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Castlevania: Lament of Innocence [PlayStation 2] – Review

Ayami Kojima, the artist for this and many other Castlevania games is self-taught. What talent!
Ayami Kojima, the artist for this and many other Castlevania games is self-taught. What talent!

Castlevania: Lament of Innocence was released on this day eleven years ago. It marked the franchise’s return to 3D, after a pair of reportedly underwhelming N64 titles. This title also marked Koji Igarashi’s first attempt at doing so, after helming many lauded 2D Castlevanias (Circle of the Moon not among them). It didn’t surprise me when I found this game to be very similar to the GBA and DS games that I adore. The formula of those games was transposed into the 3D action-adventure genre, although at least one key gameplay element was omitted, making for a less addicting game.

But you're Death. Aren't you already dead?
But you’re Death. Aren’t you already dead?

On top of that, the combat system implemented here lacked much depth. This didn’t bother me too much, although it also didn’t encourage me to explore the full repertoire of the game’s protagonist. But, that leads to one of the facets that drew me into this game and the franchise in the first place – the stories and settings. The Gothic settings and character designs are second to none in the video game realm. This game serves as the chronological origin for the franchise so it’s a key game in that regard, and even with a small cast of characters, I found it to be entertaining and worth my while. It only took me six hours to complete, after all.

As I mentioned, the formula that the 2D Castlevanias are known for was completely lifted and applied to the 3D action-adventure genre, with a few exceptions… That formula – the “Metroidvania” formula – is often noted for its extreme backtracking tied to character development. Neither of those elements was on display in this game, much. There was a fair dose of backtracking, but this was generally confined to each unique area. Character development also wasn’t a focus.

The HUD would display much information. It wasn't overly crowded though.
The HUD would display much information. It wasn’t overly crowded though.

The castle that the protagonist was exploring served as a hub to about six other remote sections. There wasn’t much tying these stages together, besides a foreboding sense of trouble. Even the association puzzles that I infrequently came across didn’t cross boundaries. Character development of abilities wasn’t a hindrance to my exploration either, so this was somewhat unique among the more recent entries in the franchise. Exploration was limited, and very straightforward. Thankfully, the castle itself was basically a character; granted one with dissociative identity disorder.

Composed of about six distinct areas, the castle was diverse, but always atmospheric. The Ghostly Theatre, the Anti-Souls Mysteries Lab, the Garden Forgotten by Time, you might intuit their ominousness from their names. When they weren’t recycling the same hallway or large room that hosted a group of enemies, they were fun to examine. Especially when coupled with Michiru Yamane’s fantastic soundtrack. The Castlevania games are host to some of the best video game music, and this one didn’t disappoint. In fact, there were a handful of songs that I had to download to listen on their own.

Guarding was crucial to this game. It negated all physical damage dealt.
Guarding was crucial to this game. It negated all physical damage dealt.

The game’s combat lacked much ambition, especially in comparison to some of its contemporaries, namely Devil May Cry. The basic combat centered on light and heavy combos with the franchise’s traditional whip. Also at my disposal was a small amount of magical buffs and the classic sub-weapons from the original Castlevania. I was content to mash the heavy attack button through the entirety of my playthrough, and this was very effective. It didn’t have to charge up much and the increased damage dealt was always worth the effort.

I refrained from using magical buffs, as I only had access to one until I was near completion. Plus, I didn’t find the one I had too helpful. On the flip side, the sub-weapons were a highlight. Four of the five were directly from the original Castlevania, but they were more than a nostalgic throwback. They provided many opportunities to deal ranged damage, and each had many variations. These variations were fun to experiment with and allowed me the opportunity to explore that aspect of the combat system, unlike the lackluster whip combos that were gradually learned.

On the whole, the game's difficulty curve was fair. Maybe a little easy, but there were some tough spots too.
On the whole, the game’s difficulty curve was fair. Maybe a little easy, but there were some tough spots too.

What made this game less addicting than its handheld brethren was the omission of any role-playing elements. I’m specifically thinking of Aria of Sorrow, where the player character could level up and equip a plethora of weapons. There was nothing like that in Lament of Innocence – and the infrequent health/heart boosts don’t count; nor do the three other whips. Instead, any sort of character development was done strictly though the combat system, which as I mentioned, lacked depth outside of the sub-weapons. RPG elements were commonplace in the franchise at this point, so I have to wonder if their omission had to do with the transition to 3D or a focus on simplicity for the origin story?

Lament of Innocence serves as the origins for the franchise, or it did before Lords of Shadow. I believe that’s another “universe” however. Taking place in 1094, the game sets up the eternal struggle between the Belmont family line and Dracula. The amount of exposition was minimal on the whole, with lots at the beginning and end, but little in the middle. The cast of characters was also small, but each is given much screen time as a result. I have nothing but praises for the narrative, definitely a highlight, and well worth experiencing for fans of the franchise.

The cross was one of the sub-weapons.
The cross was one of the sub-weapons.

Most of the narrative was told through dialogue between Leon Belmont and Rinaldo Gandalfi. The former was the protagonist, obviously, while the later aided those who sought to defeat Walter Barnhard, the vampire antagonist. Leon entered Walter’s immense castle in an attempt to rescue his betrothed, Sara Trantoul. It initially seems as though Walter captured Sara to draw a foe into his castle – to hunt Leon, more or less – but in a twist, it’s revealed that he was being used by a surprising character, forcing the Belmont family into a future of vampire hunting.

Well, now you've done it Leon.
Well, now you’ve done it Leon.

Castlevania: Lament of Innocence proved to be a solid effort at transitioning the franchise into 3D, again. I was disappointed by some of the gameplay elements, but enjoyed others. The combat system on the whole was a little dull, although the sub-weapons were a nostalgic callback, and fun to experiment with. Exploration was also a little dull, despite the castle’s diverse composition. The lack of much RPG influence was perhaps my biggest knock against this game, but I still enjoyed my time with it. Perhaps due most of all to the well told story and mysterious cast of characters. Castlevania: Lament of Innocence is a worthwhile adventure for fans of the franchise or genre, but it’s not the best of either.

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Devil May Cry 4 – Collector’s Edition Review

Utilizing the slipcase, you can choose to display either Nero or Dante on the collector's edition.

When Devil May Cry 4 was released in 2008, Capcom released a collector’s edition alongside the standard edition of the game. Included in the collector’s edition were two bonus DVDs. The first containing episodes of Devil May Cry: The Animated Series with the second DVD containing traditional collector’s edition goodies. And of course, it all comes in a much nicer package.

Like the Final Fantasy XII collector’s edition, Devil May Cry 4’s collector’s edition comes in a SteelBook package as opposed to the standard plastic DVD case. There is artwork on either side of the SteelBook case, one side featuring Nero and the other, Dante. Included is a slipcase that features the logo of the game and a viewing area that will display either character.

The first bonus included in the collector’s edition is a DVD containing the first four episodes of Devil May Cry: The Animated Series. There are only twelve episodes in the series so getting four seems like a pretty good deal. I didn’t care for the anime however. I like a good deal of anime but I’m definitely not too knowledgeable in the medium, but I feel safe in saying this anime isn’t that great. I thought the dialogue was very ridiculous, like the game to be fair, but the action scenes were lackluster and not that prevalent.

The second bonus included in the collector’s edition is a second DVD containing standard goodies. The most notable inclusion contained here is an interview with the producer of Devil Mary Cry 4, Hiroyuki Kobayashi. Also included is a gallery of artwork, a few wallpapers, a screensaver, some chat icons, and a few songs from the game. I could care less for the contents of this DVD, well, besides the interview. That’s because I always appreciate learning about the creative forces behind video games.

The SteelBook case is mint. With all the contents present it has a nice weight and I like the art and slipcase design. The collector’s edition came with a DVD containing four episodes of Devil May Cry: The Animated Series, a pretty good deal, but I didn’t jive on the anime. The second bonus DVD contained a lot of standard fair for collector’s editions, and really, I could care less for its contents. I’m sure most of it could be found online anyways. It appears the collector’s edition of Devil May Cry 4 will run an extra five dollars over the standard edition and personally I’d go for it. The extras included aren’t that great, but the packaging itself is very nice.

Devil May Cry 4 – Review

Nero should probably get that arm looked at.

Devil May Cry 4 is a crazy action game. Developed and published by Capcom in 2008, DMC4 saw a change in the series, namely the protagonist. Everything else has apparently stayed the same however. The plot is utterly ridiculous and much of the plot is outlandish. There are two hours of cutscenes in the game that progress this crazy plot. But the gameplay itself is fun. It was a little much to handle early on, but after some time with the combat system, I’ve learned how to battle effectively, and more importantly, look good doing so.

The plot in Devil May Cry 4 is relatively easy to follow and not too complex, although at some point I began to lose interest and cared more about just getting to the action. I played as Nero, a young man who, at first, begins fighting for the Order of the Sword, a cult like religion, but later on develops new motives. Demons are the scourge in Devil May Cry 4and boy, there are plenty of them. As a character, Nero came off as whiney, or maybe more naïve than anything.

There were a few different weapons to choose from later on in DMC4, and a lot of combos to unlock.

Strangely enough, you also get to play as Dante, the previous protagonist from the Devil May Cry games. With this being my first DMC game, I had no previous relationship with Dante as a character so it wasn’t that big of a deal for me. Dante turned out to be, like Nero, very cocky, but much surer of what he was doing, he sounded like he had a plan from the start. Both were very full of themselves, but when it came time to fight, they’re both supremely able to deal with the situation at hand.

I thought the combat was fun, and as it progressively got more complex, I progressively got better. Even as I replay the game now I am still noticing an improvement. The action centers around looking good as you defeat enemies. As I battled it out with the various demons and bosses, I built up my combo meter. By mixing up combos and weapons I was able to increase the combo meter and use these points to unlock new skills and abilities.

Both Dante and Nero have swords and guns at their disposal, but unique to Nero is the Devil Bringer. Nero’s right arm can extend to grab enemies, which creates quicker, more frantic combat; this ability also comes into play for platforming and puzzles.

Most of the bosses were much, much larger than either Nero or Dante. This one specifically was absolutely incredible.

For an action title, there is quite a lot of platforming and puzzles. My initial response to these breaks in the action was to keep them out and let the game be solely action, but thinking about it more, the puzzles added a nice break, something different, and the right amount of different. It’s not like there are tons of puzzles, just a few, and the platforming goes along with the level progression. This diversity makes Devil May Cry 4 a more rounded experience; there is however, sometimes too little action, namely in levels which you play as Dante.

You begin playing as Dante because something happens to Nero, and Dante backtracks through the levels that Nero went through. As a result there isn’t much to do, you’re just passing by. There could’ve been way more enemy encounters in these levels, as they stand, they’re filler. Also somewhat annoying, you fight the main bosses three times. I remember when Devil May Cry 4originally came out and everybody cried about that, and while by the third time I was burned out, I didn’t think it was too bad. I felt I did better against them with each encounter, much like I did with the rest of the game when replaying it.

DMC4 is no technical slouch. This game looks phenomenal, be it cutscenes or actual gameplay.

Having this character change is jarring though. Here I have spent a few hours learning Nero, figuring out techniques and combos that I like, and all of sudden I begin controlling a character who plays quite differently. The beginning levels and most of them for that matter, with Dante are a breeze and this gave me ample time to figure Dante out, having played previous Devil May Cry games probably would’ve assisted as well. But, the game throws you back into the shoes of Nero towards the end, and while this is again jarring, it doesn’t take long to get back into Nero.

Since Devil May Cry 4 isn’t too long, replaying it is a fair proposal. All the points, orbs and items that were earned previously stayed with me, giving me a large advantage starting over on a harder difficulty. The combat system progressively gets more complex and my skills and techniques have consistently gotten better.

While it may have been complicated at first, now that I know the combat system, it’s really fun. I look forward to enemy encounters and after each, I feel like I did a good job at managing attacks and crowds. I’ve also noticed that I’ve improved from earlier attempts; at the end of each level you are graded and with each new attempt, I usually fare better than before, of course I do have more tricks up my sleeve, but it’s still one of the best times I’ve had replaying a game.

While it’s not necessary, it’s usually good to think why we play video games and why we play the ones we do. In the case of Devil May Cry 4, it frees me from this, sometimes dull, reality and allows me to experience something I’ll never experience in this life. DMC4 has an unrealistic story and over-the-top action, but it’s an experience that I thoroughly enjoyed, and will continue to do so on multiple playthroughs.

DMC4 has a story that I started to care less about it, but it was exciting and fun to watch the cutscenes. The action in DMC4 was over-the-top, complex, and ultimately, fun; I feel like I’m consistently getting better at the game, and it continues getting fun. While I don’t know what I’m missing having never played another Devil May Cry game, I found Devil May Cry 4 to be an over-the-top and outlandish action game.

In Between Posts, July 4, 2011

Actually threw a lot of posts up last week. Got my Vanquish review up along with two DLC reviews relating to Mass Effect 2. One of those DLC reviews I had written and forgotten to edit and post earlier in the year, but better late then never, eh? With those done I only have two more packs of DLC for Mass Effect 2, but I don’t anticipate playing them too soon.

After completing Vanquish (twice!) I’ve turned my attention to Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Zombie Ninja Pro-Am for the PlayStation 2. I imagine it won’t take me too long; it seems pretty short as I’m already a third of the way through it! I have also been playing Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP for iOS. It’s a point-and-click adventure game, but the developers have emphasized the art style and audio design more than the gameplay. It’s pretty cool.

I have finally checked out the contents of the Devil May Cry 4 collector’s edition fully which means… a review of both the game and the collector’s edition will be posted this week! Expect those Tuesday and Wednesday. The last productive thing I did last week was play through the demo for El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron on the PlayStation 3. It’s an action game, but like S:S&SEP, it focuses more on the art style than the gameplay. They’re both competent games, but not the best in terms of their gameplay.

So expect two posts attributed to Devil May Cry 4 and my thoughts on the demo for El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron this week for sure, and maybe something else.