May 22, 2011
At first glance, it's easy to think of Devil May Cry 4 as a soulless cash-in. Between its uninspired level design, confounding camera, and new protagonist who looks almost identical to series' hero Dante, it would seem as if Capcom had drawn too often from the same well. As Eurogamer pointed out in its 2008 review, DMC4 "feels like a high-def re-skin of a 2001 game design". It's no wonder Enslaved developer Ninja Theory has been hired to breathe some new life to Capcom's flagship demon hunter.
While Capcom was happy to continue pumping out sequels, series' creator Hideki Kamiya abandoned it soon after the first Devil May Cry. Not content to retread old ground, he sought to bring his madcap sensibilities to games like Viewtiful Joe and Okami.
It wasn't until 2010 that he returned to the third-person hack-and-slash genre with Bayonetta. Prior to its release I asked Kamiya what he felt the biggest difference was between DMC and Bayonetta, to which he replied, "With Devil May Cry we did everything we could do at the time - with Bayonetta, we want to make the best game we can now in this environment."
Bayonetta certainly felt more contemporary. Trimming the fat of unnecessary puzzles and fetch quests, crafting a camera that could keep up with the game's occasional liberties with gravity and the addition of slow-motion helped it scratch that progressive itch that DMC4 had seemingly abandoned.
But for all Bayonetta's razzle-dazzle, I felt like something had been lost along the way, and while DMC4 resembled an unimaginative iterative sequel - the kind Capcom is notorious for milking (cough Mega Man cough) - it unexpectedly withstood the test of time better than Kamiya's spiritual successor by ignoring more recent design trends.
Symptomatic of its time, Bayonetta was a more forgiving game overall. With mollycoddling checkpointing that respawned players midway through boss battles at full health, even the hardest setting allowed you to inch slowly forward.
Earlier Devil May Cry titles had the exact opposite problem, and dying on a boss would send you all the way back to the beginning of the level. You could buy continues to circumvent this, but doing this often required endlessly grinding for red orbs.
DMC4 struck a delicate middle ground, where checkpoints existed few and far between - though it at least had the decency to place them before boss fights. Revisiting it now it feels harsh losing 10 minutes of progress, but it toughens you up until sequences that you previously struggled through become a breeze.
At least when you did die it was a hero's death, for DMC4 was one of the last games of its kind not to have quick-time-events. You could only die in battle, and not just because you missed a button prompt during a cut-scene.
Ever since God of War and Resident Evil 4 adopted QTEs as part of the action game vocabulary they've become the norm. Their presence in Bayonetta was among its least appealing concessions to modern standards as one missed button press would result in an instant death, mucking up your score for the rather lengthy levels.
Going back to DMC4 today, it's refreshing to play an action game where whittling a boss' health down to nothing means your part is done. From there you can just lean back and bask in the glory of a cut-scene where your avatar does the rest. It may not be interactive, but it allows you to catch your breath after intense battles.
Since you're not on edge waiting for prompts, it's easier to appreciate the cinematics. The script may be drivel with acting that makes Brian Blessed seem subdued, but its choreography is inventive. There's an almost Fred Astaire-like quality to Dante and Nero's graceful moves and cocky taunts, as they express themselves better through fighting than talking.
While Bayonetta is also well known for expressing herself with her body, Dante beat her to the punch as a protagonist who flaunts his sexuality, especially unusual for male characters. Not aimed at anyone in particular, he just likes to make love to the camera. Upon getting a new weapon, he recites a soliloquy about his dick: "First I whip it out, then I thrust it, with great force. Every angle, it penetrates. Until, with great strength, I ram it in. In the end, we're all satisfied."
Despite this blunt innuendo, the game is surprisingly chaste with relationships and never gets past hand-holding. It treats sex like a child who doesn't fully understand what it is, but still likes to snicker about it.
Bayonetta adhered to the mantra of "bigger, badder, and more badass" taking not only the bombastic sexuality up a notch, but adding a dizzying array of weapons and moves at your disposal as well. This made it easy to feel overwhelmed and instead rely on the same few combos just as a tourist would only learn to say "Excuse me" and "Which way to the bathroom?" Even after beating Bayonetta on its hardest setting I never got the impression that I'd become fluent in her unique brand of combat.
DMC4 took the opposite approach and chose to scale its arsenal back considerably since its predecessor. Instead of dumbing things down, it makes up for it with quality over quantity. Primary player character Nero's sword, the red queen, comes equipped with a motorcycle engine (yes, really) which, if revved at just the right moment during a swing, glows bright red and deals extra fire damage for its next attack. It makes every slice a timing-based mini-game which makes Gears of War's similar reload mechanic feel lethargic in comparison.
More innovative was Nero's "devil bringer," a glowing blue spectral claw that can be used as a lasso (sound familiar, Bulletstorm?). Being able to yank enemies towards you cuts down pesky walking time and drastically increases momentum in a series already known for its lightning fast action. Having such immediate access to the entire playing field was a masterstroke and it's a wonder why this hasn't caught on to other action games.
Comparatively, Bayonetta's major addition to the genre was "witch time", a period of slow motion triggered by successfully dodging at the right moment. It was a great mechanic, but was bewilderingly disabled from its unlockable harder difficulties. Crafting a harder challenge is admirable, but omitting the game's most notable feature took away much of what made it special.
Where Bayonetta lost its identity upon repeated visits, DMC4 reclaimed it. Perhaps the game's most criticized aspect was that a majority of its second half was a retread of the first. The primary difference was you played as Dante and the levels were structured differently, but environments, enemies and bosses were largely the same. Adding insult to injury, on the initially available difficulty settings Dante is grossly overpowered making the second half feel anticlimactic and half-assed. It's only upon a second playthrough on harder difficulty settings that these chapters come into their own.
Here, Dante's stages are significantly more challenging and it becomes apparent that you need to play vastly differently with him. Without the aid of the devil bringer, you must master the minutia of his move set to develop new strategies. It becomes clear that the first time around was little more than a tutorial to Dante's quickly expanding arsenal. Upon replaying these stages on harder settings, utilizing all his unlocked weapons becomes necessary. Once you realise this it no longer feels like lazy recycling, but instead makes you appreciate how well designed the enemies are to be balanced against two such different fighters.
DMC4 may not have been the bold step forward for the genre Bayonetta was. It lacked the latter's hyperbolic flair, wicked sense of humour, and insurmountable depth. Instead, it evolved along a different trajectory where its sophistication was obscured from plain view. Its harsh checkpointing, refusal to succumb to QTEs, and limited move set made it a curious blend of streamlined modern accessibility with vintage punishing sensibilities.