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Devil May Cry 4—the smash success that "doomed" the franchise

On paper, Devil May Cry 4 was a smash success for Capcom—why would it be over a decade until Devil May Cry 5?

In 2008, an insecure and awkward 17-year-old Bryant Francis thought that Devil May Cry hero Dante was the epitome of cool. After spending hours with Devil May Cry 3, I thought "this is it. This is style, this is grace. He rides motorcycles down towers and has an electric guitar for a weapon." I was hotly waiting for Devil May Cry 4, hoping that new hero Nero could live up to Dante's pinnacle of coolness.

I was convinced that the lore of the Devil May Cry series was deep and interesting. I was excited for a plot-heavy adventure where it seemed Dante was the bad guy. But would the game live up to my expectations when it finally landed? Would it live up to the rest of the world's?

On paper, it did! DMC 4 was a critical and commercial success for Capcom. Though I remember plenty of shrugs about Nero as a character (The Escapist's Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw thoroughly eviscerated the game for trading in Dante's bona fides for an angsty 20-something yearning to save his girlfriend), the new gameplay mechanics and high-definition graphics drove the game to 2.32 million in sales during its first year, and a battery of favorable reviews from Famitsu, Game Informer, GameSpy, and beyond.

With success like that, Devil May Cry 5 should have been right around the corner. Instead it would be five years until Capcom attempted to reboot the series with Ninja Theory's DmC: Devil May Cry, and eleven years until it reversed course and continued the story of Nero, Dante, and Vergil.

For completely the wrong reasons, that means DMC 4 was a key inflection point in the history of the series—and in Japanese game development. It was a game that did plenty of things right, but in an era where Capcom and other developers weren't ready to learn the lessons from its success. Let's hop in our time machine and take a look back.

2008 was a rough year for Japanese game development

If you were a Japanese game developer making first-party titles for low-end platforms like the Nintendo Wii, 2008 was a good year for you. The top-selling games of the year worldwide were Wii Sports, Mario Kart Wii, and Wii Fit, with Super Smash Bros. Brawl beating out Call of Duty World at War in global sales.

In the United States, Brawl beat out Grand Theft Auto IV in sales, and it was Wii Play that topped the charts. That's partly because it was an overall quiet year for game releases (2007 had just come and gone, leaving us with BioShock, Mass Effect, and more), but also partly because there was a major crisis going on with Japanese developers: they weren't transitioning well to the high-definition graphics era.

A screenshot of Lost Odyssey. The player character fights against a horde of bugs.
Lost Odyssey looked decent but played rough.

Scrolling down the release list, you'll find an inordinate number of commercial flops from Japanese developers with strong track records. White Knight Chronicles, The Last Remnant, Sonic Unleashed, Castlevania Judgment, and Lost Odyssey all flopped hard. Sega and Konami tried to rope American developers into revitalizing its franchises with Golden Axe: Beast Rider and Silent Hill: Homecoming, but both are now remembered as absolute duds.

Some publishers tried to make these games a bigger hit in Japan by roping in famous Manga artists to do character design. Takeshi Obata did art for Castlevania Judgment, and Takehiko Inoue contributed to Lost Odyssey, but Japanese players only broke away from the powerhouse of Nintendo's Wii and 3DS consoles to play Monster Hunter Portable 2nd G on PSP.

In the years since, JRPG fans have reclaimed The Last Remnant and Lost Odyssey as cult classics, but to business execs in 2008, that was not a good enough reason to view these games as a win.

The trend here is obvious if you split the games out by toolset types: Nintendo and other developers were firing on all cylinders with a battery of standard definition games that looked and played great on the Wii and 3DS—using tools they were familiar with, making games not optimized for high-definition display.

Meanwhile, developers trying to transition to the high-definition era—making games that looked strong at a resolution of 1080p—were running into brick walls over and over again.

Much of that failure came from a reluctance to pick up development tools made by Western developers. That reluctance wouldn't fade quickly. In 2009, Fatal Frame creator Makoto Shibata talked up the value of rolling a new engine for the 2010 third-person shooter Quantum Theory. The results weren't great.

"But wait!" you might say. "We're here to talk about DMC 4. That game was made for HD! It looked great, played great, and sold well!"

Yes! Capcom definitely deserves credit for bucking the trend here. But if they were ahead of the curve—why don't we talk that much about DMC 4 today?

Devil May Identity Cry-sis

Young Bryant, high on the rush of DMC 3 (also the only Devil May Cry game he'd fully played through) thought this game was also the epitome of cool. This was a game about a cool guy fighting demons in a cool tower with the help of a cool lady named Lady against his cool brother and there's a cool jester running around taunting you the whole game.

And surely if all of these gameplay elements are cool, the story of Devil May Cry is therefore cool. Whatever came next had to be even cooler.

I am fully willing to break the rules of time travel to approach my younger self and share this wisdom: Bryant, Devil May Cry's story is not cool. The games are cool because there is a world of nightmarish horrors who talk big about the end of the world and the hero does not care. He just makes corny sex puns and constantly talks shit. That is cool.

In fact, it's barely even cool. It's mostly campy and high-energy, something most Western developers weren't pulling off at the time.

That means when DMC 4 starts, it is burdened by a need to match that coolness/campiness, and boy does it swing and miss.

Dante and Nero fight.
Capcom clearly wanted us to compare these two, right?

It's a little unfair to compare Nero to Dante, since the game deliberately sets them up as contrasts. Nero is a straight-laced goodie two-shoes with an unexplained demonic arm working for definitely-not-the-Catholic-Church. Dante starts the game off by rolling in and murdering the definitely-not-pope (he gets better), setting him up for conflict with Nero. The stakes for Nero's quest only get bigger when his girlfriend is inevitably kidnapped.

If there's one "cool" thing Nero has going for him early in this story, it's his sword. It's a giant sword like Dante's blade Rebellion, and it's also a motorcycle handle. He revs it like a motorcycle to power it up, and I'll give Capcom credit—that's pretty dope.

Nero's demonic arm is the center of DMC4's gameplay advancements, and these are legitimately fun additions to the DMC design toolkit. Nero can use the arm as a grappling hook, switch between different demonic forms to mix up his combos, and his quest to find and kill Dante takes him on a dynamic journey through some gorgeous environments that make the most of Capcom's HD advancements.

Then about halfway through, the game does something that's either really smart or really dumb, and reveals that the fake Catholic Church is definitely actually evil, and Dante is still on the side of the angels (not the angelic enemies who show up later, to be clear).

Nero is captured and shoved inside the heart of a giant demon statue, and players finally step into Dante's shoes. Dante then backtracks through the levels Nero just finished, literally running his adventure in reverse to fight most of the same bosses, steal their powers, and unlock cool new weapons in the tradition of DMC 3.

I say this decision is either "really smart or really dumb" because there's a surprising amount of good reasons to make a game this way. If making high-quality HD assets is a burden in the 2006-2008 period, then creating levels that work just as well when run in reverse is really dang smart. It's also pretty impressive that these levels work well enough with Dante's toolkit, which is substantially different from Nero's.

This is also where DMC 4 shows off its greatest moments. Dante once again is the star of the show. He is incredibly corny. He warms up every boss fight with some great back-and-forth banter, and shows off his new weapons with the gusto of an '80s rockstar. Two of my favorite Devil May Cry moments are in this half of the game, and in a moment where triple-A video games were about to get so dang serious, it's so great that Capcom nailed how fun Dante is supposed to be.

Looking back, this game split strategy seems really sensible. But I think there are some flaws with this choice that seem clear in hindsight, though they were only lightly noted at the time.

You can't tell a sincere story about Nero's fallout with the church he put his faith in if you don't give him a strong second act to grapple with that loss of faith. Entire tomes have been written about how Japanese creatives take inspiration from Christianity to create wild, over-the-top visuals, and this feels like a huge missed opportunity for good follow-through.

That means from a development standpoint, there's clear tension in making Nero and Dante's segments stand strong individually. There's not enough of either character to tell a story that sticks with players, so what's left is kind of muddled. The game's best villain (a...science bishop who turns into a fly demon?) also isn't even the final boss, so you're completely missing the high melodrama of Dante's final fight with Vergil in DMC3.

Second, reusing your assets to maximize your level design can save resources, but feels repetitive for players. It's also just kind of arbitrary and confusing. Why does Dante have to take the exact path backward that Nero took? Why does he need to fight the exact same bosses? Why are obstacles so tuned to him when they were tuned to Nero before?

In DMC3, Capcom set itself up for success by centering the game's adventure on a nightmarish demonic tower that had phallically burst through the earth. It gave everything a motivated purpose and also clear and understandable narrative direction: Dante climbs the tower, fights Vergil, falls off the tower, and has to climb again, with the stakes growing in intensity. Backtracking and challenging jumping puzzles feel in form because it's all an evil tall demonic tower, it's not supposed to be easy to traverse!

Dante faves off against an army of demon dogs.
Here we go again...

I think the Devil May Cry series may have secretly benefitted from one underrated part of its Resident Evil roots: because early Resident Evil games were set in such confined locations, the franchise was blessed with the sense of "exploring a haunted house," and the haunted houses just got bigger. DMC4 is the first game to not keep things in one "haunted house," and it feels lesser for it.

DMC5 would later bridge these two level design philosophies nicely. Though it's set in a big, sprawling location (a city ruined by a giant demonic tree bursting from the earth), things feel small and confined because the ruined city has flattened what might have otherwise been a more diverse environment. The haunted house is just city-sized now with interesting nooks and crannies to explore.

The net result of DMC4's cost-saving design direction might not greatly diminish the game's fun factor, but it definitely makes it a less memorable experience. I can almost mentally rechart the entire arc of DMC3 in my head, but when thinking back on DMC4 I can only remember some of the fantastic cutscenes with Dante.

And if you want to talk about memorable moments—DMC4's soundtrack doesn't compare to 3 or 5. Look, Shall Never Surrender is pretty good, but it's no Taste the Blood or Devil Trigger!

Still, a lack of memorability is not a good reason to avoid greenlighting a sequel after solid sales and reviews. So...what happened next? Why did the franchise go on ice?

I know you all love Dragon's Dogma now...

In 2012, Capcom released Dragon's Dogma, also directed by Hideaki Itsuno (with Kento Kinoshita also credited as game director). The game performed "above expectations" in Japan, but didn't find an audience in the west. It would trail behind games like Dead Island: Riptide and Injustice: Gods Among Us in sales, and it would be years before it found a cult following that would spur a sequel.

A screenshot from Dragon's Dogma. The player stares down a great dragon.
That's a dragon, but where's the dogma?

While Itsuno was busy with that game, Capcom partnered with Ninja Theory to release DmC: Devil May Cry, which would drop in 2013. In 2012, he told NowGamer that Capcom "wanted to avoid the problem that befalls some series where you keep making it with the same team, same hardware, and it tends to decrease and fans move away from it."

Fair enough! If your franchise lead is off on another project, but you want to keep Devil May Cry on the public's lips, a refreshed spinoff isn't a bad way to go.

But Ninja Theory may have pivoted a bit too hard, making a series of decisions that would sour its ability to market the game to core Devil May Cry fans. However sharp some of the game's level design is, tossing in a fatphobic joke aimed at fans of the original series and making some explicitly homophobic design choices means this admirable effort just doesn't age well.

And with that, it would be years before Capcom felt confident enough in Devil May Cry to revisit the story of Nero, Dante, and Vergil. DMC 5 definitely was a return to form commercially and critically, and it managed to find something interesting with Nero's character by leaning into the franchise's soap opera-level family drama.

That leaves us with Devil May Cry 4 as this strange (but notable!) encapsulation of the Japanese video game industry in 2008. It's a strong enough game that breaks against the mold of what other developers were doing successfully, but an uncertainty about what the western audience want and a struggle over HD graphics kept it from being one of the high points in the franchise.

Ah well. We'll always have Dante doing high camp theater with a demon fly.

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