DmC Devil May Cry is a good game. Nay, a great game. It excels is so many parts that when it comes together as a whole, you feel more than sated with what you’d just experienced than you’d expect. Ninja Theory managed to make great characters that work exceedingly well within an interesting (if ridiculous) milieu and, most importantly, fight like champs.
The combat of DmC is a vast improvement over past Ninja Theory games. Heavenly Sword was workable as a mashable stew of button presses and whirling ginger locks while Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was passable at best. DmC, though, has struck something akin to gold.
At first glance, it seems to largely operate in the vein of past Devil May Cry games; you have a selection of melee weapons and a selection of long-range weapons and you mix the two to create combos. Guns keep enemies in the air while swords launch them and hammers slam them back down. There are, however, two very important differences: the lack of lock-on targeting and the removal of styles.
Lock-on targeting has been replaced with, well, nothing. Well, technically nothing in that all your hacks and slashes will be subtly guided towards nearby enemies and firearms will automatically pointed at something in your general vicinity, but effectively your manual trigger-enabled targeting system has been usurped by Rebellion’s whipping capabilities (Rebellion being Dante’s sword).
The whip either grabs an enemy and drags it towards you or latches on and pulls you toward it. This turns what was previously a completely non-diegetic mechanic of locking onto an enemy into a combat utility. The meta overhead of having to press a button and switch between targets was never that fun and the cognitive resources required to evade and fight while swiveling around your binary aim were simply too high. It facilitated combat once you were engaged, but reaching that point was always a bit of a gamble, one whose payoff rarely merited the trouble it caused when targeting a piddly little fodder foe while the boss beats you to a sliver of health.
The whip enables you to keep the switching of targets (both close and far) within the context of the actual combat. Basically working like Link’s hookshot, when you finish with an enemy either by killing it or by deciding you need to deal with something else first, the whip puts you immediately into whatever situation you desire. With a launched enemy, you can either follow suit and go airborne or bring it back down to you. Faraway demons are suddenly well within your sword’s reach.
The targeting, however, still relies on some degree of autonomy but like the lock-on methodology of past Devil May Cry games, but the crucial difference is that the whip keeps you in the battle while pressing down on the left stick is a purely player-side activity and has no gameplay impact in that particular moment. When the lock-on targeting (which, by the way, takes zero input as to what you want to target and largely operates on proximity) fails, you have to either settle or continue to dedicate mental faculties to a yes/no check on who you’ve locked onto. The sword-whip, whether it succeeds or fails, simply allows for more combat. The traversal time is entirely within the frame of the fighting so your mindset never changes out of that context while checking where you are locked onto requires you to disengage from the game.
The second change in the removal of styles is also a qualified change. Styles in past games were slight alterations in the way Dante handled. Pressing the Style Action button could allow you to repel attacks or move and process enemy attacks faster with the style itself open to being changed on the fly through the D-pad. Well, in Devil May Cry 4, anyways, as Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening only allowed changes between missions, so let’s stick with the Nero stuff in this case.
The problem with this is that the shift is entirely passive. Once you press a direction and the style changes, some cerebral allotment must be cordoned off to tracking what you are currently engaged as. Only at the moment of the switch will you be informed of what your style is, otherwise you have to use your Style Action or reactivate that style to find out what it is. That is precious processing power being taken away from figuring out how to protract your combo and being put into remembering one otherwise immaterial bit of information.
More than that, the shift only affects a single button on the controller. A supposedly seismic shift in combat tactics and all Dante or Nero has to show for it is a different button output? Not only does that not make sense within the context of the world but also fails to engage the player with this style-switching mechanic in any meaningful way. You have to switch your entire mindset to use one of four different moves. That’s a waste.
In DmC, the changes are totally active. The triggers on the controller act as shift keys on the keyboard. If you hold the left trigger, you are in Angel mode while if you hold the right trigger, you are in Devil mode. When you don’t hold either, you are back to a neutral (but still deadly) Dante. This eliminates the problem of the switching taking up cognitive overhead because this is an active process. Your physical feedback to holding down a trigger is what tells you which mode you are in. It’s why you never accidentally send ALL CAPS MESSAGES to people when you just use the shift keys; you can forget you pressed the caps lock key and you can forget which style you currently have selected but you won’t forget that you have your pinky pressing down on a shift key or that your fingers are holding down a trigger.
This also addresses the problem of the whole-cloth mode switch equating to one new move. When you hold down a trigger, it modifies just about every button. Your attack is changed because you weapon is changed, providing a visual indicator of what mode you are in; your dodge has a different aftereffect depending on if you are in Angel or Devil mode; and your whip will either lock you or your enemy down as the distance between the two closes. Eventually, instead of associating a single action with whatever you have locked away in that chunk of brain that you have tracking your style, you will shift entire comprehension and interpretation methods of the battlefield depending on which hand (and finger) you have pressuring the trigger.
It’s a physical shift as well as a mental one and it takes your current context and replaces it entirely with a new one. The association becomes innate and you will eventually meld the two concepts of a corporeal actuation with a pugilistic proscenium. As natural as it is to always press the bottom button to jump, you will always press the left trigger to slice and dice while you will always pull the right trigger to smash and bash. It’s a subtle design choice that builds muscle memory connections to three entirely different battle schematics.
There is so much more I can talk about with DmC’s combat like how you can preload input or how now all things vertical have been relegated to the B (or circle) button so combos can vary further between air and ground strikes, but this is about the context of the game’s combat. This is about how cognitive sciences can inform game design. This is about how awesome it is to stick a scythe into a succubus and then whale on it with my giant devil fists without worrying about forgetting what mode I’m in.