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Uniting Aesthetic and Gameplay: 'Devil May Cry'

Exploring the Brilliance of Hideki Kamiya and Team Little Devils

By Hugo ClarkePublished 6 years ago 7 min read
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Devil May Cry. From its finely-tuned mechanics to its crazy camera angles, I’m going to examine how great artistic direction facilitates (and sometimes hinders!) the gaming experience.

Background

The origin of this famed series is a fascinating story. It starts with the snowballing success of Resident Evil 1 and 2, establishing Capcom’s dominance in the horror sector of video games. With new-fangled hardware (PlayStation 2) on the horizon, Capcom drew up plans for a fourth game worthy of such cutting-edge technology. It had to be cool, with loads of superpowers. (That’s industry terminology for “the game you really want to make.”) Evidently, some enthusiastic brainstorming took place, for it was later decided the concept had strayed too far from what a Resident Evil game should be. Unlike these slow-paced zombie thrillers, the new game was to be action-heavy, set in a world of demons and coated in a Gothic ambience.

At the helm of this was a man named Hideki Kamiya (神谷 英樹) whose name aptly means “Great Tree in the Valley of the Gods” (this is my own translation, don’t hold me to that.) As director, the responsibility for churning out a financial success weighed heavily on Hideki’s shoulders. His marketing solution was an artistic one: make it bold and flashy, like something out of Hollywood. For him, departing from the old formula would be the first step to success.

Possibly Half-demon Gaming Veteran, Hideki Kamiya

Devil May Cry wasn’t Hideki’s first gig as director; he had first-hand experience working on Resident Evil 2, as did his peers. They would need to take their expertise in horror/adventure and marry it with Hideki’s personal love of fluid action games like Castlevania and Onimusha, along with the commitment to an “in-your-face/too Xtreme for your younger sibling” style.

As if to let us know this game is the hottest sh*t since Bonestorm, the opening cut-scene shows our half-devil hero Dante survive getting impaled by a long-sword and attempted murder by motorcycle (he shoots it to smithereens before it lands on him). Japanese Hollywood, if you will.

Structure

Devil May Cry is set in and around a lonely castle on an island. In plainest terms, the player simply follows a linear objective, hacking their way through hordes of enemies that obstruct the way. Yet it is in these “plainest terms” that all too many games of the genre remain—you might recall the nasty moment you realise you’ve been playing on auto-pilot, struggling for the satisfaction of finally getting to the end—instead of, you know, enjoying the game.

Hogwart’s School of Gun-craft and Slashery

After tempting us with the action-fuelled intro, Little Devils hold the bait and we’re given a short walk up to the castle door, a moment of idyllic scenery that sets up contrast with the castle interior.

No fighting yet; this iconic area speaks for itself.

But even after we leave the light of the outside world and enter the foreboding great hall, there are still NO enemies to fight with. In fact, a good half of the first mission is spent just soaking up the creepy atmosphere. I remember the suspense, thinking something might pounce out from the shadows or sneak up on me from under the stairway.

The first taste of action is put off for about as long as it takes Link to climb the stairs of Hyrule Castle to reach Ganondorf in Ocarina of Time. Yet this suspense is not for the final showdown, but for what will become the most abundant cannon fodder in the game: the marionette.

And it even has its own action figure. Cool.

The marionettes, weakest of the Dark Lord’s servants and equivalent to Goomba in Mario or Russians in Metal Gear Solid, can still punish the player when not given due respect. The idea is for the player to always feel they are up against worthy opponents. Protagonist Dante ventures deeper into the castle to meet new types of enemies, each type carefully introduced with the same sense of danger and hostility as the last.

The castle interior is striking because it has all the various chambers one might expect to find in a real Gothic castle. Even more impressively, the rooms all fit together in a way that makes a lot of sense. For example the bedchamber is located high up in the castle, overlooking the courtyard. The ancient library can be found at the end of a winding corridor lined with artwork. On the bottom floor is a storage room with the bi-plane, directly above the sewer to which it falls at the end of the game. And it might not be coincidence that the Phantom and Nightmare bosses retreat into the floor in the precise location that is revealed to be the entrance to the underworld.

Exploring a place that feels real and consistent eliminates the sense of linear progression. Intervals between fighting give the player a breather and allow the developers space to set the pace, while uncovering different sections of the castle brings with it the excitement of taking a tour through an impressive manor. With such detail, you’d think the team spent a week taking photos of Europe… oh wait, they did.

The Art of Repetition

Three is a magic number. We know this because each main boss in Devil May Cry makes three appearances. As games like Pokémon have shown us, thwarting your rival on multiple occasions can be very satisfying. But is it a stretch for every boss to be recurring?

Repetition is mysteriously pleasing to the human brain and we see it in nature, poetry, music, and even nature. Not only is it pleasing, it helps our brains form connections, which is why practising something involves a lot of repetition. But rather than endlessly hammering away at the same nail, switching our focus gives us space to subconsciously process the information we have just learned.

The alternating boss encounters in Devil May Cry do just that, having us call upon the skills we learned in previous fights, while introducing new threats that have us build on these skills. While Devil May Cry is considered to be a hard game (maybe less so by today’s standards, but certainly on the harder difficulty settings), its carefully devised structure helps the player learn step by step how to overcome challenges, ending up a far more skilled player than when they started, befitting of Kamiya’s “challenge to those who play light, casual games.”

Combat

Imagine for a moment you’re responsible for designing the first ever Devil May Cry. All you know is that it’s an action game starring a ballsy, gun-slinging dude with superhuman powers. How fast should Dante move? Sure, he’s got a few grey hairs, but he’s gotta be fast, right?

The reality is, Dante moves surprisingly sluggish for a half-devil. Seriously, watch footage of the first game. I guess saving the world isn’t, like, urgent or anything. If you’ve beaten the game before you’ll know what a relief it is to unlock the second sword thrusting ability, just so you can jet around the map like a mad man.

But there are good reasons for Dante’s underwhelming speed. The first is that in spite of his power, Dante is also meant to be vulnerable. In combat, emphasis is placed on the player’s ability to use the evasive roll and jump abilities wisely, navigating between multiple threats that can kill Dante in two or three hits. The thrill of dodging a sudden strike at exactly the right time is more important to a fast-paced game than everything moving around in an incomprehensible buzz.

Dante is a badass, but he still loves his mom.

It also helps keep Dante a relatable hero. Unless you’re a fireman or a bungee-jumping world champion, you probably relate more to Peter Parker than you do to Spiderman. By moving at a realistic speed, Dante feels more like a person rather than a caricature.

Where Artistry and Gameplay Clash

One of the only major criticisms of Devil May Cry was the way its ambitious camera angles could cause confusion in combat, leading to the player getting beaten unfairly. Sometimes backwards, sometimes overhead, these cinematic camera angles were a relic passed over from Resident Evil and other Japanese games, boasting some impressive artistry. During the heat of battle, however, players did not appreciate them so much. Even a video guide for the game on Youtube published by GameFront reveals the player’s frustration in the third mission: “This is my problem with… Devil May Cry! The camera angles switch, when I’m trying to look at the boss here.” Walking over an invisible border causes the camera to abruptly switch to a directly opposite angle. No wonder the hardest difficulty mode is called “Dante Must Die.”

User Interface

“In its shadow form, all sword attacks are deflected. This is because it remembers the weapons from its fights with the ancient knights. However, firearms seem to be an exception.”

The bestiary (that’s “monster dictionary,” if you’re not a gamer or a medieval peasant) is a popular feature in video games that harks back to the days of pre-video game RPGs. It serves both purposes of world-building (story) and informing the player on how to approach specific enemy engagements (gameplay). Not every game, however, accomplishes these two purposes with such natural cohesion as Devil May Cry. Details on each type of enemy are recorded when Dante first encounters them. But it doesn’t end there—further segments of information are added when behavioural patterns or certain attacks are revealed to the player.

Symbolic of Style

Lots of games offer a variety of playstyles to choose from. Ranged assassin. Stoic brawler. Manipulative magician. This is where the artistic direction can really aid how these playstyles are perceived by the player.

The original Devil May Cry game doesn’t have such a variety of roles, but I can give some examples of how this works with the weapons Dante can equip. The Alastor sword surges with electrical power, increasing the speed of his swordplay. The element isn’t used in a rock-paper-scissors way; it represents charged energy and decisive strikes.

Meanwhile the Ifrit gauntlets are about intensity; they are more cumbersome than Alastor, but pack the power of scorching hellfire. This leads to a slower playstyle in which Dante has more burst damage potential.

Looking Back…

Team Little Devils weren’t called upon for making the game’s sequel, and almost every iteration of Devil May Cry has seen a stark change in artistic direction. It’s a good to have a fresh take, and the sequels have brought many wonderful and welcome changes, additional features, and new ways to experience the action. But I think there is always something to be learned from the original game, with its incredible combination of a cheesy yet heartfelt Hollywood-style narrative, and an expertly delivered Gothic fantasy.

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About the Creator

Hugo Clarke

I have worked alongside game translators and developers as localization manager for Playism in Japan. Now I'm back in the UK with all this Brexit confusion, hunting for cool games and practising Bach fugues.

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