Let’s rock, baby…

2001 was somewhat of a strange year for me. I’d just moved to a new town, and a developing love of video gaming wasn’t exactly doing me any favours in the social life department. It was also at Christmas that year when the leather clad, wise-cracking Dante stepped onto the gaming scene and pretty much blew it up.

After dominating the PSOne market with the exceptional Resident Evil series, Devil May Cry was one of Japanese developer Capcom’s earlier projects on the shiny new PlayStation 2, and it truly showcased the potential of the system. To label it as a ‘hack and slash’ would simply not do it justice, Devil May Cry (henceforth referred to as DMC) represented a stylistic experiment that relied on the juxtaposition of seemingly disparate ideas which made up the formula for great success. The narrative itself takes very loose cues from the epic poem The Divine Comedy, in which the hero (also named Dante) must travel through the underworld in order to escape with his long lost love Beatrice, who also happens to be blonde. All of this, however, is drizzled in slick Hollywood-esque action sequences, big explosions and slow motion.

Ebony and Ivory

Aesthetically, the game seemed to merge the anime roots of the series (think about the giant swords, the crazy silver haircuts) with a more western protagonist, who eats pizza and carries affectionately named handguns. In terms of character design, there are also clear references to the Wachowski brothers’ sci-fi classic, The Matrix, as is evidenced by a quick Google search of Trish and Trinity for example. This carries over into Dante’s penchant for dual wield pistols, and the game’s overall emphasis on gunplay as a core aspect of combat.

All of this takes place in the haunting castle on Mallet Island, which represents a sprinkling of Gothic European architecture and style into the mixing pot. The setting, with vaulting chapels, ancient libraries, and dark, looming corridors would be completely at home in a survival horror offering; this is hardly surprising given that the game was originally conceived as Resident Evil 4 (what a different world we would live in now, eh?). But in true DMC style, it forgoes corridor creeping and resource conservation for brutal sword-play and gun slinging, here setting the fast-paced gameplay at odds with the eerie horror setting. Even the score, which blends orchestral choir symphonies with hardcore metal and trance tracks, relies almost on binary juxtaposition to create moments of both tension and adrenaline.

Devil May Cry PSOne

He may be old, but Dante’s still cool.

Devil in Me

Aside from its daring stylistic choices, DMC was set aside by its tight mixture of gunplay and melee combat. With one button for melee attacks, combos were executing by timed button presses and the use of the analogue stick to perform different moves. Players were able to hoist enemies up into the air and juggle them pretty much indefinitely with Ebony and Ivory before slamming them back into the ground. Largely, players fought through the demonic hordes using the Alastor broadsword and later the Ifrit gauntlets, which actually controlled very differently, and provided players with a variety of ways in which to tackle combat situations. The sword was quicker, and its wide swing enabled players to tackle multiple enemies at once. The gauntlets, however, packed more of a punch and came with the ability to hold down the attack button to release charged hits. In terms of firearms, players could choose between the iconic black and silver dual wield pistols, or a shotgun which sacrificed fire rate for power.

DMC’s combat was quick, responsive and brutal.

DMC’s combat was quick, responsive and brutal; it gave the player a choice of how to take down enemies, and more importantly made them feel damn cool whilst doing it. And this of course was all before the introduction of the ‘devil trigger’. Functioning similarly to a ‘boost’ button in a racing game, unleashing Dante’s inner demon gave players access to a more impressive move set, superhuman speed and healing abilities. When the trigger was pulled, slashing through a corridor of enemies became an elegantly performed dance, players were able to dart between bumbling enemies and strike with precision and force. Devil trigger also provided a respite in times of great difficulty, and was a welcome health boost during many of the game’s challenging boss battles. The biggest appeal, however, was its sheer cool factor, granting players the ability to fly through the air and shoot lightning, and let’s be honest, who wouldn’t want that?

Variety is the spice of… knife?

In developing DMC, Capcom understood that the strength of a hack ‘n’ slash adventure game relied very much on what was being hacked and slashed. This meant providing players with a variety of monsters and iconic bosses to cut through on their journey to the eventual confrontation with Mundus. Even the base Marionette enemies, who mainly work as cannon fodder in the game’s earlier levels, are highly variable, carrying differently ranged weapons and attack patterns. And this was just the tip of the iceberg! Haunting witch enemies for example had the ability to phase in and out of walls, requiring players to adopt a much more defensive play style.

The true strength of DMC, however, remained in its bosses, each of which provided unique and unforgettable challenges, even if you did have to tackle them multiple times. The game’s first boss for example, Phantom, was a lava based spider creature, whose wide range of short and long distance attacks made him a difficult opener that probably required countless gold orbs and restarts. This however had nothing on the exhilarating clashes with the dark knight Nero Angelo. The fan favourite was, in many ways, the mirror of Dante himself, and his deft swordplay made him a formidable opponent.  He was able to teleport around the arena at will, and required excellent reactions from the player at all times just to stay alive, let alone to try and score some hits. This style of boss battle, pitting players against another swordsman, was evidently very popular as it was reused in later instalments and the Ninja Theory reboot.

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Jackpot!

I’d like to finish this retro reflection really with two warnings. Firstly, in order to write this review I played through Pipeworks’ HD re-mastered Devil May Cry collection, which really is a watered down experience. The games are held back by persistent bugs, and audio glitches that ruin some otherwise stunning cinematics. If you’re going to go retro, stay retro! Dig out a PS2 and heaven forbid use a wired controller.

The other one is that this game will seriously knock your confidence as a gamer. I returned to DMC a more mature, practiced gamer who was ready to take on the underworld and achieve that coveted ‘Stylish’ ranking. So with this in mind I powered through the first level, juggling murderous puppets with sword and pistols alike, all the while scrounging for every orb in sight. And for all my efforts I was rewarded at the end of the level with a C grade. That’s right, a C. It’s very easy to look back at retro games and find modern offerings slightly easy in comparison, and DMC is no exception. Whilst not approaching a Ninja Gaiden level of difficulty, it will take determination and patience to master the game’s harsh ranking system.

Ultimately, however, playing through DMC again reminded me of why I loved it so much the first time around; as a young gamer I didn’t really appreciate the brilliantly executed combat system, or the daring stylistic choices, I just loved it for its overwhelming power to make the gamer feel cool.

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