Ahh, hack and slash games. Oftentimes an unwieldly mess of laborious button mashing, occasionally a genuine show of reflex and mastery, titles filed under this self-explanatory genre have been a little harder to come across since their PS2-era heyday. Not that I’m pointing fingers at developers or anything: so-called button mashers have always had something of a stigma surrounding them and heck, even the ones that are supposedly good – I’m looking at you, God of War – have trouble meeting expectations set by modern game philosophy. Still, with Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising being two of my favourite action games, I’ve always suspected it were possible to unearth some unrealized potential if you hosed off a bit of the monotony and predictability that always seems to congeal around hack and slash titles.
And so, we come to Devil May Cry 3; the third and purportedly best game in the series. To many, this is one of the greatest combat-focused action games ever made, in large part due to its difficulty and complex fighting system. But in what might come off as something of a strange decision, it’s not really my intention to cover each and every little intricacy of the combat – cool as they are; if that’s where your interest lies you can look up one of the many Artamène-sized guides on frame cancelling and air juggling or heck, play it yourself. Rather, we’re mostly going to look at the overarching structure of DMC 3, and what that means for all of these multifaceted hacking and slashing mechanics.
Right off the bat the game asks you to pick from one of four playstyles that determine what sort of additional skills our silly anime protagonist Dante has at his disposal. I took the one that allows you a mostly-invincible dash maneuver and never looked back. Honestly, finicking with different move sets and weapons seems at odds with the general setup because none of the skills that come with learning how to handle the separate builds are particularly transferrable. The general pattern I fell into was: obtain a weapon at the end of a mission, try said weapon out on the next batch of enemies I encounter, promptly switch back to the sword because I already have X number of hours spent mastering it. Yeah, I’m sure DMC 3 whiz kids play it for the fourth time and are all “dude! Yes! The guitar-that’s-a-scythe! Man, the guitar-that’s-a-scythe wrecks shop, yo!” And while that’s a great feeling to have when you’re intimately acquainted with a game, encouraging the player to constantly change the way it controls is an extraordinarily large ask for a noobie when it bills itself on being a challenging experience.
It’s like, the game knows that players are going to try out their new weaponry once they get it, right? So why not design the following area with that in mind, intuitively showing off what sort enemies it’s most effective against while highlighting the situations it’d be best to switch back to your sword for? Again, having more options at your disposal isn’t a bad thing, it’s just odd that the designers didn’t feel much of a need to teach players why they were necessary.
That being said however, the general feel of the combat is a lot fun. The nature of it requires a lot of attention to the number and type of enemies that fill your surroundings, and an understanding of when you can and cannot safely go in for an attack or temporarily back off, which means doing well is consistently rewarding. While that’s fine and all, it goes right out the window if the situations you’re asked to apply those skills to aren’t designed well. Thankfully, these situations usually are. While enemy variety is severely lacking, the things you do face are typically more engaging than enraging, though the sense of repetitiveness hurts it in the long run.
Something that also manages to enhance the combat is DMC 3’s pacing. The game (mostly) takes place in one contiguous area, and earns its action adventure status by semi-regularly asking Dante to find some weird key before bringing it back to its weird door. There’s a little bit of exploration, and little bit of puzzle solving, but it’s in just the right amounts to segment the combat encounters and fend off any oncoming monotony. Typically, the level design makes it obvious enough when you’ll need a thing, or where to get a thing, or where a thing goes. Still, at least two missions in particular are designed poorly enough to be outright frustrating, what with enemies being a nuisance while you’re trying to platform, and a part where the game expects you to run towards the camera and psychically anticipate damaging obstacles because it won’t show them to you (why do games even that?).
Speaking of camera angles! They tend to be largely uncooperative during combat sequences. You’re able to manipulate it a little, and there’s a lock-on system, but very often the camera refuses to show you everything you need to see in order to react adequately. The weirdest part is that this is even a problem when you’re facing off against a single enemy, and even in a few boss fights.
Worse yet, there are a number of actions performed by pressing a directional input relative to Dante’s position, which can be extremely difficult to get a good read on because of said camera and the general cluster of everything. This is why I opted for the dash rather than any of the optional offensive maneuvers; you can shoot off in any direction consistent with the angle you press on the analogue stick, so it’s more reliable than Dante’s cumbersome evasive rolls. And though I know it’s entirely possible to beat the game’s many bosses without relying on this tactic (I saw DMC prodigies doing it on YouTube), the seemingly inaccurate controls made me hesitant to leave my comfort zone. Again.
So once more, we see the game sort of bullying new players into one specific playstyle despite bombarding them with choices. People appreciate DMC 3 for being punishing, and it’s not that I don’t. It’s just a strange phenomenon to see a game that’s punishing in this exact way, because it kind of causes problems later on. I think the bosses provide a pretty good example for what I’m talking about here. In all honesty I’m pretty mixed on how they turned out, with a handful of them showing no indication of how you’re supposed to approach them, or just generally being sort of repetitive. At their worst, they ask the player to perform things that won’t come easy to them – like landing on the back of a large serpent creature, or exploiting elemental weaknesses – because they haven’t needed to do these things until that point, and experimentation is something that’s hardly fun when confronted with a force that will happily bite of a substantial chunk of health for each misstep.
Nonetheless, the bosses that are fun call for the tactics you’ve cemented from the many standard battles you’ve fought, but require applying them in slightly different ways. This is most evident during the multiple fights with the primary antagonist Vergil, with each encounter teaching you a little more about the general flow of it, leading up to a final showdown which genuinely feels like the game has been training you for the entire time. This is superb boss design: it’s a real challenge, a test that requires you know everything important the game has taught you, are aware of how and when to use it, and can access that body of knowledge while thinking on your feet. It would be great if all the bosses were this way.
They aren’t, and this causes a huge issue that appears towards the end of the adventure to become that much more irritating: the boss rush. One late game mission involves fighting most of the bosses you run into all over again, one after the next. Honestly, it still baffles me that games do this. Like, I get that in Megaman, by the end, you have all the Robot Masters’ powers and are able to easily exploit everything’s weakness, so that when the time comes to fight them again it’s kind of cathartic to let loose on the bosses that originally gave you trouble. But in DMC 3 Dante’s not much more powerful than he was when you first did these battles (aside from some health upgrades and a larger arsenal), which means that even the early bosses are still a pain in the butt and need multiple attempts to warm up to again. Seriously, there’s no reason to have this in your game, and arbitrarily throwing content the player has already completed back in their face has no value whatsoever.
Despite all of these things however, I still like the game. Even though I incurred dozens of deaths I usually felt compelled to keep trying, because it’s fun and has a nice atmosphere. It’s one of those games that I find pretty hilarious but can’t exactly pinpoint why. Like, yeah, it has a DeviantArt-looking protagonist who surfs on missiles and a character wearing a schoolgirl skirt made of ammunition pouches, but I have a hard time telling if these things are genius, painfully stupid enough to be amusing, or kind of both.
So yeah, Devil May Cry 3 gets a recommendation from me, but it comes with a few stipulations. First and foremost, you have to be in the mood for a hack and slash game, because the game is nothing transcendent in and of itself. And second, since the DMC series works as a good blueprint of the structure that Bayonetta went on to polish, I feel like that game is a better starting point. It suffers from a few of the same issues that DMC 3 does, as well as a few of its own, but is less frustrating and has more going for it on a moment-to-moment basis. Still, DMC 3 feels a lot better than titles like God of War, and bears more structure and substance than Dynasty Warriors-type things, meaning it’s good fun so long as you know what you’re getting into.