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Devil May Cry 4

(Capcom; US: 5 Feb 2008)

Review [1.May.2008]

All this Useless Beauty

I am largely a Devil May Cry virgin.  I mean, I engaged in some light petting with Devil May Cry 2 a few years ago, but we didn’t make it all the way.  Devil May Cry 2 turned out to be a little rougher than I would have hoped at the time, so we parted ways somewhat amicably.


While it may seem a bit tacky to begin a review of a game with sexual metaphor, when discussing Devil May Cry 4, it seems obvious to engage in a little entendre.  After all, the Devil May Cry series often revels in hyper-sexualized action cut-scenes (for those that might think that I’m over reading the sexualization of violence in DMC 4, pick up this latest iteration and check out the initial battle sequence with Gloria or listen to Dante’s discussion later in the game of “penetrating” his enemies).  To be frank, the campy approach that Devil May Cry takes to hyper-masculinity and hyper-sexuality is one of its guilty charms.  It takes neither violence nor sex seriously, intending to see both as merely the vehicle to a very basic form of visual stimulation.


However, it isn’t simply the character model eye candy that is outrageously exaggerated in this sequel.  A lot of the eye candy exists in the gargantuan and grandiose settings and backgrounds where the actual action takes place.  This game is more than a little breathtaking in its myriad approaches to visuals.


Such focus on aesthetic pleasure extends into the heart of the gameplay itself, though.  For those unfamiliar with the series, like previous entries this new sequel falls squarely into the traditional play style of the original.  There is, of course, a heavy emphasis on the word “style.”


As an action game, Devil May Cry focuses on swordplay and gunplay with throngs of foes, but what drives the focus of combat is the style points awarded by chaining together long series of varied attack combos.  Repetitive single-button mashes are discouraged by the need to constantly change up attacks as you fight, lest the bar measuring the points on screen stagnate.  A further incentive to innovate during battles comes from the fact that style points are the currency of the game.  Purchasing items and power ups are contingent on each level’s final tally, which evaluates your performance in combat as you are awarded more orbs for better performance in order to make those purchases.  In other words, style has value in the long term.


As a result, a great deal of the game’s interest lies in engaging in the kind of balletic and elegant action sequences that this anime-inspired series seeks to emulate.  It is no wonder that violence and sex appeal are strangely wed in the game’s narrative given that this is a game that elevates the notion of fighting in the sexiest ways possible.


However, none of these observations are likely to surprise anyone who has experienced a Devil May Cry game before.  Indeed, the new game does indeed have some new experiences to offer in addition to remaining faithful to its aesthetic and gameplay foundations.


Most notably new to the series is the shift in focus away from the series’ standard protagonist Dante (who is still present in the plot and also playable for about a third of the game) to a new devil hunter with a mixed human-devil heritage, the younger but equally brash Nero.


Nero, who maintains a great deal of the campy and over-the-top tough guy attitude of his predecessor Dante and also resembles his elder in a number of obvious ways, does bring some additional methods of upping the ante of carnage in the game with his demon arm.  The arm, which supernaturally morphs and extends as Nero fights and advances through the game’s environments, allows for new kinds of attack combos as well as the ability to grapple around the environment in ways that Dante was never before capable of.


Dante, too, gets some attention in changing the approach to his style of play with the ability to shift rapidly through a series of “styles” of fighting via the D-pad, which gives him a much wider variety of possible combat options on the fly.  However, none of these styles is quite as enthralling as the ability to smash and throw enemies the way that Nero’s new demon arm allows.  The near pornographic visceral qualities of engaging enemies is shamefully satisfying.  Thus, the decision to focus the majority of the game on this new character, Nero, seems a sound one.


Changing leads in a franchise is always a thorny business (as Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima, for example, is well aware after the rather anguished response to his decision to switch up fan favorite Snake for the seemingly “sissified” Raiden in MGS 2), but the DMC franchise seems to have dodged that bullet in part due to its decision to maintain visual similarity as well as personality similarities between its two protagonists.  Nero’s persona still retains the proper DMC swagger.


Such a decision, though, also has a positive effect in terms of authenticity in the game’s mythos.  In any game with the ability to develop a character over the course of time through power ups and changes to their abilities, there is always a bit of a difficulty in maintaining consistency between games.  Simply put, a player who has played through one game in a series and managed to make their character into a god by the close of the story often wonders why that same character seems to have lost of all of the experience and power accrued in the last game when picking up a sequel.


A variety of narrative solutions have been employed in this regard, from characters’ literal deaths and resurrections at the onset of a sequel (see the God of War series) or the notion that the character has a mythic quality and that the various games only represent legendary alternative histories of an iconic hero (see the Legend of Zelda series).


The introduction of a new character in the series, while dangerous, is an altogether more palatable approach for the pragmatists out there while lending the new games (especially in longer-lived series like this one) some fresh story line possibilities.  Nero’s introduction serves just such a positive role.


To be frank, there is little to complain about in this fourth installment of the series.  The series is indeed freshened by new characters, new approaches to combat, and new next-gen graphics, while still maintaining fidelity to the hallmarks of the franchise.  Perhaps the only little details that occasionally perturb the player are some oddly long stretches of running through some environments that seem meant more to gawk at than to have anything for the player to do in them.  Some of this slowdown is caused by some sometimes frustrating backtracking in environments (and, indeed, all of Dante’s play time will see Dante back track through levels already visited by Nero—this makes sense in terms of the game’s linear story and environment but may disappoint players who want more cool environments to ooh and ahh about).  But additionally, and especially near the beginning of the game, there are some rather extended vistas with no enemies to gore or perforate in sight.  Trotting through these visually stunning but otherwise static environments is not especially engaging.  While very pretty, some of these gorgeous but empty settings slow the pace of the strength of the series: its hyper-frantic and hyper-frenetic pacing.  These moments lack the DMC sizzle.


Nevertheless, a small amount of seemingly useless beauty does not mar the surface of what is otherwise a tour de force of an elegant, sexy, ostentatious, and otherwise tremendously pleasurable direct experience of useless beauty.

Rating:

G. Christopher Williams is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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