Letdowns are a fact of life. They can almost kill a series, as in the case of Metal Gear Solid 2, or they can simply turn the promise of a potentially great game like Devil May Cry 4 into something that's merely not bad. While the production values are top-notch and the fighting engine is fantastic fun, DMC4 tries to do more with varying success. It constantly throws out design quirks and events that distract from the things it does best, and those distractions just aren't very fun.
There's no denying that the heart of DMC4 is pure excellence. There's a new bad-ass in town named Nero, and he's actually more fun to fight with than Dante. Nero is a bit wet about the ears and nowhere near as cool as Dante, but his fighting style keeps the action flowing smoother. It's complicated, so bear with me. First up, though, the story: Once upon a time, a pair of incredibly cool and tough half-human half-demon fighting machines beat the living crap out of everything in their path. The end.
While the production values are top-notch and the fighting engine is fantastic fun, DMC4 tries to do more with varying success.
Devil May Cry isn't really about story, and the narrative is simply a cheap excuse to get our anti-heroes from one fight to the next. The combat engine for both Nero and Dante is fast and responsive, with plenty of moves for each to keep combat from being an endless pressing of the "hurt things" button. Their basic starting move sets are roughly similar, consisting of sword combos and gun attacks, and you can get a lot of fighting mileage out of just the basics. It's each character's unique abilities that really make combat really take off, however.
Nero, who's the playable character for the first two-thirds of DMC4, has a blue glowing demon arm that can grab on to just about anything. When not locked on, it picks the enemy up and slams them hard. This can be particularly effective on bosses, during the very brief periods they're open to being grabbed. The slight knockback of slamming a common Scarecrow into the ground is useful for a minor bit of crowd control, for example, while heaving a Frost across the room and into his friends can take down a couple of enemies for several very useful seconds. When locked on to an enemy, the Devil Bringer shoots out a hand that grabs the ghoulie from a distance and brings it in close for some good sword combo action, or pulls Nero over to some of the heavier guys. While not as visually impressive, the lock-on grab ends up being more useful because it guarantees that combat doesn't slow down for a second, flowing from one creature to the next with no break in action.
Dante's special moves, while offering greater diversity, don't give combat quite the same fast pace. The button that activates Nero's grab has four different sets of moves, called stances, assigned to it, selectable with the plus pad. Royal Guard is for shielding while Trickster has fast dodging moves, while Swordmaster and Gunslinger are pure offense. Swordmaster is by far the most fun, giving Dante double the attacks and making almost every situation an opportunity to deal out sharp and pointy pain, but he's already overpowered and deals with enemies and bosses alike with just a little too much ease. While the variety of moves granted by Dante's stances is a blast to experiment with, Nero's grabbing arm keeps combat flowing smoothly,and makes it just plain more enjoyable. Even with Dante's Pandora gun, which has the only useful ranged attacks available, I found myself wishing for a way to splice Nero's better fighting style onto the much more fun character of Dante.
Despite one character being better than the other, both are fun to fight with, and if DMC4 was straight combat I'd have no complaints at all. Unfortunately some very poor pacing at the start gets things started on the wrong foot, and a host of bizarre design decisions chips away at the fun bit by bit. Long empty corridors with no enemies fill the first third of the game. There are jumping puzzles with the camera set in a way that's not very helpful, and with no way to adjust it. Dante's levels are reruns of Nero's, except in reverse, meaning there's long stretches where the camera is stuck in place as he moves towards it, offering a great view of where he's been. Part of the grade at level's end is dependent on smacking up large chunks of scenery for orbs, which gets boring fast when you've bought everything you want and just don't care any more. Bosses range from relatively easy to nails-tough with no rhyme or reason, and if you lose to anything often enough the game will downgrade the AI for the rest of the level without the courtesy of asking first.
Little details like these accumulate one after another, siphoning out the fun and leaving you wondering how something with so much sheer awesome can also be so incredibly obnoxious. Devil May Cry 4 is an excellent example of gilding the lily, with the beauty of its fighting engine weighted down by all the excesses ham-handedly piled on top.