns, Lady’s in particular -- but it still can’t do anything to change the story.  So Kyrie’s a major missed opportunity, just as she was back then; she spends big swaths of the game away from the action, and gets reintroduced solely to be captured; after that, she spends the rest of the game silent and practically comatose.  She’s a damsel in distress, and in a universe where most named characters can casually defy physics, that’s a baffling issue.


At a base level, DMC4’s story is cripplingly simple.  Pared down to basics -- which the game itself does -- it’s no more evolved than Mario’s first quest to save Princess Peach from Bowser three decades ago.  The knight has to save the princess from the evil wizard/dragon/pope, and win her heart as well as her freedom.  Oh sure, there are extra circumstances that put some meat on the game’s bones, but it’s hard to feel like progress has been made.

That’s especially true, because it’s Nero’s story -- and Dante doesn’t technically contribute that much to it.  He gets the plot in motion, but disappears for huge periods of time.  And when he does reappear to take Nero’s place, he doesn’t contribute very much besides play cleanup crew.  He gets to do some stunts, sure, but story-wise he’s doing what everyone blasts the game for: having the player run through levels backwards.  Gameplay-wise Dante is a substantive addition; the problem is that he gets so little time to spread his wings that those who love the red-clad hunter are bound to be left wanting.

So if that’s all true, then why do I still like DMC4’s story?  Maybe it’s because -- much like John Cena -- the game is built on loyalty, hustle, and especially respect.


Yeah, DMC4 isn’t what I’d call high art, but even if it’s got an annoyingly-simple story, it still puts up the effort.  It tries to be more than a bunch of cool action scenes strung together, and that’s made obvious from the opening cutscene.  Nero’s slashing his way through hordes of demons, but he’s doing it to the sound of a peaceful hymn.  Likewise, that opening doesn’t end with some goofy one-liner or high-octane finish; it ends with Nero in his seat and smiling contently at Kyrie -- proof that he made it to an event that mattered to her…even if it didn’t really matter to him.  The prologue is, admittedly, pretty simple and probably not that original (I can only imagine how many times soft songs and heavy action have been juxtaposed), but it’s effective in the sense that A) it tells you what kind of game DMC4 is, B) it shows you what sort of person Nero is.

The game isn’t just content with saying “Kyrie’s in trouble, so go rescue her, idiot!”  It takes time to at least try and establish the bond between this newcomer and his main squeeze -- and honestly, I think it’s successful at that.  Nero’s a sarcastic, standoffish rebel, but he’s not without merit; there are things he genuinely cares about.  Kyrie’s the obvious one -- and he goes the distance to try and make her happy, even before her kidnapping a ways into the game -- but he shows respect to her brother Credo even if they don’t always get along. 

He cares about the people near to him that need saving, but he also cares about society at large; as tough as he tries to be, he’s inherently worried about how people will respond to his gnarly-looking Devil Bringer.  And given how bashful he gets at the end when he’s reunited with Kyrie, a part of me wonders if he’s acting tough instead of being tough.

So I have to ask again: who’s better, Dante or Nero?  DMC4 heavily skews toward Dante -- and that’s exactly the point.


The devs likely -- and rightfully -- reasoned that no one can top Dante, especially a Dante who’s in top form.  Nero gets his moments, sure, but Dante’s scenes and character are more OTT.  The original demon hunter is clearly stronger than the new kid on the block, to the point where he taunts and trolls Nero throughout their first battle.  (Nero proves how much of a greenhorn he is by falling prey to the trolling.)  No matter what the gameplay implies, the proof is all there: Nero isn’t Dante, can’t take Dante’s place, and will never be Dante.  Earning Dante’s respect is the best he can do -- and he does, well before game’s end.  And in turn, Nero’s quest for respect -- his need to prove himself, and his worth -- becomes a meta-contextual quest aimed directly at the player.

Nero has an advantage in the game that Dante doesn’t: the struggle.  In their opening fight, Dante laughs off a sword lodged deep in his chest; that’s not to say Nero doesn’t take obscene amounts of punishment, either, but in cutscenes or out of them, Dante’s clearly playing by his rules.  More to the point, Dante can rely on fellow hunters who can and will take care of themselves; he doesn’t have a stake in the conflict besides “there are baddies, so I’m gonna kick their asses.”  Okay, sure, he cares more than he lets on -- he pays tribute to a dying Credo, and he makes sure the people are kept safe thanks to Trish (so I guess Dante’s a better hero than Man of Steel Superman, huh?) but he doesn’t really have a reason to get worked up.  Nero does.


Even if he’s an outcast, Nero still cares about Fortuna.  It’s his home, and it’s where innocent people go about their day-to-day lives -- even if that means they put stock in a religion he doesn’t buy into.  More importantly, he’s got people like Kyrie and Credo to keep in mind; Fortuna and The Order matter WAY more to them, so it matters to him by proxy.  And even beyond that, the two of them form Nero’s impromptu family.  It’s a safe bet that they would have been a straight-up family before long, at least if the plot hadn’t happened and Credo bit it hard.

I suppose you could say that DMC4 asks more out of its players than smokin’ sick combos, and wants them to do more than marvel at then-cutting-edge action scenes.  Back then, and now, the game asks players to have empathy.  It wants people to understand that even if devils, religious sects, and coastal towns with a gothic flair don’t mean anything to them, all of those things mean something to the people in there.  It’s their world.  It’s a lot to ask, sure, so the game tries its best to make a compelling argument.  As it should, the story offers up evidence as to why anyone should care about things that aren’t real.  And at the center of that effort?  Nero and his effort -- his long, hard struggle to see Kyrie’s smiling face.


Nero tries to play the joker, but that doesn’t even last to the end of his first section of the game.  Once Sanctus and The Order has their plans revealed -- that they’ll take on demonic power and control the world, with their mobile goliath The Savior as their bargaining chip -- things go from bad to worse, and Nero has a bad time.  At best, he can only make Dante back off instead of earn a decisive win.  He sees that even a couple of peons are demons in disguise.  He gives into his demonic power, even if that means further isolation from his peers. 

He has to fight Credo despite his desperate attempts to back down…and then Kyrie sees just enough to have her faith in Nero shaken, which in turn threatens to break Nero.  And then Nero does break when Kyrie gets nabbed.  And then he gets nabbed in turn and shoved inside The Savior, wherein he laments that he couldn’t save her from being used as not only a peon of the devil-pope, but a living battery for a doomsday weapon.  And worst of all?  He has to play a stupid dice game, twice.


The poor guy handles it about as well as you’d expect -- which involves a whole lot of rage, frustration, despair, screaming, disgust, self-pity, and ground-punching.  It’s not the most subtle or dignified expression of emotions, but at least he is expressing emotions.  At least the player gets to see him be more than a cocky joker.  As a result of Nero’s regularly-displayed, easily-understood turmoil, he becomes sympathetic.  He becomes someone we care about, and someone who we want to see succeed -- and when he does succeed (in what I think might be one of my new favorite villain defeats ever), we’re happy for him.

But that success had to be earned.  And it IS earned, because Nero’s struggle is apparent every step of the way.  He isn’t as cool as Dante because he does ridiculous stunts whenever he’s on-camera; he’s cool in his own right because even with all the obstacles and setbacks in his path, he blows right through them to get what he wants most: Kyrie by his side.  He’s not a retread, and while he may not be what everyone expected -- or even asked for -- his adventure is something that makes the character and the game at large worthy of respect.


That really is the crux of the whole game when you think about it.  Dante doesn’t think much of Nero when they first meet, but once the latter shows off his resolve (again and again), the former shows some much-needed respect -- to the point where he entrusts a family memento to a guy he just met.  Nero and Credo have a mutual respect for each other, because at the very least they’re both out to protect Kyrie; Credo just happens to go astray because he also has respect for Sanctus, The Order, and its teachings. 

Dante respects Trish and Lady enough to let them go about their business, even if that’s because Trish has to put the pressure on Dante.  Kyrie gains newfound respect and love for Nero despite the Credo clash, because she saw how far he went just to hold her in his arms.  Critically, the bosses’ lack of respect leads them towards some pretty bad choices against Nero and Dante -- which ends up getting them beaten and ultimately killed.

On one hand, you could accuse Sanctus of the same lack of respect; he gives no value to human life and love, which puts yet another target on his back.  On the other hand, Sanctus understands the concept of respect, and uses it in a pretty interesting way.  Yes, he’s out for world domination, but he doesn’t wipe cities off the map with The Savior; his plan all along was to create a demon infestation and then clean them out, all so he could take the credit -- and more importantly, so that people would revere him and The Savior as a guarantor of peace.  He weaponized respect by creating false hope; that’s pretty cool.  Shame that it only comes into play way late in the game and we don’t see the full ramifications of it, buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut the idea is there.  Gotta make room for Dante to blow up demon frogs.


I don’t think that the theme of respect is an accidental one.  Like I said, the bosses don’t exactly show respect to our leading men in this game -- but in the previous game, they did it all the time.  Cerberus, Agni and Rudra, Nevan, and Lady are all willing to give Dante their power/weapons once he’s proven himself to them; he’s earned their respect, and they see fit to reward him.  Even Vergil gets in on the action, arguably; with lines like “Now I’m motivated” and “This may be fun” tossed out at liberty, it’s obvious he sees Dante as a worthy opponent, albeit an errant one.

Whether it’s DMC3, DMC4, or the series as a whole, it’s all about respect.  (And as a corollary, loyalty and hustle.)  No matter what the stories entail, the gameplay is all about giving the player a chance to earn respect -- even if it’s only self-respect by virtue of playing alone in an empty room, but whatever.  Okay, sure, you can win with the basics and the bare minimum of what the combat system allows, but the franchise skews heavily toward giving the player the tools to create the ultimate, stylish offense.  If you want Dante and Nero (and Vergil, and Lady, and Trish) to be cool guys, then that opportunity is there.  If the story fails to let these people earn the player’s respect, then the gameplay compensates.  But I’m of the opinion that the story doesn’t fail -- and because of the interplay of the two halves, the end result is something special.

DMC4 tried to be something more.  It tried as hard as it could -- and that effort alone is something worth celebrating.

So why did the whole thing get rebooted?


Tune in next time for the finale -- because THAT QUESTION WILL BE ANSWERED NEXT THURSDAY NIGHT AT THE WWE SUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUPER SLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAM!

…By which I mean this blog.

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