Devil May Cry was so difficult to beat it was an anachronism. The early 2000s were priding themselves for renovating retro with accessible action in games like Halo: Combat Evolved and Jak and Daxter. Then in struts Devil May Cry with the unclaimed baggage of generations of arcade gamers who have drunk themselves into a randy middle age, dragging their lives systems and health bars like well-worn coattails. The following generations would take the pizza-swilling ladies man as a kind of counter-pop idol of game design, transplanting his self-destructive libido to ancient times with God of War, bending his gender with Bayonetta, upping the over-drama with Ninja Gaiden.
As much as Dante was a fossil of some particulars he was a Rockstar pioneer of others, incorporating an antiquated continue system into what would be the stone template for 3D hack n’ slash games forever. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice may not be overabundant in gameplay, but when the swords come out, Senua, like every industry professional game mascot, channels Dante to figure out how it’s done. When God of War 4 sees the light, I don’t doubt it will have a similar obsession.
But where we left Dante last, with Ninja Theory’s 2013 reboot-prequel DmC: Devil May Cry, we left a gaming icon vulnerable to all the gameplay ravages of the modern AAA industry. The series’ signature style, like an obligatory nod to a great performer’s contributions, was no longer so much an interactive result of player intuition and hard work as an aesthetic boon for a passive viewer to absorb and enjoy vicariously. Both with its honored tradition of prickly difficulty and all the expectations of desperate visual spectacle commonplace to the latest action games, DmC sits precariously in the transition between the last thrust of a dying genre and the newly textured cinema of motion blur.
Whereas the original Devil May Cry seemed to take a sadistic pride in offering the player no direction through its mechanics and levels, often requiring a manipulation of the save system itself to navigate the labyrinth of limited resources and grueling bosses, DmC is more processed. There are so many weapons and moves that the game feels in an almost constant state of tutorialization (something it shares with Bayonetta). DmC will introduce a new movement scheme based on the sub-function of a weapon, force you to play through a training level in which it’s mandatory, and then leave you for the rest of the game to ignore it at your leisure until a prompt appears. The series’ signature gameplay style feels intact, but it’s lost all of its dread. All of the danger of resource management is mitigated by plentiful health drops and a more cushioned lives system, just as the style is often compromised by the elaborate and barely-interactive cinematics. The save system, like so much of the game, is set on auto.
With this new obsession with visual fluff, the original series’ light exploration and non-linear elements should have disappeared as well. But probably out of nothing more heinous than tradition, DmC still has branching paths. The problem is that cinematic story is the fly in the transporter of organic exploration: though the maps branch, the game throws up points of no return at random in front of two paths, one of which leads to bonus secrets and one to the rest of the game with no indication of which is which. Bayonetta ignores exploration altogether, but like DmC, God of War: Ascension and Shadows of the Damned make story terminal entrances in front of cutscenes more player-hostile than bosses. These story checkpoints are so immutable to cinematic presentation that they cram satisfying secret-finding out of development, while whispering out of habit that it still exists.
But despite the degradation, DmC had popping colors, tripping tunes, a lot of spunk, and that unmistakable creeper-douche Hayden Christensen. The gameplay might have been easy and uneven but there was a lot of it, compared to Hellblade, Ninja Theory’s latest, which features gameplay only as a jolt to the player’s attention between story-specific walking simulations. To my eyes, God of War 4 looks exquisitely textured but plodding, with little of the series’ renowned viscera splurges choking the cutscenes in high-octane button-mashing madness.
Yet, games like the original God of War and Devil May Cry are the new visual-obsessed story simulators in their infancy. They were stuffed with choices hostile to action gaming, such as a reliance on quick-time events for finishing moves and the unnecessary trailer fodder of oversized bosses and purposeless cinematics. But the chewy center was still rooted to the arcade days, to games like Rygar and Ninja Gaiden and Ghosts n’ Goblins. If you played a true modernization of this age of action, you’d feel it, in the drama of health conservation and the threatening pall of permanent death. Maximo: Ghosts to Glory comes straight to my mind as a contemporary of the others that made the transition without compromise.
Modern efforts have forsaken this tradition for what they value: the shock and awe of trailer composition, the pre-order bonus fodder of visual spectacle. DmC probably didn’t cause anything directly, but it throbs in my mind as a game on the precipice between the two modes of thinking. Like everything else on Sony and Microsoft’s new consoles that was not made by From Software, DmC has the player second on its priorities to marketable clips. Even if it marks up on style next to its bleary contemporaries, the only style points these games usually get nowadays are for the developer, not the player. Most of the time, I just feel along for the ride.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org