Devil May Cry has long been an important series to me. Or to tell the truth, DMC4 has been important to me ever since it was first released way back in 2008. While I did have some awareness of the previous games at the time, 4 was my first experience with the series, and was for a long time where most of my affection for it came from. It captured my imagination with its stylish and deep approach to combat that came to shape a lot of my tastes in games, and which still stands up strong today. So naturally, I felt the desire to go back through the older games in the series to see what else I was missing. This is something I’ve attempted to tackle a number of times over the years, but I’ve never made much progress on. But with DMC3 getting a port on the Switch with new mechanics soon, hot off the heels of DMC5 revitalising the series, it seemed like a good time to give the early games another shot. This time I finally cracked them. Or at least managed to play through them once. And so these are my very belated experiences of the first two games.
Devil May Cry 1 is, frankly, quite rough. I know there’s a bit of a split on opinions of this game these days, between people who think it still stands up with the later games, and those who think it has aged poorly. I’m definitely more on the latter side of that discussion. Although I still have to give this game a certain level of credit, in that most of the core mechanics that would later go on to define the whole genre are already confidently here in a recognisable form. Given how this game managed that when it was basically the first time anyone attempted the genre, that can’t help but be impressive. Yet even so, its earliness also results in a lot of problems that hold it back. The good ideas feel limited and underdeveloped, and there are many bad ideas that feel like holdovers from this game’s origin as a survival horror game, which clash very badly against what it is trying to do.
Gotta start somewhere
Combat on a basic kinaesthtic level still feels good. It’s tight and responsive, and the flow of it is pretty familiar to how later games feel. Enemy design is nicely varied, encouraging you to take a different approach to each one. So in the moment-to-moment combat, it is fairly satisfying and does just enough to stop getting overly repetitive. But sadly that is the bulk of praise I’m able to give it. It feels quite stiff to control, and there is distinct lack of options when it comes to your own arsenal, and the range of abilities you have with them. With only two main melee weapons, that each have a small move set, that don’t include any mid-air combos, it feels like there is hardly any room to get creative with what you have available to you. For every enemy you more or less have a choice between only two very small sets of options, with one of them often being the “right” one. That is unless you have an appropriate gun for a certain enemy as well, where your only option is to simply shoot.
Enemy design can be pretty hit-and-miss. While the Marionettes are good punching bags, and the Blades and Frosts make for a decent higher level challenge, the Sin Scissor type enemies were often rather dull, forcing you to use only one move to effectively fight them, or frustrating because of their ability to fly through walls. And Sargasso is just kind of pointless. Bosses follow a similar trend, except they tend to be more miss than hit. Phantom is fine but a little underwhelming. Griffon is very annoying with how it has so many wide ranging attacks, but spends so much of the fight out of reach of yours. Not to mention how worthless those magic platforms that appear to help you are. Nightmare has a very fitting name. Trying to read its movements when it’s just a big blob that shoots lasers is not a good time. Although in a lot of these fights, the worst thing about them isn’t the boss themselves, but the awful fixed camera. So frequently the camera obscures very necessary information about what the boss is doing. And even beyond a practical game design perspective, the idea that during a big climactic boss fight, the game is uninterested in even presenting you with the thing that is supposed to be the dramatic set piece is quite baffling. The only boss that I would say is even arguably good is Nelo Angelo. While those fights still suffer from the fixed camera issue, he at least has a good readable move set that feels analogous to your own. It does manage to tap in to that feeling of weaving between attacks and punishing whiffs in a way that a lot of the best bosses later in the series nail so well. He even taunts you during fights, giving him some personality that shows the beginnings of the repeated rival trope that would later be seen with the likes of Vergil or Jeanne.
Credit where it's due
The poor camera is obviously something inherited from when this game was originally going to be some version of Resident Evil 4. And while that causes massive issues in this game for playability, other aspects that carry over actually serve the game well. The tight non-linear level design makes good use of space, making this small location feel like it has personality and a cohesiveness to it that has managed to hold up fairly well. Similarly, the dark moody tone of the Gothic architecture and well placed lighting gives it an impressive atmosphere, given the age and technical scope of the game. While unfortunately the bad outweighs the good here by a significant margin, these things are still genuinely notable. It’s just that when the game is mostly focused around the combat, these things struggle to be much more than a silver lining.
So while the game has some qualities that are admirable, and I have to give it respect for laying the ground work for later games, when taken in totality I have to say that it was not, on balance, a positive experience. While it does have a moment of greatness every now and then, the genre has come so astronomically far from this that it just can’t stand up in comparison. It has too many things causing friction, and many of the things it does do well have been bettered several times over by other games since. I’m sure some would say that it’s unfair to compare this game to the likes of DMC4 and 5, and I can agree with that to an extent. But on the other hand, if it were not for me playing those games already many times over, I doubt I would have even been able to finish this one. After all, I had tried multiple times before and bounced off until now. But either way, playing this now felt more like an exercise in posterity, rather than something that I would do for its own enjoyment. I did it for the sake of context. I’m glad I did, but I don’t expect I’ll do it again any time soon.
Mallet Island is a great setting
Devil May Cry 2 has a notorious reputation. Anyone who has heard anything about that game will know at least that. Sometimes when a game gets labelled like that it becomes a meme and gets exaggerated, as these things tend to do. So it seems reasonable to think that it’s not as bad as people say, and it’s just that people like having an easy target to laugh at. But having played it myself, it absolutely deserves its reputation. Initially I wasn’t planning on giving this a full playthrough, just giving it another chance, but it was so short I decided to finish it for the sake of completeness. But it is a truly miserable experience that fails on almost every front.
The core combat systems are strangely inept and dull. It carries over most of the systems from the previous game, in a sense, but in a way that feel like they were designed by someone who had never even seen the original, but had just been told about it without understanding. So while you still have your modest array of melee combos, the ability to target enemies which changes what attacks you can do, and a launcher, none of it works in a way that lends itself to any sense of flow or responsiveness. Even when this game includes some form of mid-air combo, it pales in comparison to the first game on this basic foundational level. Attacks feel really limp and weak, where there is functionally no difference between one move or another. The game does have a strange and unintuitive system where you can extend your combos with extra moves by moving the stick in certain directions during an attack, but the game never mentions or explains them, and they are so unreliable and pointless that they don’t feel like they have a practical or useful place in the combat mechanics anyway. In practice you will basically be spamming the attack button endlessly for the whole game, seeing the same few near identical and awkward moves over and over. You also only really have access to a single melee weapon. While there are three swords in total, all of them play identically, only varying in range and attack power to unnoticeable degrees. And of course there are the guns. You get a fairly wide range of them, compared to the swords at least, but they aren’t interesting to use. Again, all they do is shoot. And they are pretty overpowered. It is indeed possible to simply stand out of the way of most enemies, holding down the fire button, and eventually you will win.
Enemy design is complete trash across the board. All the standard enemies are very boring and brain-dead, posing almost no threat at all. They are very passive and have hardly any attacks, none of which are interesting in any way. The only difference in approaching any of them is that the flying enemies require you to jump up to reach them. Or of course you can just hold down the shoot button until they go away. They also tend to be spread out quite far apart from each other, which makes for awful pacing during fights. You can’t really link together an attack string from one enemy to the next, and you’ll be spending a lot of time mid-fight simply walking from one enemy to the next. It also takes away any sense that you need the spacial awareness to look out for other enemies attacking you while you’re focused on another. It’s a very similar experience with the bosses too. While they are also very dull and pose very little threat, occasionally they will also have a very cheap attack that is near impossible to avoid. Not in a way that feels like a genuine danger though, but simply sloppy design of a badly tuned encounter. There are also several bosses that simply force you in to the tactic of doing nothing but blasting ranged attacks at them, turning something that is normally just an overpowered and easy exploit in to the mandatory approach.
The problem of terrible camera framing also plagues this game, but in an odd way. With the first game, the issue could be somewhat excused, or at least understood, because of the survival horror origins. The environments were small and pokey, meaning there wasn’t much room to place the camera. And it was grown out of a game built around the intention of framing the action to emphasise suspense. DMC2 however has very large and open levels, yet the camera still refuses to point at the threat. Even when you’re right next to them and the camera should be following you. And those levels themselves are extremely boring and lifeless. They are huge, or at least many times bigger than they need to be. They’re empty and barren, a feel haphazardly put together. Usually being little more than just a series of large boxy rooms with uninspired and slapdash environment design. Gone is the tight and interconnected world. Instead there are boring linear levels that fail to evoke any kind of atmosphere, and are so poorly designed that even with their simplistic layout, it is easy to get pretty lost in a couple of them.
schuut in empty room
The story also has a sense of being completely devoid of any sort of vision or cohesion. It produces the same kind of feeling of a nonsensical sequence of events that happen for no reason, as Dante just travels from place to place through these bland locations until the credits roll. While DMC1 was also very light on story, it at least managed to set up a very simple and understandable plot that did the job it needed to. Dante may have felt pretty underdeveloped there, but in 2 it’s like they forgot to write any dialogue for him. Much has been made of his change in attitude in this game, from being the cocky wisecracking cool dude in the first to the sullen silent edgy type here. But that doesn’t really paint a totally accurate picture. Even though they were obviously trying to go with that characterisation in the first game, it didn’t really shine through as being definitively what Dante was. It felt like they weren’t entirely sure what direction they wanted to take the character in, but there was a sprinkling of that attitude because he was supposed to be “cool”. In this game, while it does look like they were trying to go for the more edgy style, again it seems like it was with the intention of going with some sort of vague “cool” personality. His silence however comes across more like they simply didn’t write any dialogue for him. The same is true of almost every other character in the game too. Hardly anyone says anything. It comes across like no one thought about narrative at all until it was too late, only being able to cobble together the closest thing to a plot they could at the eleventh hour. And knowing the troubled development of this game, that’s probably exactly what happened.
It may not be a particularly original take on the game, but that’s simply how it is. It’s hard to see how anyone could come away without a similar perspective. It’s an awful game that stumbles at every hurdle, and has practically no redeeming qualities. Truly one of the worst games I’ve ever played, definitely among those that weren’t completely technically broken. That’s the closest thing to praise I can give this game; it functions as software. I know there is more to this game though. There’s the other main playable character, Lucia, and even the secret playable character of Trish. From what I’ve heard, the former plays about as miserably as Dante, while the latter is actually somewhat more entertaining since she retains a move set similar to Dante from the first game, but requires you to beat the game as him on Hard first. Neither of those experiences sound appealing. The game is so terrible that it retroactively makes me appreciate DMC1 more. That at least did have some positive aspects to it, and it clearly knew where its intentions were best placed, even if it didn’t achieve them nearly as well as later games did.
Despite all this, I don’t regret playing these games. It takes them off my pile of shame and gives a good context to the rest of the series, and especially going in to 3. I already know that one beats the hell out of both of these games though. It may now be the only one in the series I haven’t finished, but I did get far further through it when I’ve attempted it before than I did with either of these games, only stalling a few chapters away from the end. So there’s hardly any holes left to fill in my experience with the series. And I’m very much looking forward to trying out a version of 3 that fixes the one biggest thing that held back my appreciation before, by adding style switching. With that being such a big part of 4 and 5, I’m pretty excited to play 3 with that addition.