On paper, Devil May Cry 4 looks like something horrible: a bloated spectacle for the God Of War crowd, full of maladjustments, contrivances and enough self-loathing to push Dante, its dazzling hero, completely out of frame. Who is this Nero, with his fresh face and demon arm, automating the very processes that make DMC so clever? How dare he vault effortlessly, at the touch of a button, over the heads of his enemies, racking up combos with nary a thought for distance or defense?
The truth is complicated, particularly because all of the above (bar the horrible bit) are true to a degree. In a bid to rescue his beloved Kyrie (pronounced Ki-ri-yay), a winsome opera singer abducted just as he was getting somewhere, Nero literally flies through a game that’s more lenient, streamlined and accessible than any of its predecessors. More like Kratos than Dante, his role is to reach out, through an initially rather cheap grapple technique, to players who think a Crazy Combo comes with fries and a fizzy drink.
Why? Because this is a series with a problem, not that you might think it. The better it gets, the fewer people can enjoy it. The more it allows Dante to get drunk on his own skill, the more it plays solely into the hands of the most dedicated, talented players. And the niche can only get so small. Given that Dante alienates everyone but his fans while being essential to DMC, Nero has become a necessity himself. His half of this 20-level epic can be enjoyed without any prior experience. His job is to make a Dante fan out of everyone.
So much of this game is surprising that you may as well put spoiler tags around the lot, but some things you can take for granted. Underground laboratories hide beneath a castle, for example, the corridors of which are stalked by possessed suits of amour and weird concoctions of guts and metal. Spectral energy and synthetic rock music still conspire to make everything feel like a disco, even under candlelight and the gazes of gargoyles. And if you’re not a pantomime freak, you don’t get any dialogue.
Despite Capcom’s reticence, it’s common knowledge that Dante does become playable, butting heads with Nero in one of the greatest boss battles ever and retaining all four of his DMC3 styles – Gunslinger, Sword Master, Royal Guard and Trickster. You should also know that his half of the game, which is faster-paced, is also a reverse trip through levels you’ve already played. Don’t get upset: the spoiler would be to tell you why this isn’t a problem, and how ingeniously the levels are reinvigorated, both in strategy and tone.
But the two halves – those two mentalities behind Dante and Nero – aren’t always complementary. Most baffling is the game’s use of enforced adaptive difficulty, not optional like in DMC3 but woven inextricably into the scoring system. Fail just a few times and things get easier, the enemy types changing while bosses become weaker. A warm gesture, perhaps, in a game built not just to be enjoyed by all, but completed. But it’s overzealous, altering the game before you’ve even had a chance to adapt yourself, stripping away that traditional sense of achievement. Did you win or did the game take pity? Unless you’re either exceptionally good or bad, you never know for sure.
In a game so disparate in its ambitions, deciding which are important, which are adequately achieved and who is likely to benefit can be an ordeal. But if Capcom’s true goal was to deliver Dante to those who never knew they needed him – or could control him – then DMC4 is a massive success. Nero passes the baton at just the right time, his own learning curve enough to whet appetites for Dante’s more intricate score attacks. And because both characters’ upgrade systems are entirely flexible – skill orbs can be refunded and re-spent at leisure, persisting across all game modes and difficulty levels – there’s a sense of ownership which breeds perseverance.
Just as well, because DMC, with its intangible rewards and arcane grading system, is still a tough sell. This new game might act like a mainstream hack-and-slash, throwing its technological weight around, tutoring newcomers and bombarding you with cutscenes and special effects, but the superficialities soon flake off, exposing that all-important score attack. Fear not, students of Dantology: the internet will again be checked, tactics will be exchanged, and every character, enemy, attack and environment will be put beneath the microscope.
That DMC4 stands up to such scrutiny, even where Nero is concerned, is all that should really matter. As the game ends and its hard-earned crowd of casual players departs, it throws off its disguise and gets back to the old routine, a realtime style-score (numbers, not letters) sneaking back on to the HUD for repeat players. Its adventuring aspects, backtracking included, still jar slightly with the needs of a time trial, but otherwise its levels beg to be replayed.
In a tricky situation, forced to make a game even Bagpuss could complete, Capcom has pulled off the impossible. DMC4 is not the grotesque misstep it so easily could have been. DMC4 is hardcore.