This review originally appeared in E148.
So, after two dress rehearsals to shake out the trappings of Resident Evil and find his own style, it’s finally showtime for Capcom’s leading man. How the auditorium will fill out after the first gig’s volume deafened casual players, and the second proved too chart-friendly for those who liked the old school better than the nu school remains to be seen – but this might well be the number you’ve been waiting for.
Visualised as a mix of the series’ traditional urban gothic and the classical leanings of the ill-fated Chaos Legion, DMC3 is perhaps the most evocative, exuberant dark fantasy Capcom has produced since Ghouls ’N’ Ghosts. It’s not just dark fantasy, but dark fantastic, from the menacing symmetry and scale of the Bruegel-esque tower that rudely erupts in Dante’s neighbourhood to the gangs of baying, swooping reapers that you’ll return to the sand inside it.
Whether these battles are cast in glitzy neon, sallow candlelight or silver moonbeams, Dante never leaves the spotlight, his older incarnations in DMCs 1 and 2 apparently having forgotten more moves than they could learn from all the Red Orbs in the world. An impressive enough street samurai armed with pistols and swords alone, as Dante’s arsenal grows – weapons are cleverly bequeathed by each defeated boss, so you already know their cause and special effects – so do the possibilities to extend the series’ peerless fusion of swordsmanship and bullet ballet.
Two ranged and two melee weapons can be equipped at a time, and can be switched on a shoulder button press mid-swing or trigger-pull without interrupting Dante’s flourish. Far beyond a simple, but welcome, bypass for the genre’s habitually cumbersome menu management, it quickly becomes second nature to open with an attack from one weapon and close with another, or even to cycle through all four in an unrelenting shower of blows.
The unnatural laws of DMC3’s physics are equally reliable and exploitable: when a boss produces an attack that affects the entire arena floor, you instinctively hold Dante aloft on the kickback from his gunfire. The equal and opposite reaction of a mid-air uppercut is that Dante will land on his feet with time to dispatch a second enemy before the first lands. And, crucially, combat is as enjoyable to play badly as it is to play well (Dante is irrepressible even in defeat, somersaulting out of a stagger or breakdancing up from a knockdown), though diving into the system’s depths rather than furiously thrashing on its surface is a requirement for the more aggressive difficulties.
Even so, it’s a game that’s unexpectedly willing to let you set the rules for how you want to play a Devil May Cry game, whether that involves favouring gunfighting, close combat, or a balanced offence supported by either dodges or block-and-counters. DMC3’s fighting styles, as with your equipped weapon sets, can be reassigned between missions or at power-up points, should you find a particular section requires a differently skilled approach: Gunslinger’s crowd control properties are wasted on the mano-a-demonio boss encounters, for instance, where you’ll be better served by a defensive boost.
Flexible, smart, and needless to say stylish, if the system has a drawback it’s that some of the interplay between acrobatics and action introduced in DMC2 has been sectioned off. It’s impossible to use a Trickster wall-run and backflip to set up a Gunslinger hail of bullets, but then asking to cycle styles in addition to weapons and interruptible combo attacks is probably a little too much even for a Capcom studio that at last understands its game enough to be at the top of it.
That understanding sadly hasn’t extended to moving the genre beyond the club-footed Insert Occult Object To Continue progression – though there’s at least the placebo this time around of the items being more inventive than Rusty Keys, and the game’s flow often steers you to the key before the DMC3 still finds time for calm moments between storms, and while the colour scheme is earthier than some of the original’s most striking scenery, it’s a more assured design overall. Much of the scale is for show, not exploration, which is a shame considering Dante’s architecture-scaling acrobatic talents lock. But that flow, so rollercoaster-fast for much of the game’s 20 missions, sets itself up to disappoint when the pacing finally slips. The idle backtracking and wearisome boss fight reruns in the last third of the game age DMC3 beyond its years – though it still knows to save some of its most memorable moments for last.
Not least the finale of its storyline, a magnificent contrast of B-movie fluff with triple-A production. The portrait of Dante as a young man at last finds the self-parodying, haughty cool the previous games first overshot, then underplayed – and his supporting cast brood and doublecross with the conviction that this is the last world- threatening plot that will ever play out in a Japanese videogame.
It’s a strange situation for the series to truly hit its stride in a game that’s both beginning and conclusion, and you can’t help but wish Dante would never grow up, that there could have been more stories of his teenage roundhouse kicks. The most damning criticism of DMC3 is also its highest praise: this is a brashly overconfident music video of a game that thoughtlessly tramples (with 18-hole cherry Doc Martens) where more reserved titles have the sense not to tread. And the devil may cry encore.