Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Essentials #22: Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening

The first Devil May Cry was a genre-redefining title credited with bringing the intuitive and addictive gameplay of classic 2-D action games at last into the realm of 3-D. Weirdly, in the vein of such 8-bit franchises as The Legend of Zelda and Castlevania, the series saw a sophomore effort that deliberately deviated from many of the aspects that made the original great, producing, in the case of Devil May Cry 2, a sequel that was vastly inferior. Just as quickly as the first game had some reviewers prematurely calling for an end to clunky Resident Evil-style survival horror titles in favor of Capcom's new strain of character action, the lackluster sequel left players coldly declaring the final failure of the experiment that had been DMC. Luckily, as it would turn out, DMC2 sold well enough despite poor critical reception to save the franchise from going the way of Dino Crisis. For the third outing in a row on the venerable Sony PlayStation 2, original creator Hideki Kamiya would not be returning, but the DMC2 team would be given a second chance to make the game theirs, and, this time around, their commendable sensitivity to player feedback would guide them in turning out a sequel that would take the series back strong to its roots while making many improvements to nearly perfect the formula.

Like the original, 2005's Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening was a character action game set in a Gothic castle. Within the 3-D environment, progression often relied on lock-and-key objectives as routing mechanisms, though the game was neatly broken up into missions of varying lengths, and although they were mostly set within the castle, many stages were also self-contained, while the remainder at least featured clear directions, so that wandering off course was less of an issue than in the first game.

The return to smaller, more enclosed spaces shifted the combat focus back to close-range melee attack combinations, and Dante's arsenal grew substantially by the inclusion of five distinct melee weapons, compared to the original's two and DMC2's one. While none of them were as extreme as the Inferno gauntlets of the first game, each by itself still offered just as many techniques as Dante's traditional sword, including branching alternate combos that were performed by carefully spacing out button presses, as opposed to just tapping repeatedly as quickly as possible. The major new breakthrough, however, was the advent of on-the-fly weapon switching. Players were allowed to equip Dante with their choice of two melee weapons and two firearms at the beginning of every mission. Then, during combat, it was possible to instantaneously switch between the equipped weapons with a simple click of a shoulder button. The possibilities increased exponentially as a result, as the classic sword-to-gun combos grew to include multiple melee weapons and firearms within the same string of attacks. Dante could, for example, initiate with a long series of blows from the speedy nunchuks, then, without any break, transition into the slow and heavy attacks of the gauntlets and greaves, leading into an uppercut to launch the enemy into the air, where its helplessly floating body would make for a ripe target for a penetrating rifle round.

Dante's repertoire was further expanded by the addition of the "style" system, which allowed the player, at the beginning of every stage, to choose from one of four fighting styles that governed the function of the Circle button. The Trickster style equipped Dante with a few invincible dash maneuvers to better help him dodge attacks, making it the ideal style for newcomers in need of an extra edge to get around attacks that they couldn't see coming early enough to evade through basic jumping and rolling. Swordmaster turned the Circle button into a second attack button, adding an extra set of melee attacks for each weapon, while Gunslinger did the same for firearms. Royal Guard was a higher-level style that armed Dante with a block command that, with the proper timing, could parry any enemy attack, while at the same time filling up an extra meter that powered his "Release" attack, a monstrously powerful move that, at its best, could literally rip through just about any foe. The timing for a successful parry was extremely tight, however, nearly frame-sensitive even, requiring a deep knowledge of enemy behavior and attack animations. Finally, two additional styles, Quicksilver and Doppelganger, would be earned during the course of the game. Less robust than the four main styles, the former allowed the player to slow time on enemies, while the latter would back Dante up with a shadow that would mimic all of his actions. Use of either ability rapidly expended the Devil Trigger meter, which was usually better spent on transforming Dante into his returning demonic mode. A hidden feature allowed a second player to take control of the Doppelganger shadow, and if combined with an unlockable costume that granted Dante infinite Devil Trigger, the trick effectively turned nearly the entire game into a cooperative multiplayer affair. The camera still only focused on the player controlling Dante, making it often difficult for the second player to keep track of their shadow character, but while somewhat impractical, it was an extremely cool and unexpected secret nonetheless.

Overwhelmingly, the biggest criticism against DMC3 was that it was far too difficult, with reviewers almost unanimously agreeing that it was one of the toughest games released that hardware generation. Perhaps the mindlessly easy DMC2 had made them soft and forgetful of the fact that the original DMC had also been a highly challenging, hardcore-skewing title, but there was little getting around the fact that DMC3 was a hard game. 90% of the normal enemies in the game were actually little more than glorified punching bags that moved clumsily and attacked infrequently, existing mainly to encourage the player to experiment with the robust combo engine. In fact, I felt that the lack of enemy variety was the game's greatest shortcoming compared to the original. But the bosses were a different story, and the encounter with the first real boss, Cerberus, was like slamming into a brick wall after the relative stroll of the preceding stages. More merciless seemingly than any boss from the original game, with attacks too fast and varied for the player to grasp any patterns within the time afforded by Dante's extremely limited health, Cerberus was guaranteed to crush just about any player on their first attempt--maybe even their first five attempts. If one persevered to finally triumph over Cerberus, the painful process would only repeat with the equally grueling second boss, Agni & Rudra. I personally found all subsequent bosses then to be much more manageable, but the ridiculously sharp learning curve might have turned off a lot of players before they got that far. It didn't help that the so-called "Easy" mode, offered once the player inevitably died one too many times, seemed only barely easier than "Normal."

As in the first game, grinding for Red Orbs to exchange for new moves and health upgrades was still an option, and DMC3 actually facilitated such an approach with a new mission select feature that was, in my opinion, the game's single greatest addition to the series. Whereas the first game allowed players to carry over their powered-up characters into successive playthroughs, and DMC2 offered a stage select feature unlocked after beating the game, DMC3 actively encouraged replay by allowing players to go back at any time to previously completed chapters. In theory, players could simply revisit specific missions that were heavy with Red Orbs in order to develop Dante's abilities with the least amount of effort. I personally took advantage of the system by treating Easy mode as almost a trial run for the Normal difficulty. I would first play a stage in Easy mode, and upon completion, I would then take on the Normal version of the same stage. Not only did the process of playing each stage twice hasten Dante's development by effectively doubling the intake of Red Orbs, but the extra experience that I would gain as a player helped immensely, and, invariably, I would end up scoring higher on Normal than I had on Easy.

Thus far, I've only focused on the gameplay of DMC3, as that really always was the meat of the DMC experience. But for the third game, the developers also placed added emphasis on the plot to provide additional incentive for playing through to the end. In the first game, Dante took on the greatest enemy mankind had ever known, a veritable god that ruled the demon realm. How could they possibly follow up that grand scenario? Well, for sure, not with whatever crap went down in DMC2. No, in DMC3, the solution was to match Dante up against a nemesis who was his equal and opposite, for it was none other than his own twin brother.

Just as Dante's character design was a revelation in 2001, the designers of DMC3 struck gold with Vergil. A practitioner, alongside such legendary characters as Samurai Shodown's Ukyo Tachibana and Rurouni Kenshin's titular protagonist, of the Japanese battōjutsu quick-draw sword style, Vergil would prove to be Dante's equal, not only in power and fighting ability, but also in sheer coolness. Some early concept art for the original DMC included a design for a short-haired, katana-wielding Vergil, and I immediately saw his DMC3 design as a modified repurposing of the enigmatic "Legendary Dark Knight" bonus costume from the first game, what with the similar blue Victorian frock coat and the very same "Yamato" blade. My tidy conclusion was seemingly dashed, however, when it turned out that the monocled Legendary Dark Knight himself returned as an unlockable costume in DMC3, again sans any explanation or context, and his coat, more purple than blue, was easily distinguished from Vergil's. Nevertheless, Dante's brother actually did appear in the first game, and in a pretty major role at that, though, strangely, none of the promotional materials for DMC3 made any reference to that history.

As a prequel detailing Dante's early days as a demon hunter and the sibling rivalry-turned-power struggle with his brother, DMC3 told a surprisingly engaging story that required no knowledge of previous installments but did reward players of the original by ominously foreshadowing Vergil's fate in that game. Much improved over the sparse story of the original or the forgettable drivel of the second game, DMC3's tale was told primarily through cinematic cut scenes tidily placed at the beginning and end of every mission, albeit some scenes consisted of nothing more than an overly hyper Dante showing off with some newly-acquired weapon.

While the developers were content to completely ignore the events of the second game, there were a few elements carried over and fixed up, as if to redeem DMC2's existence to some extent. Dante's default sword in DMC3, and subsequently his signature weapon, was actually the Rebellion, his blade from DMC2. The Gunslinger style, meanwhile, was largely derived from the gun-focused play of DMC2 Dante, and while severely toned down, it was still an attractive option for those who really enjoyed long-range dominance in that game. And in maybe an unintentional nod to the action of the second game, the normally harrowing battle against Cerberus actually included one relatively safe spot, from which a patient and/or desperate enough player could take down the three-headed dog with just prolonged repeated fire from the handguns.

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Devil May Cry 3: Special Edition

Less than a year after DMC3's release, a "special edition" version was announced, which, thankfully, made it to North America in 2006 as the Greatest Hits repackaging of the game. The primary enticements for double-dipping included rebalanced difficulty levels, the addition of Vergil as a playable character, and a new semi-optional boss.

The common complaint against the original release had, of course, been that the game was too punishing. The high difficulty level was perceived as a reaction by the developers to the poor reception for DMC2's severe lack of challenge. Just as DMC2's low difficulty had itself been in response to complaints about the first game's difficulty, DMC3 had gone too far the other way again, becoming possibly even more challenging than the original. Evidently, moderation was a foreign concept to the development team. Or was it?

In reality, the DMC3 that North America originally got was not quite the same game that Japan had enjoyed, and struggling players might have rightly guessed that something was terribly amiss. In the misguided tradition of titles like Contra: Hard Corps and Silhouette Mirage, the North American release was made harder by bumping the difficulty levels up one level each, so that "Easy" was actually as hard as Japan's "Normal" difficulty, and "Normal" actually became "Hard." Even more significant was the redone continue system. While the Japanese version used the same system as DMC2, offering free continues at checkpoints and Gold Orbs that served as extra lives, the North American release reverted to the more punitive system of the first game, replacing the Gold Orbs with Yellow Orbs as the only way to continue from the last checkpoint. As in my playthrough of the first game, I decided never to use the Yellow Orbs, as I didn't want to rely on a consumable resource to stumble through a game that really demanded cultivating a controlled understanding of the mechanics. Had the continues been free, however, I might have seen things differently. Certainly, it would have been easier to practice against Cerberus had I not had to replay the entire stage leading up to him upon dying to him the first time. In any case, DMC3:SE restored the original difficulty levels and allowed players to choose between the two continue systems, making for a vastly more accessible product as a result. (Note: Because of the restored difficulty levels, the box's advertisement of a new "Very Hard" mode was erroneous; it was actually the genuinely lenient Japanese "Easy" mode that was new to North America.)

The rebalanced difficulty should have bumped the game up to must-have status even for players outside the hardcore crowd, but, for veterans, the real draw of DMC3:SE was the option to play through the game as Vergil. New players would have to unlock him by first beating the game as Dante, but players who had DMC3 save data on their memory cards could jump right in as Vergil. With a more limited arsenal than Dante and no story beyond a single opening cut scene, Vergil's game was somewhat comparable to the bonus character modes from the later Castlevania titles, but the combat-focused nature of the series made it far more rewarding to experiment with this brand new character with many unique moves. While he had only one style, one projectile, and three melee weapons with none of Dante's branching combos, Vergil's abilities were still more than adequate to get him through, and while playing as him, it was very easy to imagine the entire game being built around his abilities instead of Dante's. Whereas Dante had to select two out of his five melee weapons to take into a stage, Vergil always had access to all three of his weapons, two of which were very distinct from, and generally superior to, any of Dante's. Instead of guns, Vergil fired his Phantom Swords, which behaved vaguely like Joachim's swords from Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, though series veterans hopefully would have remembered Vergil using them as far back as the first game. Their advantage over guns was that Vergil could fire them without pausing while moving or even while performing melee attacks. Basically, the only thing keeping one from firing them at all times was the potential strain on the player's hand.

The extra boss fight, on the other hand, felt lame and out-of-place. Somewhat uncharacteristic for the series, this boss was highly evasive and relied on long breaks of invincibility to turn it into essentially a turn-based battle antithetical to the free-form combat that was the essence of DMC. As a result, it was by far the weakest boss fight in the game, and what was worse was that the first of the three encounters with this boss was mandatory, despite having little place in the story. Including the same boss two more times as optional encounters later in the game did nothing to spice up the final third of the game, still comparatively the weakest leg, with fewer bosses, no new weapons to collect, and too many rehashed levels.

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DMC3 was perhaps not a bravely designed game. Certainly, it was not as visionary as the original, which it seemed content to mostly ape. But DMC3:SE in particular was nearly the perfected form, not only of Devil May Cry, but possibly of the whole entire character action genre. I consider it one of the very best titles on the PS2, and thanks to its more accessible design, I would give it the edge over the classic original.

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