Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Lives lessons in Devil May Cry

at 6:00 PM

I've never really seriously played the first Devil May Cry, though I've gotten through a lot of 3 and beat DmC almost twice now (someone just cringed). There was a sale on the HD Collection (think it's over now) so I figured that was a good excuse to make myself finish 3 and also to finally give 1 and 2 a try.

DMC is more Resident Evil than I was ready for. I know the whole history where it started development as Resident Evil 4 (isn't it delightful that after a million redesigns, the process of envisioning a fourth Resident Evil gave us both the modern melee action and over-the-shoulder shooter genres? It always makes me sad to hear people say they'd rather RE4 have been survival horror again. It's also funny that DMC was banished from the RE series when Shinji Mikami thought it had become "too cool and action-packed". Then Leon Kennedy did a flying roundhouse to knock a zombie monk into a pool of lava.), but it's got more exploration and puzzles than I'd expect based on my knowledge of Kamiya and the series' later entries. The map is more to the tune of Resident Evil's Spencer mansion than it is to Bayonetta's extreme hallways. It actually lends the game a nice creepy atmosphere where on my first pass I'm always a little distracted trying to keep track of locations and get a jump here and there when enemies jump out. The fixed camera angles lend to that too.

But this is Devil May Cry, right? I'm Dante! Who cares if enemies jump out, because no longer am I constrained to tank controls and fixed aiming angles - Dante can dish out relentless strings of stunning blows on enemies that aren't half as fast as he is. It takes something more to amp up the tension, to stick to that survival feel, and that's where the lives system comes in. Yes, lives. In an action game. People love those, right?

Devil May Cry uses a limited lives system; the expendables are called "yellow orbs", because seriously I have no clue why they couldn't come up with a real name. At least it's not "chips". It works like this: you start the game with a stock of 3 yellow orbs, and any time you die one is consumed to revive you at the beginning of the fight, with all enemies back to their starting state. The only way to replenish your stock is to buy more orbs at the shop, costing precious limited resources that could be used toward upgrades. Thus the total supply has a ceiling, and it doesn't regenerate between levels or upon loading a save file. So the game is pretty much telling you: you better have a really good reason to spend one of these.

If you don't want to waste a yellow orb when you die, you'll have to start the level over again. Luckily, levels are short and familiarity with the layout pays off big time - as in Resident Evil, fifteen minutes of wandering and a dozen battles can be cut to five minutes and three battles once you know where you're going. Levels are tightly parsed (at least at this early point in the game - I'm only on Stage 6) such that objectives remain clear and paths are easily memorized - this isn't RE where in the first five minutes of the game you'll get a key that you need to use ten hours down the line (though, fast fact, it was only very late in the development that they added the mission structure). The end result of encouraging the player to reset if they die is that they get immediate feedback on how they're improving their gameplay in the short term and can quickly get a grasp on how to conserve health and orbs. The game becomes a minimization problem, bringing it all back home to its survival horror roots.

While this resetting does entail some redundant gameplay, it should only be in accordance with the player's lack of skill - that is to say, they should only be replaying parts they haven't yet mastered. The combo scoring system, an entire fifty-page discussion of its own, also encourages the player to get the most out of revisited areas through bettering their combat skills.

The yellow orbs still come in handy though - they're a crutch, but a necessary crutch. There are naturally those times when you come up against a new challenge - the first boss for instance - that kills you so quickly that you don't know what the fuck just happened. It'd be a pain in the ass to restart the level just to reach that point and get instantly killed again, so the yellow orbs allow a quick retry point so the player can keep focused. You can burn through orbs learning the boss, then when you think you're ready to give it a real go, load up your save and make one clean pass through the level. This allows the game to maintain challenge at a dual scope - honed in on individual fights with orb revival, and broadened to level survival compositing the individual challenges for a 'final' run.

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