Capcom is something of an enigma. Like so many of todays profit-driven developers, they shamelessly dilute the market with endless strings of sequels, spin-offs, and outright knock-offs. But occasionally, amidst the hordes of boring Resident Evil and Mega-Man sequels, something compelling emerges. The developers at Capcom, responsible for classics such as Street Fighter II and the original Resident Evil, have, on occasion, shown themselves capable of creating truly innovative, genre-defining games. Devil May Cry, the latest concept from Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, injects new life into Capcoms stale action-adventure formula. While it doesnt quite reach the same heights of cohesive design as Resident Evil or Street Fighter II, it is nonetheless a wonderfully immersive adventure, radiating both the creativity and technical expertise of its experienced designers.
The story is about as cliché as it gets—a one-man army must fight to save the world from the forces of the underworld (while saving the girl, of course). But thanks to some creative characters, even the overwrought dialogue and predictable plot twists cant send the game plunging into B-movie oblivion. The hero, Dante, is an amalgam of such classic characters as Simon Belmont (of Castlevania fame), Solid Snake, and Shinobi, but somehow still manages to seem uniquely inspired. Hes a half-human, half-demon acrobatic killing machine with a dry wit and unwavering bravery. Sure, hes cocky—he snickers at a giant, fire-breathing scorpion and mocks the god of the underworld—but his wry tongue is offset by stalwart nobility that would impress even the aforementioned superheroes. The real stars of the show, though, are the demonic hordes that Dante must single-handedly vanquish. Devil May Cry features a fantastic lineup of ferocious villains, including shape-shifting animals, living sludge, icy werewolves, and scythe-wielding specters. This charismatic cast exemplifies what the game is all about: style.
The gameplay revolves around fast-paced, almost non-stop action interspersed with simple puzzles similar to those found in Resident Evil. Dante is armed with an oversized sword and a pair of twin pistols (affectionately dubbed "ebony and ivory"). There are numerous melee and projectile weapons to be collected, but all point to the same goal: kill the enemy, and do it with panache. The object of the game is to use combinations of the moves afforded by Dantes arsenal to accomplish stylistic kills. For example, Dante can slash his opponents with a quick one-two combo, follow it with an uppercut to launch the opponent into the air, leap in to the air and then, while in "flight" (so to speak), pummel the helpless demonic spawn with his twin pistols. Depending on the variety of moves implemented and the frequency of their execution, the player will be rewarded with a ranking of sorts. Words such as "dull," "action," "braw" (no, thats not a typo) and of course "stylish" appear in the upper right area of the screen to indicate the players performance. As they are slaughtered, the demons leave behind "orbs" that Dante can use to purchase new moves and power-ups. The more stylish the kill, the more orbs that are rewarded, meaning more moves and a more formidable Dante. A handful of bonuses can be collected during play, but generally the extent of Dantes repertoire and the strength of his defenses are determined by the players ability to exploit the games combat system. Unlike Resident Evil, where the limited supply of ammunition and health boosters made combat an affair best worth avoiding, the gains to be had from combat make repeated confrontations in Devil May Cry rewarding and occasionally necessary.
The caveat of action-oriented gameplay is that unless the combat system is intuitive on the outside and complicated on the inside, the gameplay will grow old faster than an 80s action hero. In this respect, Devil May Cry takes many steps in the right direction, but a few in the wrong direction. Dante has a significant number of moves at his disposal. Even at the onset of the game, a reasonable variety of moves can be executed by varying the timing of sword attacks and incorporating a mixture of gunplay and sword-slashing. Dante controls very smoothly—the analog stick will move him in the direction it is pressed, unlike the Resident Evil formula wherein pressing up will always moves the character forward. The ease of movement and simplicity of the basic controls make the game accessible to the novice player. A little study, though, will reward dedicated players with a variety of moves (most of which are purchased with the red orbs) that can be incorporated into all sorts of creative combinations. Just figuring out different ways to create stylish combinations can provide hours of enjoyable gameplay.
The only difficulty this system runs into is that although a variety of moves are available, players can easily progress through the game using a fairly limited repertoire (although advanced enemies will block the more basic attack combinations). The enemies are wonderfully varied in their design and attack patterns, but there is little need to vary Dantes offensive approach. Additionally, the game doesnt always reward players for creativity. Occasionally, I pulled off what I though were some pretty eye-catching combos, only to be slapped with a "dull" ranking. Once players figure out how to exploit the style ranking, combat runs the risk of degenerating into a series of repetitive combinations and unimaginative button-mashing.
Fortunately though, the impressive variety of enemies and large number of moves available make the games enjoyment the responsibility of the player. Sure, you can progress by using the same combos over and over, but do you want to do that when there are so many other moves available? The game could have been better had it put more pressure on the player to use a bigger variety of combinations, but nevertheless it gets high marks for simply giving players the option to approach combat in different ways.
The entire gameplay package is wrapped nicely in a fine technical presentation that successfully utilizes the power of the PlayStation 2. The worlds are visually astounding, not because of high polygon counts or eye-popping textures, but because of their moody, pseudo-gothic design. Pillars pulsate like living things; leaves and fog sweep through lush forests, and castles radiate a menacing, evil aura. The combat makes good use of special effects as well. Dante can use special attacks that surround him with a translucent purple light; his movements are subtly blurred when he uses his twin pistols; enemies may be transparent, breath fire, or turn the ground into ice. The game also packs some quality audio, with some respectable (if not campy) voice acting and a nice mix of clangs, booms, and groans. Everything in Devil May Cry has personality—style, if you will—lending the game a feel thats all its own, distinct from any other action-adventure in recent memory.
While the narrative builds suspense effectively, the game is ultimately too short and the characters are left too shallow to give the game the emotional impact it could have delivered. However, the excellent fighting system, the appealing characters, and the unique stylistic approach to both the presentation and the gameplay make Devil May Cry a worthy next step in Capcoms tradition of genre-defining games. By ignoring many of the clichéd elements of similar action titles, it successfully propels this genre past the recycled concepts that, ironically, Capcom is often responsible for perpetuating. Now, we just have to wait for the sequels...