If a game features difficulty options, chances are they’ve been implemented with little thought given to how upping the difficulty would better the game. This is not a generational issue, either. Across the board, higher difficulties prioritize challenge over fun as if the two are inherently incompatible. The average “Hard Mode” simply turns enemies into damage sponges while upping the damage dealt to the player character. This isn’t a bad idea, conceptually, as it theoretically offers a more rewarding experience for anyone willing to master a game’s mechanics, but that notion falls apart the moment any difficulty mode above the default fails to take the game’s design into consideration. An arbitrary lack of resources, enemies being able to better read a player’s inputs, and repetition forced by increased boss health/decreased damage output do not a good difficulty mode make.
More than anything, though, the biggest issue plaguing the average “Hard Mode” is the fact that it feels like an afterthought, most of the time. The majority of games are designed with their standard difficulties in mind, and this shows in how the gameplay is paced. The majority of developers toss in their difficulty modes later, because most players aren’t going to bother playing past whatever the default mode is.
It makes sense to a degree. After all, the “intended” way to play through a game is often on its default difficulty. Anything harder is just a bonus, so why does it matter if it’s properly balanced? Even then, as long as it’s beatable, is it really an issue? As frustrating as some “Hard Modes” can be, they almost always have the decency not to be impossible which goes back to the issue of challenge versus fun. Many difficulty modes higher than the standard aren’t designed with fun in mind. A game can be hard while still engaging the player in a fair way. It’s made all the more frustrating when realizing that’s exactly the approach a PlayStation 2 hack ‘n’ slash took to difficulty.
Originally released in 2001, Devil May Cry effectively popularized the character action genre with its endearing protagonist, progression based upgrade system, and combat designed around looking as stylish as possible without getting hit or letting up on combos. It also became quickly known for its downright brutal, unforgiving difficulty. Enemies, and especially bosses, were relentless. Death wasn’t just looming around every corner, it was an inevitability. At the same time, it was never impossible. While there have been harder games in the franchise, and even within the genre, the original Devil May Cry stands out as one of the best examples of how to pace difficulty in gaming. There’s a clear progression from Normal to Hard to Dante Must Die with each mode remixing enemy placements, adding new attacks for both enemies and bosses, and DMD most notably giving Dante’s Devil Trigger – a combat enhancing ability – to normal enemies. What makes DMC so impressive in respect to difficulty, however, isn’t in what it adds to incentivize players to keep playing past normal, it’s the fact that Devil May Cry is a game deliberately designed with three core campaigns in mind: Normal, Hard, and Dante Must Die.
Every difficulty mode in Devil May Cry serves a specific purpose and Normal’s, more than any other, exists to teach players how to properly utilize Dante’s skill set. For the first two missions, it’s entirely possible to just brute force through enemies without paying any mind to the Style system. It’ll inevitably lead to C and D ranks for those missions, but progress is by no means impossible. Once Dante reaches the third mission and must face off against the first proper boss, though, anyone simply button mashing their way through the game will be met with one of the more punishing wake up call bosses in the franchise. Phantom himself isn’t even particularly difficult. All things considered, he’s one of the easiest bosses in the franchise with fairly simplistic attack patterns that aren’t too troublesome to dodge. The reason he ends up being problematic for newcomers is that every facet of his design exists to counteract sloppy playstyles.
Not only does rushing up to him and mashing Dante’s sword do minimal damage, Phantom will outright counter the attacks with his pincers. This is important since both the low damage output and counterattack teach players to find a new method of attacking. Were only the former in place with no counter, players may erroneously believe that part of Devil May Cry’s difficulty comes from how little damage Dante does to bosses. By adding a direct consequence to haphazardly fighting Phantom, the game design teaches the audience to think critically about how to approach each boss. With a thick exterior and a penchant for swiping at Dance, players are pushed towards attacking from above. Using a helm splitter by jumping and attacking causes far more damage against Phantom than any other technique available at that point. It seems a deceptively simple solution, but it’s also teaching players that they need to take advantage of Dante’s vertical mobility.
Should a player somehow defeat Phantom by simply attacking him head-on, which is theoretically possible thanks to vital stars and Dante’s Devil Trigger, they’ll be met with a rude awakening in the next mission. Nero Angelo, mistranslated as Nelo Angelo, serves as the fourth mission’s boss and he fights exactly like Dante. If Phantom was a lesson in Dante’s mechanic, Nero Angelo is the actual test. While Nero Angelo does have his own set of techniques, most of the fight is spent showing off what Dante is ultimately capable of. By putting Dante at the end of his own sword, so to speak, players can see firsthand just how formidable the main character can become with enough practice. More importantly, this boss fight is a chance to test out one’s reflexes. While this can be done with any type of boss, Nero Angelo’s basic moveset is universal to the gameplay and thus shows off Dante’s ability to parry and how his sword combos change depending on how much time passes between each button press. In making Nero Angelo the boss used to test reflexes, players get a chance to visualize what they should be doing.
Having a reflex based boss immediately after Phantom also allows players to gain a deeper intimacy with Dante’s abilities. Phantom’s fight is more about teaching the audience to play smart; Nero Angelo’s fight is about teaching the audience to play well. To help players break out of the habit of button mashing, especially since most attacking revolves around one key button, Dante’s combos can be paused mid-slash to vary his follow up attack. With the right timing, Dante has three separate basic combos to ease into every time he attacks. Should Stinger be purchased from the upgrade shop at this point, players also gain a sense of how the analog changes Dante’s actions. By pulling back on the analog while locked up and then attacking, Dante launches his opponent into the air. By pulling forward on the analog while locked on after buying the Stinger skill, Dante can lunge forward at enemies. Since Nero Angelo moves to a new location of the boss arena for each phase of the fight, players even get a moment to catch their breath and experiment with pause combos should they feel the need to.
Conceptually, the idea of an upgrade system like Devil May Cry’s is a tricky one. Dante is inherently at a disadvantage on fresh playthroughs because his skill set is incomplete. If the game design expects players to buy new skills every time they have red orbs, DMC’s currency, the game then runs the risk of soft-locking progression for anyone who spent their orbs on health or items. This can become especially problematic when taking double jumps into consideration. Dante can buy the ability to double jump so long as he has his sword, Alastor, equipped, but making double jumping necessary for platforming sections means blocking players who didn’t’ have the foresight to buy the skill. Thankfully, Devil May Cry does keep all this in mind and offers workarounds for a vanilla Dante to beat the game. Although he’d be at a serious disadvantage for most of the playthrough, a player can become skilled enough to beat the game with Dante’s default moveset. Dante can also kick off walls to simulate a double jump meaning the skill never truly has to be purchased to make linear progress.
Of course, there are advantages to buying new abilities and they absolutely are meant to be bought, they’re just not “necessary” in an explicit sense. The upgrades also don’t exist to necessarily make the game any easier as such a system would imply. Rather, they’re present so to give Dante more variety in combat. That could be seen as a way of lightening up the difficulty, and buying blue orbs for added health does inherently remove some of the tension since Dante can take more damage, but the ranking system keeps a layer of self-imposed difficulty over the game. Should a player seek to achieve S and A ranks on each mission, they’ll need to get hit as little as possible, negating the usefulness of blue orbs, and have to use their combos in a creative manner that doesn’t fall into repetition. All the while, players need to be mindful of how much time they spend in each stage as clear time affects rank. It is possible to ignore the ranking system, but higher ranks award more red orbs incentivizing players who would otherwise neglect the system to give it a serious try.
While most games ease up on their lessons by the halfway point, Devil May Cry ensures players have something to gain from each boss fight in Normal Mode. In many respects, Normal is simply a training ground for Hard which in turn is dedicated to preparing for Dante Must Die. On a first playthrough, this gives a sense of deeper variety within the gameplay as every boss tests a different aspect of Dante’s abilities. On repeated playthroughs, it’s a clever way of pacing the difficulty between the three core modes. This is seen perhaps most clearly with Dante’s fight against Griffon. On replays, it’s actually possible to skip the first Griffon fight since Dante carries over Ifrit, a pair of gauntlets he can use to gain access to the next area preemptively. In a first playthrough, Dante won’t have Ifrit by this point and will need to fight Griffon normally.
Although Griffon is rather lenient in terms of boss approach, especially since Dante will have more tools at his disposal by this point in the game, he does serve as a last-minute boot camp of sorts for Dante’s gunplay. Since Griffon spends a good chunk of the boss fight mid-air, the only reliable way to do consistent damage is by firing at him from afar. Dante’s main pistols, Ebony & Ivory, are the most reliable weapons here, but the lesson is universal: use guns. Guns can be used to build Devil Trigger from a safe distance while also keeping the Style meter active. Since the Style meter plays a big role in a mission’s rank, particularly in Normal and Hard, using a gun to keep a combo active while moving towards an enemy is a smart way of building up a useful resource without compromising rank. Of course, variety in combat is still necessary, but the value of Dante’s guns can’t be understated.
Once the second fight with Griffon rolls around, and Dante genuinely does have to do most of his damage with guns this time around, players now have a grasp on how to use them properly. This also leads to another important aspect of Devil May Cry’s pacing: every boss is fought multiple times. On paper, this might seem like padding, but the boss encounters genuinely change from fight to fight. While the enemy Dante is fighting is the same, just about everything else about the battle is different. Griffon’s first fight is set in an open field where he’ll occasionally land. Just the location alone gives Dante a lot of room to dodge and experiment with where to attack from. Their second fight takes place on a cramped ship where Dante has to put his gun skills into practice on account of Griffon taking a predominantly aerial approach. The third fight serves as a mix of the two fights where Griffon goes all out in a large coliseum while also staying primarily in the air. In hindsight, the first two fights are almost “practice” attempts meant to prepare Dante for their final duel. This is a pattern every single boss follows. Teach the player to utilize a skill, put that skill into practice, and then toss in a “twist” to undermine complacency.
By the time players reach Nightmare, and by extension the home stretch of the game, Devil May Cry has imparted non-explicit lessons on all of its core mechanics at a respectable pace. Phantom punished simple button mashing; Nero Angelo showed off Dante’s capabilities; Griffon emphasized the value of gunplay. All the while, the difficulty never dropped or spiked. Some sections are harder than others, but Devil May Cry’s Normal mode is paced with a consistent difficulty in mind. Even though it has an upgrade system for Dante, it never gets easy in its second half like many other games do in the face of character progression. There’s a fair level of challenge that never thrusts anything at the player unless they’re ready. Just through Normal Mode, Devil May Cry offers a rewarding, well-paced balance of difficulty that encourages legitimate skill and strategy. That said, there is more to DMC than the first playthrough and Hard Mode proves that in spades.
Upon clearing Normal, players are immediately thrust into Hard Mode. While Dante deals less damage and enemies do more, Devil May Cry’s Hard Mode stands out from its contemporaries due to the fact that it remixes the enemy placements from Normal along with giving them new attacks. Not only do enemies and bosses hit harder, they hit differently. Playing through Hard after Normal is like playing a different game. Some rooms only change the enemies by upping them to their next natural tier, but other rooms play around with which enemies were originally present. Memory can only get a player so far. What’s all the more interesting about Hard Mode, however, is how different it’ll play out for different players.
At its core, Hard Mode is more of a bridge between Normal and Dante Must Die. It’s a mode designed to make the transition smooth and to allow players to refine their skills, collect items, and fully upgrade Dante before tackling DMD. At the same time, it’s also a last chance, so to speak, to allow players to fully grasp the mechanics at play. Hard is considerably harder than Normal and anyone who got through their playthrough by the seat of their pants will struggle a great deal. On the flip side, those who managed to get a good handle on Normal Mode while also purchasing most of Dante’s upgrades might find Hard Mode the most relaxing of the three modes. Since Hard isn’t as brutal as Dante Must Die and Dante should be nearly fully upgraded by this point, Devil May Cry’s arcade-like qualities shine most here.
Each stage feels deliberate in design with its own set of challenges, either in premise or enemy placement. Some stages are incredibly short, but feature brutal enemies to gatekeep Dante. Others put Dante on a timer, testing how much he can accomplish without compromising progress. On a first playthrough, the concept missions come off as standard gimmick levels. On a replay, it’s easier to see the justifications behind their inclusion. Draining Dante’s health can seem like an annoyance, but it serves to hammer home the idea that Dante shouldn’t be getting hit in the first place. Short stages with one goal come off as missions designed to let the player breathe, but going for an S-rank requires restraint and the know-how to move on when ready. If Devil May Cry had a level select like later titles, jumping from mission to mission would feel far more natural than in its successors.
To go back to Hard Mode as a bridge between Normal and Dante Must Die, its main purpose is to act as a buffer where players can complete secret missions for blue orbs and gain enough red orbs to upgrade Dante completely. Enemies even drop far more red orbs in Hard than they do in Normal, making it easier to snag upgrades. Secret missions are scaled up with the difficulty as a consequence of not completing them on Normal, but they’re by no means impossible. The idea behind Hard is to explore as thoroughly as possible and enter Dante Must Die as prepared as possible. Should someone manage to collect all the blue orbs on their first playthrough, though, they can simply power through Hard Mode and hone their skills for DMD.
As far as pacing goes, Hard plays a pivotal role in Devil May Cry’s overall balance. Going from Normal to something akin to Dante Must Die would simply be too much for most players necessitating an in-between mode to allow them to refine their skills or, at the very least, pick up some extra items and techniques before moving on. Without Hard, Devil May Cry’s natural pacing falls apart. More so because the difficulty modes are analogous to how boss fights work on a first playthrough. Normal Mode teaches players how to utilize their skills, Hard Mode puts those skills into practice, and Dante Must Die throws in a “twist” that flips the game on its head. Hard Mode is essentially the second fight against Nero Angelo where players can start to solidify what they’re capable of doing with Dante. A successful player will reach the end of their second playthrough confident in their abilities, only to be immediately thrown off by the sheer brutality of Dante Must Die.
DANTE MUST DIE
There is no easy way to tackle Dante Must Die. While clearing Hard Mode does allow players the option of running through Normal or Hard again to restock on items or red orbs before moving onto DMD, consumables will only get a struggling player so far. Dante Must Die is a challenge of pure skill first and foremost. Items can be used, and are often recommended, but nothing will save a poorly controlled Dante from the brutality that awaits him. Bosses have more than double their base health, enemy attacks hit even harder, and the stage remixes throw some of the hardest enemies in the game at the player right out the gate. Along with Devil Trigger no longer healing Dante and enemies now having access to a Devil Trigger of their own, Dante Must Die almost feels impossible. It isn’t impossible, though, far from it. In fact, Dante Must Die stands out as one of the fairer examples of difficulty in gaming.
For starters, by the time anyone reaches Dante Must Die for the first time, they have played through the entirety of Devil May Cry a minimum of twice. Whether they struggled or not, the fact is that they succeeded in beating the game two times and now, at the very least, understand what is expected from them. Secondly, enemies actually have less health in DMD than they do in Normal mode. To compensate for them having Devil Trigger, the development team had the foresight to lower their base health. Since enemy DTs work on a timer, this allows proactive players to clear rooms without ever needing to deal with Devil Trigger. Lastly, and most importantly, Devil May Cry is a game that is inherently beatable without taking a single sliver of damage.
With Dante’s combos and innate maneuverability, there’s little he can’t accomplish with a skilled pair of hands behind the controller. After all, every enemy, boss, and stage is designed with the idea that Dante doesn’t need to get hit. There are instances that do drain Dante’s health, but, as aforementioned, only to solidify the concept that everything is dodgeable. This goes all the more for Dante Must Die where bosses can tear Dante apart in just a few hits. The logical solution is to persevere and to practice. There’s no bad RNG, enemies tracking Dante’s movements, or attacks out of nowhere meant to surprise the player. If anything, Devil May Cry’s design exists in benefit of the player, difficulty and all.
Even in light of how DMC prepares the player for DMD, the mode can still come off overwhelming, especially since Devil Trigger loses its best attribute. Healing with Devil Trigger naturally becomes one of Dante’s best strategies in battle during Normal and Hard. It’s a free refill, after all, and one that allows him to do extra damage. In kicking the crutch from underneath Dante, Devil May Cry is, once again, demonstrating the importance of dodging and capable reflexes. A good player doesn’t need Devil Trigger to restore their health because a good player doesn’t get hit, to begin with.
Of course, this isn’t to say that anyone who takes damage during the incredibly difficult Dante Must Die is bad at the game. Simply clearing the mode is a measure of one’s mastery, but Devil May Cry is a game dedicated to bringing the best out of the people who play it. With enough patience and perseverance, anyone can master Dante’s controls and go on to, at the very least, start Dante Must Die. With so much time put into refining Normal, Hard, and Dante Must Die, it’s almost like playing three separate games. In many respects, Devil May Cry isn’t truly over until the credits roll after finishing Dante Must Die. It’s as close to perfect as difficulty in gaming can get, but DMC goes one step further by remembering what so many difficulty modes forget: to make the game fun.
From Normal to Hard to Dante Must Die, the core gameplay never changes. Dante’s skill transition from mode to mode, gaining new abilities, and getting challenged by new enemies and attacks. Each mode encourages experimentation to an extreme degree. On a first playthrough, players might find themselves falling into complacency with Alastor, but Hard Mode serves as a chance to explore Ifrit. By Dante Must Die, using both in tandem is just a natural part of combat. On top of that, repeat playthroughs pave the way to weapon experimentation all around. Once Hard Mode comes around, playing around with different guns to weaken an enemy’s defense imparts valuable, time-saving knowledge for DMD. Dante’s arsenal pales in comparison to later games in the series, but there’s a lot he can play around with and the enemy design in later difficulties reflect that.
Combat, on a whole, is simply engaging and it only gets better the more someone plays. There’s a thrill to parrying attacks in Dante Must Die, knowing that it was pulled off through legitimate, learned skill. Dodging at the right time once understanding how an enemy or boss attacks pays off tremendously in DMD as it’s a reminder of what the player is capable of. At times, it feels like Devil May Cry was designed with Dante Must Die in mind and then scaled back considering how fittingly everything comes together in the final mode. Dodging Phantom’s swipes, throwing in a quick helm splitter, and knocking his fireball back at him in Dante Must Die feels far more natural than his comparatively tame fight from Normal.
Nero Angelo especially shines in DMD as he’s no longer a benchmark for what Dante can become, but rather a genuine rival in every sense. He is Dante’s shadow and fights like him with his own twists. Taking on Nero Angelo is satisfying in Normal, but it’s downright euphoric in Dante Must Die from just how exciting his fights get. His first battle, in particular, is a reminder to keep those reflex sharp and fight strategically. He’s far more punishing than he every was in Normal or Hard, but he’s actually more fun this way since he forces the player to take advantage of DMC’s mechanics to succeed. It can seem like there’s little room for error in Normal and Hard, but Dante Must Die shows just how much DMC allowed the play to get away with on the lower difficulties.
That concept alone, of showing just how far the player has come while also making the rest of the game look easy in comparison, is one that makes replaying Devil May Cry incredibly rewarding and enjoyable. Once someone reached Dante Must Die, they know they can get through Normal and Hard without much trouble. They’re still difficult by design, of course, but they taught audiences to play well enough where repeated playthroughs should no longer be an issue. Knowing that a task is possible but still challenging is a fantastic way of testing oneself in an engaging manner. All the while, Dante Must Die looms around the corner, ready to be properly tackled,
Clearing Dante Must Die even awards the player with a “super” version of Dante with unlimited Devil Trigger. As far as endgame rewards go, this is easily one of the best available. Devil May Cry is not a game that can get easier from grinding or buying new upgrades or stockpiling items. It’s a hack ‘n’ slash that demands skill from the player. A bonus like Super Dante makes the game considerably easier, but not to the point where it absolutely breaks it. It’s the perfect kind of reward for a title like Devil May Cry because it refuses to compromise the core gameplay. Normal and Hard certainly feel more trivial with it on, but Dante Must Die can still pose a challenge to anyone relying on unlimited Devil Trigger entirely.
What makes Devil May Cry’s difficulty so perfect is simply how deliberate the design is, both in the core gameplay and in regards to the multiple modes. The gameplay loop never suffers, only improving with the introduction of harder enemies and bosses; the main game is paced with self-improvement in mind, and the player is never thrown into a situation they cannot reasonably handle; and the three main modes naturally build up to one another before ultimately culminating in Dante Must Die. The original Devil May Cry may not be the best game in its genre, or even its franchise, but it is without a doubt the best example on how to design difficulty in the gaming medium.
Heaven or Hell: ‘Devil May Cry’s Victory Lap
Dante Must Die has always been, and will always be, the ultimate way Devil May Cry challenges its player base. Regardless of the game, the franchise thrives on the idea that, at the end of it all, players will muster up the courage and skill to take on one final game mode designed around forcing mastery. This is a philosophy the original Devil May Cry very much uses to its advantage, utilizing both Normal and Hard as a means of prepping players for Dante Must Die. Naturally, both Devil May Cry 2 and Devil May Cry 3 brought Dante Must Die back as their grand finale, but something had always been missing from the picture: catharsis.
While the first game was clever enough to reward players with an overpowered costume that had infinite Devil Trigger, appropriately titled Super Dante, there wasn’t much to do after completing Dante Must Die. After all, why would there be? Dante Must Die was the game’s final challenge in every respect. A super costume is a nice reward, but it doesn’t exactly relieve any stress that might have been built up during Dante Must Die’s more intense moments. The super costume, at its core, was just a final push to get players to replay the game one final time.
Along with including Dante Must Die as their last game mode, both Devil May Cry 2 and Devil May Cry 3 follow up a completion with super costumes. Three games in and a rhythm set in, it seemed as though Devil May Cry was content with its approach to an endgame. All things considered, it is a genuinely solid approach on paper. Encourage players to master the game through multiple game modes, offer one final challenge, and reward them with an overpowered goodie. A video game has to end eventually and Dante Must Die makes for as fitting an ending as any. Something fundamentally changed with the release of Devil May Cry 3: Special Edition, however.
Rather than simply unlocking a super costume upon clearing Dante Must Die, the third game’s Special Edition offered players an entirely new game mode: Heaven or Hell. Instead of escalating the difficulty even further or making the game a complete cakewalk, Heaven or Hell created an even playing field where both Dante and enemies would die in a single hit. Although there is a degree of challenge to be gleaned, theoretically, by everything dying in one hit, Dante’s guns make quick use of both enemies and bosses. As a result, one has to question why Heaven or Hell was even included in the first place.
Devil May Cry is a franchise that prides itself on its difficulty, to the point where one could argue that any given game in the series isn’t over until Dante Must Die is cleared in full. While the series has never strayed away from catering to a more casual player base, offering an Easy mode as early as the first game, DMC has never catered to said audience. The escalation of a challenge is the appeal of the series, which Heaven or Hell deliberately flies in the face of. Upon completing the single hardest difficulty in the game, players aren’t rewarded with yet another tier in their gauntlet, but an incredibly easy mode that can be cleared by simply spamming the square button.
Which is actually quite brilliant, all things considered. Rather than closing the curtains with Dante Must Die, Devil May Cry 3: Special Edition crafted a scenario where players were granted a victory lap of sorts. After all, was said and done, players could get an emotional release from burning through missions and bosses that previously gave them a considerable amount of trouble. Defeating a difficult boss with a single bullet is inherently satisfying, even more so when taking into consideration the journey a player has to go through in order to unlock Heaven or Hell.
If Heaven or Hell were unlocked any earlier in the game, it wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying an unlockable. While the mode would still be charming in its own right, it loses its cathartic nature by sheer virtue of preceding Dante Must Die. Heaven or Hell is the reward, a proof of a player’s mastery. Only upon conquering the hardest challenge is a player allowed a chance to decompress. Even though Very Hard very much lives up to its title, the mere fact it isn’t the pinnacle of Devil May Cry 3’s difficulty means that Heaven or Hell would be out of place coming between it and Dante Must Die.
Given its context in the Devil May Cry franchise, it can be easy to take Heaven or Hell for granted.
More importantly, Heaven or Hell coming any earlier would break the natural progression of the game. There is a clear, gradual build up from Normal mode to Dante Must Die. From as early as the first game, each difficulty was used as a means of improving one’s skills. In the context of Devil May Cry 3, the journey from Normal, to Hard, to Very Hard, to Dante Must Die is one that ensures each new mode teaches players how to properly utilize the game’s mechanics to their advantage. Dante Must Die will always be difficult, but not nearly as brutal as it would be otherwise if players somehow managed to skip Very Hard altogether.
This same principle applies to a scenario where, after Very Hard, players take a break with a mode intentionally designed to be easier. By the time Dante Must Die occurs, it’s entirely possible that one’s skills would have deteriorated to some extent. Heaven or Hell’s very nature means that it is impossible to practice combos or develop strategies against bosses. Which is perfectly fine after Dante Must Die, but potentially disastrous before it. A particularly skilled player may not see any downside to tackling Heaven or Hell before Dante Must Die, granted, but the fact of the matter is that the game’s progression would nonetheless be broken.
When it comes down to it, what catharsis is there to be gained when the greatest challenge lies in wait? A victory lap should celebrate a player’s skills and Heaven or Hell does just that. It’s more than just a nice, extra mode, however. Heaven or Hell does something that can only be down in the gaming medium. Capcom hands the reigns to the player and says “well done, you’ve earned it.” Heaven or Hell’s very nature is one that elicits an emotional response from the player, if only to just relax them after hours of challenging gameplay. Catharsis can be felt in any medium, all things considered, but only the gaming medium can force catharsis on the player.
Given its context in the Devil May Cry franchise, it can be easy to take Heaven or Hell for granted. As is the case with any mode in DMC, Heaven or Hell is more than just another mode. It is deliberate not just in its design, but in its placement, in the context of the games, it appears in. Heaven or Hell may not be as expertly crafted in terms of enemy placement or pure enemy design, but it isn’t the kind of mode that needs to be. Heaven or Hell seeks to elicit a positive, emotional response from the player, and it pulls it off with that elegant, Devil May Cry touch.
‘Devil May Cry 5’ – Impressive Lack of Filler
The Devil May Cry franchise has always had a bit of an issue with filler. Although the first and third titles managed to balance their non-action gameplay fairly well in regards to pacing, Devil May Cry 4— along with the reboot— placed too much emphasis on “variety.” In the context of Devil May Cry, variety within gameplay tends to amount to light exploration, platforming, or some form of puzzle solving. On a conceptual level, it does make sense to vary gameplay as much as possible. After all, too much of one mechanic can lead to a game coming off derivative. At the same time, straying from core mechanics too often can give an impression of insecurity, that the development team— and thereby the game— lacks the confidence to embrace itself in earnest.
Although the notion that DMC 1 and 3 are insecure of themselves might come off as laughable to fans of the genre and series alike, it is worth noting that there is some truth to said sentiment in regards to the rest of the pre-5 franchise. While the original Devil May Cry managed to pace itself rather well thanks to its arcade-like nature, several missions made use of gimmicks that strayed greatly from the core mechanics with the Ghost Ship being the most notorious outlier.
Devil May Cry 2 might as well be the definition of filler. In a desperate attempt to make itself appear “bigger and better” than its predecessor, DMC2 places an incredible amount of emphasis on space. As a result, missions– which were once carefully built around specific set-pieces that had as little negative space as possible– not taking place on large fields with poor enemy placement. Making matters all the worse, the sequel leans in far too much into the puzzle solving elements, leaving the combat painfully under-cooked.
Even Devil May Cry 3, which is often considered not only the greatest game in the franchise but in its genre, is victim to filler. Granted, it’s on a much smaller scale and the general design of the whole game is incredibly tight, but this only makes the filler-esque moments stand out all the worse. There’s nary a good reason why Dante should have to endure a boss rush that’s tied to a puzzle right before the game’s finale. Earlier missions, as well, play up the exploratory elements of the first game a bit too much seemingly to simply prove that DMC3 is the “true” successor to series’ origin point.
While Devil May Cry 4 more or less acts as a natural extension of DMC3 gameplay-wise, it fumbles spectacularly when it comes to level design. Just about every single mission features a stage defining gimmick that tanks potential replayability to an extreme. This is to say nothing of the fact that Dante’s third of the game might as involves him not only backtracking through Nero’s stages, but fighting Nero’s bosses, giving the impression that DMC4’s back-half is little more than literal filler to pad out the game. Going into the reboot, DmC: Devil May Cry, Ninja Theory simply pushed the fourth game’s insistence on non-action elements, shining a spotlight on platforming and pure exploration.
All this is not to say that Devil May Cry as a franchise is lesser than perceived because it often uses filler as a crutch. Far from it– Devil May Cry 1 and 3 remain two of the greatest action games ever made. Rather, it’s to shine a light on just how surprising Devil May Cry 5’s total lack of filler is. While only time will tell where DMC5’s legacy will fall exactly in regards to the first and third game, it’s quite clear from a pure design perspective that the franchise’s fifth mainline entry understands exactly where the series’ fat was and why it needed trimming. It’s one thing to omit filler entirely; it’s another to comprehend why said filler should be omitted.
In many respects, Devil May Cry 5 was more or less Capcom’s chance to prove that the franchise could once again reach the same highs as DMC3. In following both Devil May Cry 4 and DmC, the series’ fifth entry needed to be more than a return to form, although a simple return to form likely would have sufficed considering the series’ fairly rocky road-map from the first game to the fifth. More importantly, Capcom saw an opportunity not to reinvent the Devil May Cry brand, but to refine it.
Devil May Cry, at its best, has always understood the need to look back on itself in order to move forward. This is best evidenced by how Devil May Cry 3 directly lifted several of the second game’s elements in order to bolster its own foundation. Although DMC5 does this as well, it more interestingly does so from a level design perspective, something the series had always been fairly complacent with. If anything, the longer the franchise went on, the more the games seemingly saw fit to include non-action elements to near extreme measures.
Devil May Cry 4 is an excellent game on a purely mechanical level, but it suffers immensely thanks to its abundance of filler. While there are very legitimate reasons behind the backtracking in the campaign’s second half, this doesn’t change the fact that it’s all mainly filler. Well dressed filler, but filler nonetheless. DmC: Devil May Cry which, admittedly, has the benefit of being a finished game over DMC4, puts too much stock in its non-action elements making for playthroughs that often go by far too slow for their own good. What makes the filler damning isn’t so much their presence, but the nature of the franchise. Devil May Cry is a series built on replayability.
Were it not for Bloody Palace, it would be legitimately tiring returning to Devil May Cry 4 with the same fervor some fans return to DMC3 with. Even the first game understood that its foundation was one built on replayability. By the time players would reach Dante Must Die, the puzzles and exploration would no longer be a problem because they would, logically, already understand the solutions. With Devil May Cry 4, however, and by extension DmC: Devil May Cry, this same workaround simply doesn’t work due to the fact that puzzles, platforming, and exploration are just too time-consuming for their own good. The more time a player spends away from the core gameplay, the less the core gameplay gets a chance to leave as much an impact.
Which is ultimately what Devil May Cry 5 excels at over the rest of the series. From the start of the prologue to the very end of mission 20, there is not a single moment that stands out as explicit filler. Though platforming sections still have their place, particularly when playing as Nero, they neither outstay their welcome or ever take away from the core combat. In previous games, platforming sections would genuinely be their own sections. As per the rules of basic level design, they would connect to other areas, but not without taking their own chunk of time. Now, they’re quick, easy to maneuver, and most importantly, optional more often than not.
This philosophy towards filler is put on full display in mission 15, Nero’s last stage before the final boss. A level with multiple branching paths, players can either opt to take on an obstacle course of sorts that features its own rewards, (such as a Gold Orb, Blue Orb, and Trophy,) or simply take on a gauntlet of enemies. In a previous entry, Nero would likely have been forced to endure the obstacle course spliced in with the enemies, but Devil May Cry 5 cleverly, and correctly, chooses to make any perceived filler optional.
Which in itself is something very much worth taking note of. Content that would be seen as filler when mandatory becomes far more appealing when made optional. Aside from a few bonuses, there’s genuinely no harm in avoiding Nero’s obstacle course. If anything, the fact it can be avoided makes the prospect of clearing it all more appealing. Its optional nature also means Capcom can up the difficulty of the course without cannibalizing the mission’s pacing. The closest the series had ever come to this philosophy before was with Devil May Cry 3’s 18th mission where Dante could earn a Blue Orb shard by clearing the boss rush in its entirety. DMC5 sees that approach and takes it to its natural next step.
It isn’t as if this approach makes missions shorter, either. In previous games, removing the filler would trim levels quite a bit, but Devil May Cry 5 simply uses more action scenarios. Where a platforming challenge or puzzle would once rear its ugly end, more enemies take their place. Mission 16 with Dante essentially plays out like one gauntlet after the next with only some light platforming to serve as a pace breaker. Even then, pulling off some of the trickier platforming sections will net the player with bonuses along with extra fights.
Of course, removing the filler doesn’t suddenly make Devil May Cry 5 the Alpha and the Omega of the hack ‘n’ slash genre. Filler or not, DMC5 struggles with its own difficulty balancing on Dante Must Die and never quite manages to find the right pacing when it comes to playing as Nero, V, or Dante (although the emphasis on Dante in the back half is absolutely the right call from a design perspective.) Ultimately, though, those problems aren’t all that major of problems. If anything, they’re far lesser than Devil May Cry 4’s second half; DmC: Devil May Cry’s insistence on dedicated platforming sections; and Devil May Cry 2’s everything.
By simply keeping the focus on the combat, Devil May Cry 5 is perhaps the easiest game to replay in the series. Not because it’s easier than previous entries (a topic for another day,) but because players are never subjected to content they clearly aren’t playing Devil May Cry for. When it comes down to it, no one plays DMC for the platforming or puzzle sections; at least not solely for them. The core appeal has always been the action; the combat; the spectacle of it all. Not every mission in DMC5 is a hit, but the majority are, more so than any other game in the series save for the third. That in itself is a testament to how tightly designed Devil May Cry 5 is. Devil May Cry 5 is not the reinvention of the wheel, but it’s more than just a return to form: it’s a refinement.
‘Devil May Cry 5’ – Hell is much too Serious to be Taken Seriously
If you don’t count the spinoff/reboot DmC developed by Ninja Theory, 2019 marks eleven years since we last had a proper entry in the Devil May Cry series. That’s a long time to wait for loyal fans but thankfully Devil May Cry 5 is a return to form and more importantly, almost everything about those original games has been improved.
Developed in-house at Capcom by a team of series veterans, Devil May Cry 5 is sprawling, infectious, inventive, ambitious, and downright thrilling. The momentum never lets up from the second the prologue begins and for roughly 15 hours and exactly 20 missions, Devil May Cry 5 is electrifying. Director Hideaki Itsuno and his team have delivered quite possibly the goriest, craziest, most eye-blowing (there’s a lot of eyeballs), chunk-spewing, head-exploding installment of the series yet. Propelled by non-stop, over-the-top action, geysers of blood and fetishistic metamorphoses, DMC5 must be
played seen to be believed. It’s spectacular, irresistible, unapologetically juvenile and totally fucken insane – a mesmerizing piece of art that experimentally pushes the series to daring new heights.
Hell on Earth
For a game that revolves almost entirely around frenetic action, Devil May Cry 5 features a surprisingly engaging story that weaves its fair share of twists and turns while also leaving plenty of room for meaningful character development. That’s not to say these characters are fully fleshed out, but by the time the credits roll, Devil May Cry 5 does an admirable job in at least explaining their motivations, past traumas, and their relation to one another. What starts out simple enough, eventually introduces a tangled mystery that should have most players invested, regardless of their familiarity with the series.
Set five years after the events of Devil May Cry 4, DMC 5 takes a non-linear approach in storytelling and jumps back and forth in time with events viewed from multiple vantage points. Dante and Nero are back, along with the mysterious V with the goal of destroying a demon named Urizen who has planted an enormous demonic tree that is draining the city of Red Grave of all its blood. When the assembled group fail in their attempt to stop Urizen and are forced to retreat, the demon king captures Lady and Trish, turning them into cores for the demons Artemis and Cavaliere Angelo. A month later, Nero returns to Red Grave after being outfitted with deadly prosthetic arms made specifically for him by series newcomer, Nico. Along with V, set out on a quest to stop the demon Goliath, who is seeking Qliphoth for its fruit – a fruit which gives whoever consumes it, the power to rule the Underworld.
It sounds dark and depressing but thankfully Devil May Cry 5 never takes itself too seriously, often shifting toward delicious camp and interjecting playful quips, zippy one-liners and zany interludes like Dante’s impressive Michael Jackson impersonation. It helps, the story is genuinely funny at times and supported by fine performances, impressive motion capture and an overarching tone of jaunty good fun!
Over the course of the game’s twenty chapters, the relationship among the three men becomes increasingly complicated. Sibling rivalry, daddy issues, and dark family secrets push the narrative forward and each of the three main characters is given just enough screen time; just enough flashbacks and just enough dialogue to make their motivations clear. For a game as bloody and violent as this, there are plenty of emotional beats and just enough human spirit to sell itself. And even if like me, you don’t recognize the nods to many of the series’ most iconic moments, you’ll at least walk away understanding what makes each of the three main characters tick.
What drives a story more? A strong plot or good characters?
The Devil May Cry franchise is known for its stylish fighting and so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Devil May Cry 5 looks and feels very similar to the original series. This time around, players take control of three characters, each with their own unique and creative playstyles. Devil May Cry’s poster child Dante has four fighting styles in total (Trickster, Swordmaster, Gunslinger, and Royalguard) and can even wield a demonic motorcycle that transforms into two chainsaws creating a bloody spectacular setpiece when in battle. But while Dante may be the star of the series, he’s somewhat overshadowed by his two counterparts.
Devil May Cry 5 begins by first putting the player in the shoes of the one-armed, silver-haired demon hunter Nero who wields a giant sword, a pistol, and disposable prosthetic arms called Devil Breakers that give Nero access to an assortment of special abilities depending on which Devil Breaker he is carrying. Of the three men, Nero is arguably the most fun to control thanks to his rebellious nature and grappling hook. In contrast with Dante’s laid-back attitude, Nero leaves you caring about each character because he himself cares.
V, on the other hand, is a frail poet shrouded in mystery who commands a demonic condor with the power to control wind and lightning and a panther who can morph into a spear-like form to lunge at enemies. The latter (Shadow) attacks at close range by inflicting melee attacks, while the former (Griffon) fires projectiles from a distance. V is also accompanied by a third familiar named Nightmare, a giant black demon made entirely out of a demonic fluid who can inflict ridiculous damage for short bursts of time. At first glance, V doesn’t seem as fun to control as Nero or Dante given that he must rely on his three companions to inflict damage on his enemies, but it doesn’t take long to realize that controlling V and his three familiars adds a welcome change of pace to the combat, made all the more rewarding by having to teleport V to deliver the final blow.
Unfortunately, the three ladies in Devil May Cry 5 don’t have much to say or do, most notably Trish and Lady who make an appearance as the damsels in distress, only to be quickly captured, later saved and in one case, stripped completely nude for no reason whatsoever. Luckily, the chain-smoking gunsmith, Nico helps lighten the mood with her sense of humour as she drives around town selling our heroes weaponry. Nico may not get as much screen time as the men at the center of the story but when she does, she comes across as a headstrong, intelligent businesswoman with a positive outlook on life, no matter how many bad cards she was dealt.
Of course, every great story has a great villain and Devil May Cry 5 is no exception. One of the best things about the game is Urizen, a colossal humanoid demon who appears multiple times in the game, each time, reinventing himself. Devil May Cry 5 has plenty of other nightmarish creatures to fight as well, and there are few games out there that can match the intensity of these boss fights. A special mention must be made for the final boss (no spoilers here), who doesn’t just provide the story’s final twist but also represents the toughest challenge.
The Devil is in the Detail
Like past installments, Devil May Cry 5 focuses intensely on combat making it a nonstop visual assault, but for a game blood-drunk on its own artful excess, Devil May Cry 5 is also a character-driven game, and without these characters, I’d argue it would be just another hack-n-slash outing that leans towards monotony. It’s not just that you have three very different warriors to control. It’s not just that one of these three characters comes with three additional characters to also control. It’s not just that Dante, Nero, and V all look so incredibly stylish and each has a unique fighting style – but I’d argue that each cutscene brings with it a much needed momentary break from the chaos unraveling onscreen. For a game in which the camera struggles to keep up with the action, these characters are the heart, soul, and center of it all. Personality goes a long way and despite some poorly written dialogue, Devil May Cry 5’s characters are a blast to watch.
A story certainly needs a plot but what makes a story even more interesting is who it’s happening to. Devil May Cry 5 will never win a Pulitzer but the developers went out of their way to create some of the most impressive cinematic cutscenes in order to spotlight their cast. And it’s in these cutscenes that the skills of the artists truly shine. The amount of detail in the character work is truly remarkable and at times, Devil May Cry 5 gives Hollywood a run for its money. The opening slow-motion credits sequence alone is worth applauding as Nero and co. move about the frame as the titles artfully blend into the environments.
Of course, it helps that Devil May Cry 5 is indeed a gorgeous game. It represents a huge leap in visual complexity for this series and is another brilliant outing for Capcom’s RE engine. They say the devil is in the details and every detail, from the motion capture performances right down to the facial expressions – to the blood-soaked apocalyptic ruins of the gloomy Gothic European city landscape to the intestinal corridors that transport our heroes deeper into the pits of Hell – is nothing short of spectacular! I especially love the cinematic lighting, the subtle shadowing, the reflections off wet surfaces and the urban graffiti covering the city’s walls.
Perhaps I’m still in that honeymoon phase, mainly because I just finished the game and mostly because Devil May Cry 5 is about as exciting as video games get, but as it stands, Devil May Cry 5 is one of the best games of the year so far, second only to Resident Evil 2 (another brilliant outing by Capcom). I’ll be curious to see what is written about this game long-term as I surely expect some pushback from longtime fans. Regardless, despite being one of the most hyped action games of the year, Devil May Cry 5 does not disappoint in the slightest even with the ridiculous amount of high expectations going in. One thing’s for sure, Capcom is back and I can’t wait to see what other surprises they have in store for fans in the near future.
- Ricky D
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