You'll probably remember Devil May Cry 3 for the PlayStation 2 as being an unfairly difficult game, yet one that rewarded your patience with a slew of high-quality action. If playing it gave you tears of frustration, you'll be happy to learn that although this sequel is a challenge, it's by no means an extreme one. In fact, you're given an excellent number of gameplay choices that help you tailor the challenge to your preferences. You can initially choose one of two difficulties (and if you want to cry like a little girl, you can unlock several more), and you can even choose whether you want the game to perform some combos for you automatically. No, you aren't apt to find Devil May Cry 4 to be excessively tough on your first play-through, though it is no walk in the park either. However, it is generally excessive--not that that's a bad thing. Stylish action, terrific boss fights, and beautiful, melodramatic cutscenes will inspire you to push forward, and they serve as an appropriate reward for a well-played sequence of demon slaying.
It isn't surprising that a game featuring the charmingly insane Dante would be so over the top, though the series' famed antihero is not the real star this time around. Don't worry; you'll still get to play as Dante, and he brings with him a good selection of weapons and fighting styles, just as Devil May Cry fans would expect. But you'll spend the majority of the game as newcomer Nero, who has a selection of impressive and elegant moves of his own. Nero is an excellent character, capable of delivering a few wisecracks, a brooding glance, and a heartfelt plea of love to his beloved Kyrie in a few moments' time. He's clearly cut from the same cloth as Dante, though it's a bit disappointing that the game doesn't explore this connection in more detail. Nevertheless, you'll want to follow Nero's exploits as he struggles to learn the truth about his own religious organization, The Order of the Sword, and Dante's apparent murder of its leader.
The story doesn't offer up a whole lot of surprises, but it embraces a certain attitude of self-indulgence. Cutscenes are overwrought, visually stunning affairs, and are among the best you are likely to have seen in any game in recent years. The theatrical dialogue, impossibly athletic animations, and swooping camera work make for quite the spectacle, but somehow, it's a spectacle that manages to stay on just the right side of cheesy. Devil May Cry 4 takes itself seriously, but not too seriously, so for every shocking, bloody cutaway, there's an equally funny quip that helps keep the narrative in check. There are a couple of cringeworthy exceptions, such as one scene where Dante decides he's a tango dancer (don't quit your day job!), but overall, you're apt to find the scenes to be gorgeous, thought-provoking, and emotionally stirring.
Nero's claim to fame is his demonic arm, better known as the devil bringer. With it, you can grab onto distant enemies and pull them in, pick them up, and slam them around for some excellent combos, plus deliver a few other surprises. These mechanics are easy to pull off, and they represent a general shift from the defensive gameplay of Devil May Cry 3 to a more aggressive approach. As you play, you can pull off some incredibly satisfying moves, both in the air and on the ground--the most violent of which are accompanied by slick, bloody animations and appropriately gory-sounding thwacks and slashes. Timing these various moves can be tricky, but like in the previous games, eventually the subtleties of your combos click, and in time you'll be pulling enemies toward you, slashing them into bite-size pieces, and smashing them into one another with glee.
The devil-bringer moves go a long way, which is probably a good thing, since Nero has neither as varied an arsenal as Dante nor access to multiple fighting styles. However, he does have his standard sword, red queen, and a revolver known as blue rose, and later on he earns another weapon that franchise fans will enjoy seeing in action. As you progress, you will earn proud souls based on your performance in any given mission, and with them, you can purchase new combos and upgrade existing ones. And you'll need them, too, since you'll need to handle droves of demons that get progressively tougher--and they're awesome to look at, to boot. You can choose these new moves individually, or you can let the game auto-select them for you based on how varied you want your array of attacks to be. It's worth noting that you can't really make a mistake here; if you don't like the move, or if there is a more powerful upgrade available to you, you can unlearn what you have purchased for a full refund and use the souls for something else.
You'll also encounter a number of secret missions scattered about, and you'll no doubt find them the most challenging aspect of the game. In some cases, you have to execute a certain move a set number of times in a row, or dispatch every demon within the allotted time. While those missions are challenging, others require you to have purchased a particular move before you can manage it. If at first it seems that some of these missions are simply unbeatable, have faith and return to it later. There's a good chance you were simply just missing a piece of the puzzle. You aren't required to do these missions, but the orb fragment you earn is a perfectly fine reward, and accomplishing these difficult tasks is incredibly gratifying.
About halfway through the game, you'll take control of Dante, and you'll likely go through a period of adjustment while you get used to the change in gameplay techniques. Frankly, the devil bringer is a great mechanic, and losing it is a bit of a disappointment, since it's likely to be the center of your fighting style. Instead, you'll have a new set of actions and combos to get used to, new weapons, and four (eventually five) fighting styles. Yet once your arsenal of melee weapons and guns expands (Pandora's Box is a favorite), you'll enjoy the cheerful boldness of them. There's just a lot more variety here than with Nero, and it's a lot of fun to switch styles and weapons on the fly, just to find more interesting and flashy ways of crushing demons to a pulp.
In addition to the dazzling action, you'll work your way through some light puzzles and platforming sequences. The puzzles aren't tough, but they do require you to roam about a bit from time to time, bashing on some switches, using a special device to slow down time, and accomplishing some other odds and ends. They help break up the pace, but all too often these breaks result in lulls that last a bit too long, making you long for another crazy demon attack. Some of the platform sequences are fine, requiring you to use the devil bringer as a grappling hook to fling yourself around, while some of the more standard sequences suffer from bad camera angles and an annoying tendency for the camera to change positions midjump.
Don't let the variety of weaponry and special moves lull you into believing that the rest of Devil May Cry 4's design is similarly diverse. In fact, the many different ways of killing enemies is quite a stark contrast to the repetition at the heart of the experience. While backtracking and repeated environments have been a problem in past games in the series, the newest entry takes these issues to an even higher level of monotony. Many successive levels take place in the same castle hallways and forest meadows, and when you switch to Dante, you visit them all over again. Granted, most of these areas are easy on the eyes, packed with gorgeous architecture and grand outdoor vistas. Yet when you see them over and over again, and when some of the light puzzles have you traipsing back and forth, you will wish for more to see. It has the effect of making a seemingly grand adventure feel oddly limited.
That repetition even makes its way into the admittedly spectacular boss fights. These battles are easily the shining star of Devil May Cry 4, and each boss is wildly different from the last, requiring some split-second timing and good control over your reflexes. From a giant toad to a hulking stone behemoth, these bosses are cleverly designed and a good deal of fun. Yet in the second half of the game, you'll face all of the same bosses as Dante that you fought as Nero. While the game could have benefitted from some new blood during these missions, the differences in styles between the two at least lend some diversity to the repeated bosses and test the newest additions to your arsenal. Yet amazingly (and irritatingly), Capcom brings most of them out for a third time in the game's padded and plodding penultimate mission. Yes, these fights are fun, but forcing most of them on the player three times is overkill.
Regardless of which platform you play Devil May Cry 4 on, this game is a looker. Both Nero and Dante are fluid in motion, showcasing a good deal of flair and subtlety in their movements. The more damage a move does, the more astonishing it looks onscreen, and few games can approach the pure razzle-dazzle of Nero jumping into the air, his cape flying and the glowing devil bringer tossing lumbering demons around with matchless grace. From a design standpoint, the visuals can be gorgeous to behold, and moments like your first glimpse of Gran Album bridge are bound to take your breath away. What's more, all of this visual prowess is smoothly rendered on both platforms, and broken up only by the occasional loading time. This can be noticeably reduced if you are playing on the PlayStation 3, since some files will be installed to the hard drive, though the loading times aren't excessive by any stretch. The downside for PS3 owners is that the installation takes around 20 minutes to finish.
The sound design, like the storytelling, is merrily over the top. The vibrant brutality of your most impressive moves is accompanied by equally squeamish and powerful sound effects. Fortunately, the talented voice cast never hams it up, even when delivering the most melodramatic lines. As Nero, Johnny Yong Bosch can be both remarkably sincere and sneeringly sarcastic, and his superb acting makes for one of the most appealing new game characters to be introduced in some time. But you may not find the music as universally appealing. This is the one area where Devil May Cry 4 feels too clichéd, relying on the standard heavy metal grinds that accompany most demon-inspired games and films, and replaying the same couple of tunes during combat ad nauseum. Luckily, it never gets in the way, so while it may not stand out, it doesn't stick out, either.
Online leaderboards, challenging achievements on both platforms, and a host of unlockables (including an action-only survival mode) will keep stalwart fans coming back for more, in spite of all the repetition. Recycled content and some pacing inconsistencies aside, Devil May Cry 4 is a great game, and it delivers a lot of quality action that will please fans without alienating those new to the series. If you liked previous entries, you'll find what you're looking for here; and if you were turned off by Devil May Cry 3's insane challenge, you'll feel a lot more comfortable this time around.