Playing Devil May Cry 4, it's impossible to shake the feeling that nearly everyone involved wasn't all that interested in making a video game. After completing DMC4, I took a over an hour to watch all of the CGI movies back to back. I was treated to footage of people flying around, juggling each other in mid-air with bullets, and getting run through by swords, but not minding too much. Watching the balletic violence, the cinematic camera angles, and the endless transformations of characters into monsters, the fact became inescapable that as crazed and borderline incoherent as the story was, the developers cared far more about it then they did the sections of gameplay that happen in between the movies.
The fourth in Capcom's series of over-the-top action games, Devil May Cry 4 drops players into the role of Nero, a bald-faced rip-off of the series' longtime star Dante. By this point in the series, a clear formula has been established, and DMC4 follows it step-by-step. The highs are still there, including the frenetic combat, mostly naked women, and wonderful art design. Unfortunately, so are all of the lows, like the repetitive combat, restrictive level design, and ridiculous difficulty level.
The story fails to make any kind of logical sense even by the series' own incredibly lax standards. The greatest unanswered question is just who is Nero, why is he so incredibly similar to Dante, and where does he come from? Broad hints are dropped that he might be Dante's long-dead brother, reincarnated somehow, but the lack of answers provided are just one of the story's issues. The core narrative is simple enough—in an allegory for 9/11 conspiracy theories, a religious cult secretly opens gates to hell all over an island, allowing demons to run wild attacking the populace. Then they plan to raise their dark god and have him smite all of the demons, so that the people will be so grateful for being rescued they will accept the cult as their new religo-fascist rulers. While the cult isn't supposed to be representative of any particular sect of Christianity, its leader wears suspiciously pope-like clothes, and their False God takes the form of a giant angel statue.
It's a clear premise, but the game's presentation of the story is so muddled as to be nearly incoherent. It begins with Dante assassinating the Pope-alike, and Nero being tasked with tracking him down. Nero does this by wandering aimlessly along an entirely linear path, which is helpfully populated by thousands of demons that he needs to slaughter. There's so little character or story here that Nero never seems to consider where all of these demons are coming from, and when his own troops start attacking him, it's just another in the long line of random, out of the blue developments that define everyday life in the Devil May Cry universe. There's a point where self-awareness stops being cute and starts being obnoxious. Devil May Cry 4 passes this point halfway through the third opening movie. When every character seems to realize they're in a videogame, and treat their predicament with the lack of seriousness that suggests, it's kind of hard to become emotionally involved in the proceedings. This detatchment leaves the game to be judged solely on the quality of its design and gameplay, which is something of a mixed bag.
There's no content other than fighting monsters, and attempting to obtain as high a score as possible. As always, that score is based entirely on how 'Stylish' the player's fighting is. This is determined by how long the player can go without being hit, or using the same move twice in a row. This is actually quite easy to do because Nero has access to a Demon Arm that functions a lot like Scorpion's famous spear from Mortal Kombat. It allows Nero to instantly drag enemies into slashing range, removing the need to go leaping and dashing all over the area to keep a combo going. The whole process is so shockingly easy, up until halfway through, I thought that the that the developers had finally broken down and produced a game that anyone could play.
That all changes when Dante shows up, though. Once the original white-haired demon hunter returns, so does the series' classic impenetrable gameplay. Using Dante in a fight puts the lie to the idea that videogames are for lazy, unmotivated people. Where fighting as Nero is simply a matter of mashing buttons and dodging the occasional attack, every battle as Dante is akin to playing Twister with fingers. Dante fights with five separate styles, four melee weapons, and three firearms, one of which transforms into three different guns. Getting a decent score is dependent entirely on the player's ability to switch constantly between these 14 things while jamming on buttons and keeping the next enemy in their sights. Of course, Dante is so ridiculously overpowered that players can just tap the sword and gun buttons to force their way through the combat, but if players do that, they'll never get the high scores that the game revolves around.
Having these two styles of play should serve to give the series a breath of fresh air, but a key design mistake ruins it. After making the switch of to Dante, the player is forced to play all of the levels that Nero just ran through, fighting the exact same enemies and bosses in reverse order. The difficulty level isn't even noticeably ramped up for the second run through; all of the fights are just harder because they're being played as Dante instead of Nero. There's nothing new or different to do, so the first half feels like more of a practice mode than anything else. As if the developers were saying, "Okay, now you've played through the game once, how about doing it again with the training wheels off?" It's nice that they decided to wean players slowly onto the mechanics rather than just drop them in the deep end, but it would have been nicer if there were some new levels or enemies once they'd learned them.
Watching the various CGI movies that play before every major battle and when entering most rooms, it's impossible to not be impressed with the care and detail put into them. Every action sequence leaps off the screen and grabs the attention of the viewer in a way the game's actual combat utterly fails to. In the minds of the developers (as represented in the videos they make), Devil May Cry is the place where albino fops pose dramatically before epically swordfighting demons while running up and down walls, pulling off acrobatic maneuvers that require not just superhuman reflexes, but at least three or four more senses than normal people possess.
In stark contrast, the Devil May Cry that people play involves hitting the same two or three buttons over and over again while figures on the screen collide with one another in their best approximation of choreography. Yes, the individual moves look fine, when the static camera is lucky enough to be aimed in the right direction to catch them, but the combat is just too simple, repetitive and arbitrary to provide the kind of operatic play experience the developers are obviously looking for. When Dante and Nero bounce around a giant statue, slicing at each other with giant swords, it makes for an interesting visual experience. When the player has to fight the same scarecrow-themed enemies over and over again with a limited set of moves, it's less enthralling.
The problem is most apparent in the boss fights against huge opponents. Yes, the foes are monstrous in size, but they couldn't be less interesting to fight. They all have a few standard attack patterns that can be dodged, and a few huge attacks that leave them vulnerable afterwards, just like every other boss in every other game. Fighting them inevitably boils down to hacking away with a sword for a while, dodging an attack, then hacking away again. There's no flow to the fights, no buildup to a climax, and no satisfying finishing moves. No matter how dramatic my demon-powered throw was, as an aura surrounded me and drove spikes through my opponent, if that grand, impressive, slo-mo attack didn't take out the boss' very last hit point, he goes right back to fighting as if nothing had happened. Proceeding to finish the boss off with a few shots from a pistol isn't just anti-climactic, it's kind of depressing. Especially when a CGI movie kicks in the second that last hit point disappears, showing Dante or Nero finishing off the boss in a way that's far more interesting than anything I was able to do during the actual battle.
For four games now, the developers of the Devil May Cry series have attempted to find a way to bring all the drama and thrills of anime combat to consoles. And they've failed all four times. Each title has been an interesting failure, to be sure, but not one of them has ever managed to deliver gameplay that's one hundredth as intense or compelling as the CGI movies that bracket it. Given that they're already churning out over an hour of CGI each time, wouldn't their resources be better spent tacking on just a little more story and calling them films? They're clearly more passionate about their ridiculous characters and ludicrously overblown stories than they are in delivering a fun, playable game. Isn't it time they just gave up and admitted they want to make movies instead?
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.