For all the half-baked metroidvania elements the DMC series ever sported, Devil May Cry 4’s failure to effectively implement them hurts the most.
For every die-hard Devil May Cry fan that believes Ninja Theory’s DmC: Devil May Cry to be the greatest abomination possible, there is one that holds Capcom’s own Devil May Cry 4 in almost as low regard. The game did not do a great job in communicating its finesse to core fans, while still looking way to convoluted for outsiders to consider a purchase. In the Venn diagram of DMC fans hating single iterations of the series, the two groups concentrating on DMC4 and DmC respectively might not overlap at all, but were both equaly horrible in their time. Same goes with the group that hates DMC2, presumably. Let’s face it: Devil May Cry fans, and I don’t count my young self out here, have been great at being toxic assholes probably since before it came into such high fashion on the internet. But while I still stand to my opinion that the DmC reboot is a bad game both in style and substance, with the latter being soothed by the enhanced mechanics of 2015’s Definitive Edition, the quality of DMC4 is a much more complicated hill to die on.
Looking Back on DMC4
In hindsight, it has never been a bad game to me. When Devil May Cry 4 came out in 2008, I played through it no less than three times, almost as often as as I did the third game, still one of the best iterations in the series. Gameplay-wise, DMC4 has been almost as fantastic, if you found your way into it. Both playable protagonists, Nero and Dante, brought new stuff to the table, improving on existing systems and introducing new ones. Nero was a great way to introduce new players to the game series, both in the easy execution of his moves and his “Hi, I’m the new guy” narrative. And I still think that DMC4’s Dante incorporating all four fighting styles from DMC3 into one switch-on-the-fly combo system is the epitome of character action gaming (even though I can see the valid concerns that have been brought up about it), rivaling even Bayonetta’s Witch Weave systems. The game had lots of problems, of course. Almost nobody liked to play as Nero from a narrative perspective: After all, he’s a naive kid with a big motuh being solely driven by the worst implementation of a damsel-in-distress trope, orchestrated by the pope. Presenting Dante as the villain in the prologue, while being a great move to keep longtime fans engaged to the point where the characters finally switched places, only drove home how bland Nero was as a character. His few funny moments just felt like lines ripped out off a script written for Dante. Also, Nero started with basically one combo. What felt great for the first few minutes if you had never played a DMC oder character action game before turned out to be a curse in combination with the revised upgrade system that differed greatly from former titles. The new upgrade tree was now independent from the traditional Red Orb currency and instead coupled to Proud Souls, another material that was awarded based on skill at the end of each level. That drove home the image of a bad game for a huge part of non-hardcore players, because it was essentially punishing beginners: If you were not good enough with the limited arsenal the game gave you at the start, you would lack the resources to acquire new skills, thereby forcing you to stay with the boring one-combo gameplay or grind your way through the levels you already completed. What made matters worse was that even videos of skilled and maxed out Nero players looked like much the same combination of moves, caused by the – fantastic – juggling system that utilised the protagonist’s demon infested right arm, which is basically a grappling hook. That the game enabled players to stay midair forever through increasingly complex button combinations, the ability to leap off of enemy heads and greatly satisfying attack feedback was invisible to the untrained viewer. All they could see was repetition. And that is a theme which follows through the rest of the game’s features. Because when hating on DMC4 really has a point is when it focuses on the level structure. I can’t blame those people, really.
As Nero, we are searching for the aforementioned damsel, Kyrie, and try to locate and eliminate Dante in the process because he shot Pope Francis in the head at the start of the game. The journey leads Nero through the city of Fortuna, a mine and a forest, a canyon, a lot of old ruins and, finally, the castle of the pope’s religious order where Nero faces Dante and finds Kyrie absorbed into a giant statue of Jesus, I mean, Sparda, the noble demon lord and saviour of mankind. Here it turns out that Francis is actually Palpatine, and the demon pope kidnaps Nero and awakens the statue, a perverse Saviour, to rule the world with the powers of hell. It’s a basic Shonen plot, so far. Because Nero is out of the picture, Dante jumps in and goes on to defeat the Saviour and the pope. But because the villain flew back into the city where Nero started his effort, Dante has to backtrack through every section traversed by Nero in reverse, revisiting some ruins, the canyon, the forest, parts of the mine and finally Fortuna again.
Back and Forth Again
This tracking back through all the areas another character already cleared out alone did not make Devil May Cry 4 a bad game. There is a whole genre for that now, beloved by many: We call it Metroidvania in the west and Search Action in Japan. We would even call DMC4 an Open World game if it did a better job at communicating a narrative throughout the traversal and connecting its stages without loading times. What made the game structure bad was this backtracking combined with the level based, closed off structure of the game itself.
From a psychological point of view, seeing that there are 21 levels to play likely makes us expect, consciously or subconsciously, that there are more or less 21 different stages to explore. That was never quite true with Devil May Cry, because the series always lent itself to Search Action aspects. There is not a single game in the main series that does not show us some kind of locked door or unbridged abyss in a hub center where the protagonist needs an amulet or that-one-weapon-that-makes-Dante-fly which they can only find later on. DMC3 brings this concept to perfection by not only providing an actual hublevel, the staircase of Temen-Ni-Gru tower, but also turning the backtracking literally on its head, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night-style. DMC4 did not. What lengths we paced northwards with Nero, we had to walk back down south with Dante, step by tedious step. All the puzzles remained the same, except for the few that were only solvable with Nero’s grapple powers. Even worse, all the bosses Nero slew had been recycled for Dante not once, but ultimately twice throughout the entire game. Figuring out how to handle the same enemy movesets with a new character and different weapons is an acceptable concept once, but recycling leaves a bad aftertaste even when it is done well, and putting the same bosses once again at the end of the game just because Boss Rush is a concept that exists is definitely not the right way.
So yes, redoing bosses is bad, rewalking the same paths is boring, but like I said: today, the biggest blockbusters in the industry celebrate parts of just that with tremendous success. It’s not inherently a bad thing if done right, and DMC4 had some promising aspects. Every second or third level sees Nero walking back through half of the forest or mine he just claimed and opening a door with the newfound power of his demonic arm. This in turn leads him into the actual new stage and further down the storyline. We might just draw parallels to conventional Metroidvania games such as, well, Super Metroid, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Guacamelee! or Hollow Knight. Because that is basically what DMC4, of all Devil May Cry games the most, should have been: A threedimensional implementation of the Search Action concept, much akin to what Dark Souls achieved a mere three years later.
A Far Cry from Opening Up
And it is what I someday hope to get from Devil May Cry. It is the one game series where I ache for a serious Open World, because the mission based structure never gave much to the part of the series which made skills and weapons actual keys into new environments. In 2017, Nier: AutomatA became a fantastic example for how character action gaming can fit into the concept of a gradually broadening open world. But as is often the case, pushing forward into new parts of the game space was always driven by extrinsic motivation, not the protagonists‘ own. Whenever the story demanded it, 2B and 9S were sent on a mission into the new area. Devil May Cry by contrast always grew with its characters’ proficiency. Sure, the means to enhance their skills where provided based on the pacing of the narrative as well. But as Dante and Nero grow, so does their potential radius of action. Capcom dialed back on the backtracking with 2019’s Devil May Cry 5, which features only two levels that are explicitly shared between more than one character. Some of the areas, mainly the later ones inside the humonguous Qliphoth tree, are visually similar enough to appear to be recycled, true. However, the structure of the giant plant is aptly conveyed in the camera angles and pans of the game’s cutscenes which in the end see the tree even spanning into space. This makes a linear approach into the underworldly growth logical, since there is a clear vertical vector of operation from the bottom to the top of the plants intestines. With this, DMC5 achieved the same congruence between narrative and spatiality that DMC3 used and then willingly discarded to mangle the player’s expectation. DMC4, however, was horizontally through and through. I do not dislike that in general, not at all. I just wish I could have freely grappled over Fortuna’s roofs or rode a motorcycle through the underbrush of a demon infested jungle. Maybe then, we would not have needed to wait a whopping ten years for Devil May Cry 5.