[Originally posted on PopMatters]
When it was first released in 2001, Devil May Cry was a hodgepodge of ideas strung together. Originally designed to be a part of Capcom’s main franchise, Resident Evil. Devil May Cry quickly took off in its own direction. It took the gothic atmosphere of Resident Evil, based the mechanics on old school brawlers, and threw a few simplified platforming puzzles in the style of Prince of Persia. The result is a memorable series that has rightfully become one of those games that you really ought to play.
Devil May Cry borrows ideas from so many different sources, but in this case, the sum is greater than the whole of its parts. The way that it utilizes brawling like that of God of War within claustrophobic, survival horror settings adds feelings of both power and vulnerability. It’s a unique duality watching protagonist Dante rip through a room full of enemies while still leaving the player feeling trapped and exposed. Most of the enemies, particularly those from the first game, are extremely well designed. Enemies jerk and lumber unnaturally. They’re uncanny, and they have a creepiness to them that holds even after they fall by the dozen. Variations on each enemy type keep encounters fresh even late into the game.
Where the game really excels is in the setting. The locations really set the tone of the game. The three games are set in an abandoned castle, a town, and a demonic tower respectively. The way that a stone pillar gyrates almost like it’s alive and the existence of cobwebbed portraits along a corridor both color the mood for the player. Again, the first game is especially detailed, and the castle almost takes on a personality of its own after enough time in it. It might not seem like much, but the first Devil May Cry uses fixed camera angles better than just about any other game. The player is always getting a well-directed shot of the environment without ever feeling like the camera is abandoning Dante halfway through a jump or in the middle of a fight.
However, as good as the environment is at establishing atmosphere, it’s often difficult to tell exactly what the atmosphere is supposed to be. A clock tower will chime in the distance and a low Gregorian chant will drone over an empty cathedral, but the second that an enemy appears the soundtrack jumps into pseudo-thrash-metal until it’s clear again. It could be re-emphasizing that Dante is both in danger and dangerous, but jumping from calm to excitation feels jarring at times.
The cutscenes also feel somewhat jarring. Not because they’re ill-timed or even that they’re too frequent. It’s because the story is so flimsy and the characters so shallow that it adds a layer of awkward self-parody onto the narrative. The series follows Dante, a devil hunter, as he hunts devils. Dante’s father, Sparda, was a devil himself who decided to defend the human world as arbitrarily as the devils decided to attack it. Dante’s only personality trait is smugness. He wisecracks his way through everything, and his ego is off-putting at best. Throughout the second game, Dante suffers a massive character shift. and seeing him without his only defining feature, his smugness, really shows how hollow he is as a person. He’s an anime trope, his lack of personality doesn’t break any of the games. but it’s hard to feel invested in the series as a whole when it follows a person that is unrelatable, even in a world that feels so alive.
In terms of gameplay, the series has done a good job of remaining constant. The same basic variety of enemies reappear for each instalment and similar puzzles require similar moves to solve. Transitioning from one game to the next is smooth and comfortable. In fact, without the cutscenes to tell the player otherwise, one could conceivably believe that the whole experience all fits together in one game rather than is a series. That’s not a mark against it either. It’s a sign of how well Capcom have created a space for their franchise.
There’s a marked decrease in quality in the second game. Levels grow stale more quickly, and the move-set is much more simplified, but even at its lowest. Devil May Cry still makes for a good game. The hacking and slashing is adequate, and there’s enough platforming to keep things interesting. The story is a grocery list of anime clichés hastily mashed together, but it plays well enough and the care that went into designing the levels makes its faults worth forgiving. The timing of the collection is excellent. With Capcom’s controversial, grittier reboot of the series on the way, it offers a perfect opportunity to see the series’ origins.
Devil May Cry isn’t perfect but it has a lot going for it. They aren’t one-of-a-kind games but, they are an excellent example of the form. For those with any interest in the series, the HD collection is certainly a better alternative to scouring used games bins. Between the three games, there’s enough done right to appeal to just about everyone, those that are new or that are well versed in games. Devil May Cry raised the standard of action games, and while it still hasn’t been ten years since the original release, a lot has happened in games. It’s nice to see such an important series brought together in a convenient package, even if it does proudly boasts its B-movie action-horror story. Mechanically, though, it would still be considered excellent even if it were released today.
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