Lances drawn, a set of bastardly White Knights lunge at me like rockets, propelled by some type of magical energy. One well-timed jump is all it takes to avoid them, and with their backs facing me, I approach the nearest one, grab his lance, and run him through with it, once, twice, three times. On that third hit, the magical energy built up within the lance kicks in, sending the poor misguided fool sailing toward the nearest wall.
I chuckle, but too soon. Mr. White Knight and his companions team up and send a huge ball of glowing energy my way, one that rids me of my remaining health. A now-familiar screen appears, informing me to "Abandon All Hope." I can't decide whether to throw my controller across the room, or try again with a renewed vigor. I opt for both, discovering that the light weight of the PlayStation 3's Sixaxis controller means they ricochet really, really well.
Thankfully, I'm presented with the option to continue from the last checkpoint, which was mercifully presented just before the room.
In all, the flurry of emotions I'm feeling are par for the course as far as the Devil May Cry franchise goes. A sharp, motivating anger twinged with shame, the shame of knowing that I can do better, that I should do better, that it's all my fault that I'm dead. A sincere appreciation for the fact that the development team recognized my lacking skill, made generous use of mid-stage checkpoints, and provided an easier difficulty level if I absolutely needed it. The determination to best my foes in battle and progress onwards, to slay even bigger and more powerful beasts. And, of course, amusement care of the game's cheesy, goofy, and ridiculously over-the-top attitude.
In other words, it's pretty much everything you'd want in an action game. That's not to say Devil May Cry 4 is perfect--it certainly has its flaws--but it is fun, it is enjoyable, and it is one of the best action titles currently available on either PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360.
Throughout the course of the title's 20 missions, you'll start out as newcomer Nero and, about halfway through, take control of resident protagonist Dante. Whereas the Dante portions feature an ever-evolving set of skills due to the continuous acquisition of new weaponry and unlockable moves, combat with Nero is a much simpler affair.
Unlike Dante, Nero doesn't have a massive arsenal of weapons. In fact, he's pretty much stuck with the same three tools for the whole game: his revolver, his sword, and his incredibly useful devil arm. That's not to say Nero doesn't gain new abilities throughout the game, but most of the moves available for purchase are just more powerful versions of existing combos. And most of the gained abilities relate to the exploration of a level, such as allowing passage past a previously insurmountable obstacle. While they do provide some new gameplay elements--the ability to launch off a pad for a high jump, for example--most of them don't factor into combat.
It's the multi-purpose devil arm that separates Nero from Dante. That glowing, possessed portion of Nero's right arm lets him grab an enemy from across a combat arena and bring them close, an incredibly useful technique when mixed with the ability to throw them into the air with them sword and slam them back down. It also enables Nero to literally grab ahold of a boss' weak point, as well as allowing him to slingshot across a level, using the arm like a grappling hook. Suffice to say, the devil arm feels like a natural fit for the series, and by the time you take control of Dante, you genuinely miss it.
One other element that Nero brings to the game is the Exceed meter, which rewards players for charging up his sword with properly-timed button presses. It's an incredibly simple mechanic--time the button press with the swinging of Nero's sword and he'll unleash a more powerful attack. It's harder than it sounds, but is well worth mastering.
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Meanwhile, Dante's missions feature a more entertaining amount of combat variety, as he comes equipped with multiple weapons and finds even more along the way. Toss in his larger arsenal of purchasable moves, and his four selectable special-attack styles, and Nero's skill-set begins to feel rather pedestrian. In other words, the pacing of the game, the sudden switch from a few combat options to a multitude, feels a bit uneven.
And then there are a laundry list of minor irksome traits, such as Devil May Cry 4's tendency to repeat boss battles. While it's understandable to face off against each boss twice--once as Nero, the other as Dante--fighting them for a third time is a little tiresome, even if they are really cool creatures and a lot of fun to bash around.
Another point of annoyance is the game's reliance on preset camera angles, and therefore the controls relative to them. At one point, the camera was facing Nero's back as I ran into a room. Upon entering the room, the camera switched to a position facing Nero's face, so the direction I was holding caused him to move back into the hallway. Fortunately, I can only recall one moment throughout my twelve hours with the game when the troublesome camera actually affected combat, resulting in an enemy I had tossed off-screen rushing me without warning.
It's also worth noting that, despite the game's emphasis on lengthy in-engine cinematics--often running in the 2-3 minute range--such movies are only skippable and can not be paused. Fortunately, the cutscenes are worth watching, if just for their ludicrous over-the-top action, which, in true action-movie tradition, are filled with explosions, cleavage, and plenty of sword and gun play. The game also often uses cinematics to show players where to go next, but there are one or two moments where the visual cue isn't that helpful. In other words, just because you see a bridge extend doesn't mean you'll remember where it is--though such scenarios are rare.
Following the game's completion an additional difficulty level is unlocked, with additional increasingly-challenging modes available beyond that. Other replay-encouraging bits include a survival mode, in addition to a number of secret missions scattered throughout the normal stages--though, annoyingly, it's impossible to quit or restart a secret mission without failing it first.
It should also be mentioned that though Devil May Cry 4 may start out rather easy, even on the hardest setting available at the game's opening, the difficulty soon ratchets up to the franchise's traditional levels of frustrating controller-throwing defeats and countless retries.
Those looking to purchase the PlayStation 3 version should also be aware that the game mandates a 5GB install before it can be played, causing a delay of 15 to 20 minutes between first insertion of the disc and the actual gameplay. This has the benefit of reducing in-game load times to almost nothing, though the idea of a large mandatory installation for a console title is a bit worrying. Conversely, the Xbox 360 version doesn't require or even present an option for such an installation, though, as a result, its load times are just slightly longer.
Thankfully, all of the above complaints are relatively minor--temporary annoyances, not game-destroying issues. And that's good news, as everything else, everything the game does right, is so freaking good: the over-the-top action, the sheer enjoyment of impaling, the hilariously cheesy cinematics. Sure, it doesn't reinvent the genre, but then again it doesn't have to; I'm happy enough adding another top-notch action title to my library.
Devil May Cry 4 hits PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on February 5, with a PC release due out a little further down the line