Devil May Cry games are the epitome of stylish, hack-and-slash gameplay. Protagonist Dante is a cocky, powerful, half-demon, demon hunter who never misses an opportunity to remind the camera and the audience of just how cool he is. Sporting a massive, demonic broadsword in combination with dual magic pistols that never run out of ammo, players control a versatile fighter who is deadly at all ranges. In each game, players are awarded newer, more outrageous weapons to add to their arsenal as they progress through the main campaign, unlocking even wilder attack combinations.
Of equal visual flourish in the series is Dante’s twin brother, Vergil. Although encountered only a handful of times as a boss in the original game, he is featured prominently as a main antagonist in Devil May Cry 3, shown to be a power-hungry swordsman who is as powerful as our already impressive hero due to a full-fledged embracing of his demonic heritage. Over the course of the game, players are shown Vergil’s abilities to be centered entirely on legendary sword Yamato, a katana so sharp and powerful that it can cut the very space around its wielder.
While the Devil May Cry series touts the ability to control mighty individuals, each entry has always been at fault for showing off more impressive feats in the cutscenes than anything the player is able to do in real time. These limitations were largely in part to the available power of the console the games were originally developed for and narrative design choices. However, being aware of these limitation does not lessen the sting of seeing Dante and Vergil pull off superhuman feats in the cutscenes and then being given control of wimps in game.
Out of all the games in the series, Devil May Cry 3 gives us the most egregious example of this break between what we are shown the character being capable of and what the player is actually allowed to do. The introductory cinematic opens to Dante and Vergil squaring off, their swords clashing with such speed and power that the downpour of rain around them is briefly held at bay by their duel. Finally, when their blades lock between them as they each try and overpower the other through sheer force of will, we see the sphere of water crash down to the floor below, a stark reminder that these two individuals are no mere mortals. After Vergil overpowers Dante and moves to finish him off, we cut to black and begin the first mission proper. After a second cutscene to set the stage for the first mission, one that is equally guilty of showing a far more powerful Dante than we are ever allowed to be, we are given control of a neutered, stiff, watered-down version of the hero we just got to see in action mere seconds before.
A game is often only as good as how well it lets a player achieve a state of suspension of disbelief, or flow, wherein we forget that we are controlling someone else and are instead enraptured by the fantasy that we are a game’s titular character. Albeit fun games overall, my biggest qualm with the Devil May Cry series is how every engagement plays out identically every single time. Being surrounded by enemies is more often than not a bad place to be, meaning that the safest way to tackle a swarm is to break it up and tackle foes one by one. Unfortunately, the end of one enemy spelled doom for my overall combo, resulting in a lull in the action where I would have to meander sheepishly back into the fray to start the process over again. I ended up needing to abuse a move named Stinger, a technique where Dante rushes forward, the tip of his blade extending out in front of him in order to stab the poor demon who happened to be closest. And while this served as a great way to both close the distance between myself and my enemies and chain one combo into the next, it wasn’t fun. Worst of all was that the game quickly gets wise to my strategy and punishes me for my inability to be as cool as Dante should be.
Part of the problem lies with the a series constant: a persistent scoring system used to gauge the player’s action. This meter provides constant feedback for how well the player is doing with a dynamically changing grade that fluctuates between a score of D at the lowest and SSS at the highest. The game is deeply aware of how varied the player’s action are, providing lower and lower scores for continued use of any one move. Essentially, the more unique the combo, the higher the score, which translates directly into a measure of how well the player is performing. Staleness, missed inputs, downtime, and incoming damage severely lower the score, further encouraging the player to perform at their best. The score eventually provides a measure for how well rewarded the player is at the conclusion of a level, giving out more points to spend on new moves for a higher overall score, further punishing poor performance by withholding access to better, stronger, and often more visually striking moves.
I often found myself scoring no higher than a B or an A at my best on every game in the series, which while an average score numerically, meant that I had to wait until the end game or a subsequent playthrough to unlock everything and therefore Dante’s true potential. With every combo prominently featuring the Stinger move in order to chain my combos together and begin each new engagement, my score refused to reward me further than an average score. With such a firm focus on the successful execution of mechanically varied combos, which often went hand in hand with how visually appealing a fight was, it was frustrating to feel handicapped by mechanics that seemed incapable of providing me the same level of control over Dante as what was shown in the cutscenes. I knew, mentally, what I wanted him to do, but a lack of agency caused by the necessity of precise execution coupled with context sensitivity and an overall gamification of the controls painfully reminded me of my inability to fully wield Dante. In other words, Dante was turned into a video game character that seemed more at home in a fighter than an action game. If you pressed buttons in a certain combination at a certain rhythm, things happened that sometimes looked cool. But at no point was I given a character who possessed impressive abilities that I was also allowed to execute at my whim.
Fast forward to the re-release of Devil May Cry 3 and 4, which introduced the ability to play as Vergil, a character who many fans, myself included, had wished we could play as after seeing his abilities as an opponent. Vergil is shown to be disciplined, precise, and fast, so I was understandably excited to play the game all over again, confident that with Vergil’s innate speediness I could overcome the game’s somewhat clunky mechanics. To some extent, my assumptions proved true. The game was arguably more fun as Vergil, whose ability to teleport up to enemies and obliterate them with Vergil’s more limited kit and refined abilities.
Just when I thought publisher Capcom had provided me with a recipe for a better Devil May Cry game, they partnered up with a new developer to release a reboot for the series: DmC. Developer Ninja Theory reimagined the series with specific instructions from Capcom to make Dante and the rest of the game different from the existing titles in the series while retaining the essence of a Devil May Cry game. Although initially met with negativity from critics for some of the stylistic choices, the game is now regarded highly by even the most hardcore advocates of the original games. I was personally very fond of DmC for introducing many new mechanics that I felt fixed the series’ inability to maintain flow. By allowing Dante to yank enemies to him or vice versa, every fight turned into one long dance, with every demon a mere button press away from my savage attacks.
What I wasn’t anticipating was how much more fun the introduction of Vergil into the reboot would turn out to be. I can honestly say that the most fun I’ve ever had with the series was in Vergil’s Downfall, the DLC for DmC that provided a brief epilogue to the main game focused around Vergil and Ninja Theory’s take on his rise to series villain. Thanks to the new mechanics for maneuvering around enemies using pulls, playing Vergil competently gave me a rush unlike anything I’d ever gotten prior. The score meter became a tracker of my success, rather than a reminder of my failure. With the game’s mechanics working in tandem with Vergil’s play style, I was able to outperform myself more than I had ever before, achieving my first SSS ranking not just once, but almost in every fight.
Because the DLC is only a few short chapters long, it was a quick ordeal to play through it beginning to end on multiple difficulties. The first time around on the Normal difficulty was pretty fun, as I got to teleport around the various battlegrounds and mostly avoid getting thrashed, which is important when playing as Vergil because he is notably weaker than his brother. Vergil is squishier, making him unable to take as many hits before a K.O., and his attacks require more strategic approaches in order to make sure that an enemy can never fight back. Once I began the second playthrough, something clicked for me, and I understood the way I needed to play in order to meet the game’s expectations.
As mastery began to form, I felt a level of exhilaration previously unknown to me throughout the series. For the first time I realized that, however fun, the first four Devil May Cry games were mechanically inferior to this reboot. If the only two levels of play are “shitty” Dante and “stylish” Dante, then perhaps achieving flow would be a lofty dream meant for those who prefer to truly master a game with continuous play. With DmC, achieving flow was a more seamless transition. Playing as Vergil specifically only further improved on an already successful formula, with my time spent as him truly beginning to look and feel more and more like a dance than a brawl. For the first time since I was introduced to the series, I was finishing entire encounters without taking a single hit. I began to memorize how many hits or what combinations of abilities allowed me to more quickly finish off beefier enemies.
The true test when I attempted the game on the Vergil Must Die difficulty, the series’ Very Hard mode. Most of the enemies could take down ¼ of my already long health bar in one hit. Some even had the capacity to 2 shot me. Each mistake was costly. But short of the boss fight against yourself in Chapter 5, I was able to masterfully weave my way around a battlefield confidently. No longer was I sweating bullets, unsure of my actions. I was Vergil. Powerful and deadly, I made short work of all who opposed me. Even the last fight against a truly harrowing combination of enemies, meant to cause even veteran players to tear their hair out in frustration, fell swiftly before me. I was able to complete the entire fight without ever using healing items, something that I previously had been unable to do on any other Devil May Cry game in the series.
Thanks to Ninja Theory, I was finally able to live out my rabid dreams that first formed at the intro cutscenes to Devil May Cry 3, and the power fantasy that grew from first meeting Dante in the entry to the series. I went from a mere mortal to a demonic swordsman, capable of thrashing his foes with a blade that could cut them down faster than the eye could see, with a satisfying, metallic clinking being the last noise they here as I sheathe my blade back in its scabbard, before the myriad of cuts send the demons back to hell.