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If a game features difficulty options, chances are they’ve been implemented with little thought given to how upping the difficulty would better the game. This is not a generational issue, either. Across the board, higher difficulties prioritize challenge over fun as if the two are inherently incompatible. The average “Hard Mode” simply turns enemies into damage sponges while upping the damage dealt to the player character. This isn’t a bad idea, conceptually, as it theoretically offers a more rewarding experience for anyone willing to master a game’s mechanics, but that notion falls apart the moment any difficulty mode above the default fails to take the game’s design into consideration. An arbitrary lack of resources, enemies being able to better read a player’s inputs, and repetition forced by increased boss health/decreased damage output do not a good difficulty mode make.
More than anything, though, the biggest issue plaguing the average “Hard Mode” is the fact that it feels like an afterthought, most of the time. The majority of games are designed with their standard difficulties in mind, and this shows in how the gameplay is paced. The majority of developers toss in their difficulty modes later, because most players aren’t going to bother playing past whatever the default mode is.
It makes sense to a degree. After all, the “intended” way to play through a game is often on its default difficulty. Anything harder is just a bonus, so why does it matter if it’s properly balanced? Even then, as long as it’s beatable, is it really an issue? As frustrating as some “Hard Modes” can be, they almost always have the decency not to be impossible which goes back to the issue of challenge versus fun. Many difficulty modes higher than the standard aren’t designed with fun in mind. A game can be hard while still engaging the player in a fair way. It’s made all the more frustrating when realizing that’s exactly the approach a PlayStation 2 hack ‘n’ slash took to difficulty.
Originally released in 2001, Devil May Cry effectively popularized the character action genre with its endearing protagonist, progression based upgrade system, and combat designed around looking as stylish as possible without getting hit or letting up on combos. It also became quickly known for its downright brutal, unforgiving difficulty. Enemies, and especially bosses, were relentless. Death wasn’t just looming around every corner, it was an inevitability. At the same time, it was never impossible. While there have been harder games in the franchise, and even within the genre, the original Devil May Cry stands out as one of the best examples of how to pace difficulty in gaming. There’s a clear progression from Normal to Hard to Dante Must Die with each mode remixing enemy placements, adding new attacks for both enemies and bosses, and DMD most notably giving Dante’s Devil Trigger – a combat enhancing ability – to normal enemies. What makes DMC so impressive in respect to difficulty, however, isn’t in what it adds to incentivize players to keep playing past normal, it’s the fact that Devil May Cry is a game deliberately designed with three core campaigns in mind: Normal, Hard, and Dante Must Die.
Every difficulty mode in Devil May Cry serves a specific purpose and Normal’s, more than any other, exists to teach players how to properly utilize Dante’s skill set. For the first two missions, it’s entirely possible to just brute force through enemies without paying any mind to the Style system. It’ll inevitably lead to C and D ranks for those missions, but progress is by no means impossible. Once Dante reaches the third mission and must face off against the first proper boss, though, anyone simply button mashing their way through the game will be met with one of the more punishing wake up call bosses in the franchise. Phantom himself isn’t even particularly difficult. All things considered, he’s one of the easiest bosses in the franchise with fairly simplistic attack patterns that aren’t too troublesome to dodge. The reason he ends up being problematic for newcomers is that every facet of his design exists to counteract sloppy playstyles.
Not only does rushing up to him and mashing Dante’s sword do minimal damage, Phantom will outright counter the attacks with his pincers. This is important since both the low damage output and counterattack teach players to find a new method of attacking. Were only the former in place with no counter, players may erroneously believe that part of Devil May Cry’s difficulty comes from how little damage Dante does to bosses. By adding a direct consequence to haphazardly fighting Phantom, the game design teaches the audience to think critically about how to approach each boss. With a thick exterior and a penchant for swiping at Dance, players are pushed towards attacking from above. Using a helm splitter by jumping and attacking causes far more damage against Phantom than any other technique available at that point. It seems a deceptively simple solution, but it’s also teaching players that they need to take advantage of Dante’s vertical mobility.
Should a player somehow defeat Phantom by simply attacking him head on, which is theoretically possible thanks to vital stars and Dante’s Devil Trigger, they’ll be met with a rude awakening in the next mission. Nero Angelo, mistranslated as Nelo Angelo, serves as the fourth mission’s boss and he fights exactly like Dante. If Phantom was a lesson in Dante’s mechanic, Nero Angelo is the actual test. While Nero Angelo does have his own set of techniques, most of the fight is spent showing off what Dante is ultimately capable of. By putting Dante at the end of his own sword, so to speak, players can see firsthand just how formidable the main character can become with enough practice. More importantly, this boss fight is a chance to test out one’s reflexes. While this can be done with any type of boss, Nero Angelo’s basic moveset is universal to the gameplay and thus shows off Dante’s ability to parry and how his sword combos change depending on how much time passes between each button press. In making Nero Angelo the boss used to test reflexes, players get a chance to visualize what they should be doing.
Having a reflex based boss immediately after Phantom also allows players to gain a deeper intimacy with Dante’s abilities. Phantom’s fight is more about teaching the audience to play smart; Nero Angelo’s fight is about teaching the audience to play well. To help players break out of the habit of button mashing, especially since most attacking revolves around one key button, Dante’s combos can be paused mid-slash to vary his follow up attack. With the right timing, Dante has three separate basic combos to ease into every time he attacks. Should Stinger be purchased from the upgrade shop at this point, players also gain a sense of how the analog changes Dante’s actions. By pulling back on the analog while locked up and then attacking, Dante launches his opponent into the air. By pulling forward on the analog while locked on after buying the Stinger skill, Dante can lunge forward at enemies. Since Nero Angelo moves to a new location of the boss arena for each phase of the fight, players even get a moment to catch their breath and experiment with pause combos should they feel the need to.
Conceptually, the idea of an upgrade system like Devil May Cry’s is a tricky one. Dante is inherently at a disadvantage on fresh playthroughs because his skill set is incomplete. If the game design expects players to buy new skills every time they have red orbs, DMC’s currency, the game then runs the risk of soft-locking progression for anyone who spent their orbs on health or items. This can become especially problematic when taking double jumps into consideration. Dante can buy the ability to double jump so long as he has his sword, Alastor, equipped, but making double jumping necessary for platforming sections means blocking players who didn’t’ have the foresight to buy the skill. Thankfully, Devil May Cry does keep all this in mind and offers workarounds for a vanilla Dante to beat the game. Although he’d be at a serious disadvantage for most of the playthrough, a player can become skilled enough to beat the game with Dante’s default moveset. Dante can also kick off walls to simulate a double jump meaning the skill never truly has to be purchased to make linear progress.
Of course, there are advantages to buying new abilities and they absolutely are meant to be bought, they’re just not “necessary” in an explicit sense. The upgrades also don’t exist to necessarily make the game any easier as such a system would imply. Rather, they’re present so to give Dante more variety in combat. That could be seen as a way of lightening up the difficulty, and buying blue orbs for added health does inherently remove some of the tension since Dante can take more damage, but the ranking system keeps a layer of self-imposed difficulty over the game. Should a player seek to achieve S and A ranks on each mission, they’ll need to get hit as little as possible, negating the usefulness of blue orbs, and have to use their combos in a creative manner that doesn’t fall into repetition. All the while, players need to be mindful of how much time they spend in each stage as clear time affects rank. It is possible to ignore the ranking system, but higher ranks award more red orbs incentivizing players who would otherwise neglect the system to give it a serious try.
While most games ease up on their lessons by the halfway point, Devil May Cry ensures players have something to gain from each boss fight in Normal Mode. In many respects, Normal is simply a training ground for Hard which in turn is dedicated to preparing for Dante Must Die. On a first playthrough, this gives a sense of deeper variety within the gameplay as every boss tests a different aspect of Dante’s abilities. On repeated playthroughs, it’s a clever way of pacing the difficulty between the three core modes. This is seen perhaps most clearly with Dante’s fight against Griffon. On replays, it’s actually possible to skip the first Griffon fight since Dante carries over Ifrit, a pair of gauntlets he can use to gain access to the next area preemptively. In a first playthrough, Dante won’t have Ifrit by this point and will need to fight Griffon normally.
Although Griffon is rather lenient in terms of boss approach, especially since Dante will have more tools at his disposal by this point in the game, he does serve as a last minute boot camp of sorts for Dante’s gunplay. Since Griffon spends a good chunk of the boss fight mid-air, the only reliable way to do consistent damage is by firing at him from afar. Dante’s main pistols, Ebony & Ivory, are the most reliable weapons here, but the lesson is universal: use guns. Guns can be used to build Devil Trigger from a safe distance while also keeping the Style meter active. Since the Style meter plays a big role in a mission’s rank, particularly in Normal and Hard, using a gun to keep a combo active while moving towards an enemy is a smart way of building up a useful resource without compromising rank. Of course, variety in combat is still necessary, but the value of Dante’s guns can’t be understated.
Once the second fight with Griffon rolls around, and Dante genuinely does have to do most of his damage with guns this time around, players now have a grasp on how to use them properly. This also leads to another important aspect of Devil May Cry’s pacing: every boss is fought multiple times. On paper, this might seem like padding, but the boss encounters genuinely change from fight to fight. While the enemy Dante is fighting is the same, just about everything else about the battle is different. Griffon’s first fight is set in an open field where he’ll occasionally land. Just the location alone gives Dante a lot of room to dodge and experiment with where to attack from. Their second fight takes place on a cramped ship where Dante has to put his gun skills into practice on account of Griffon taking a predominantly aerial approach. The third fight serves as a mix of the two fights where Griffon goes all out in a large coliseum while also staying primarily in the air. In hindsight, the first two fights are almost “practice” attempts meant to prepare Dante for their final duel. This is a pattern every single boss follows. Teach the player to utilize a skill, put that skill into practice, and then toss in a “twist” to undermine complacency.
By the time players reach Nightmare, and by extension the home stretch of the game, Devil May Cry has imparted non-explicit lessons on all of its core mechanics at a respectable pace. Phantom punished simple button mashing; Nero Angelo showed off Dante’s capabilities; Griffon emphasized the value of gunplay. All the while, the difficulty never dropped or spiked. Some sections are harder than others, but Devil May Cry’s Normal mode is paced with a consistent difficulty in mind. Even though it has an upgrade system for Dante, it never gets easy in its second half like many other games do in the face of character progression. There’s a fair level of challenge that never thrusts anything at the player unless they’re ready. Just through Normal Mode, Devil May Cry offers a rewarding, well-paced balance of difficulty that encourages legitimate skill and strategy. That said, there is more to DMC than the first playthrough and Hard Mode proves that in spades.
Upon clearing Normal, players are immediately thrust into Hard Mode. While Dante deals less damage and enemies do more, Devil May Cry’s Hard Mode stands out from its contemporaries due to the fact that it remixes the enemy placements from Normal along with giving them new attacks. Not only do enemies and bosses hit harder, they hit differently. Playing through Hard after Normal is like playing a different game. Some rooms only change the enemies by upping them to their next natural tier, but other rooms play around with which enemies were originally present. Memory can only get a player so far. What’s all the more interesting about Hard Mode, however, is how different it’ll play out for different players.
At its core, Hard Mode is more of a bridge between Normal and Dante Must Die. It’s a mode designed to make the transition smooth and to allow players to refine their skills, collect items, and fully upgrade Dante before tackling DMD. At the same time, it’s also a last chance, so to speak, to allow players to fully grasp the mechanics at play. Hard is considerably harder than Normal and anyone who got through their playthrough by the seat of their pants will struggle a great deal. On the flip side, those who managed to get a good handle on Normal Mode while also purchasing most of Dante’s upgrades might find Hard Mode the most relaxing of the three modes. Since Hard isn’t as brutal as Dante Must Die and Dante should be nearly fully upgraded by this point, Devil May Cry’s arcade-like qualities shine most here.
Each stage feels deliberate in design with its own set of challenges, either in premise or enemy placement. Some stages are incredibly short, but feature brutal enemies to gatekeep Dante. Others put Dante on a timer, testing how much he can accomplish without compromising progress. On a first playthrough, the concept missions come off as standard gimmick levels. On a replay, it’s easier to see the justifications behind their inclusion. Draining Dante’s health can seem like an annoyance, but it serves to hammer home the idea that Dante shouldn’t be getting hit in the first place. Short stages with one goal come off as missions designed to let the player breathe, but going for an S-rank requires restraint and the know-how to move on when ready. If Devil May Cry had a level select like later titles, jumping from mission to mission would feel far more natural than in its successors.
To go back to Hard Mode as a bridge between Normal and Dante Must Die, its main purpose is to act as a buffer where players can complete secret missions for blue orbs and gain enough red orbs to upgrade Dante completely. Enemies even drop far more red orbs in Hard than they do in Normal, making it easier to snag upgrades. Secret missions are scaled up with the difficulty as a consequence of not completing them on Normal, but they’re by no means impossible. The idea behind Hard is to explore as thoroughly as possible and enter Dante Must Die as prepared as possible. Should someone manage to collect all the blue orbs on their first playthrough, though, they can simply power through Hard Mode and hone their skills for DMD.
As far as pacing goes, Hard plays a pivotal role in Devil May Cry’s overall balance. Going from Normal to something akin to Dante Must Die would simply be too much for most players necessitating an in-between mode to allow them to refine their skills or, at the very least, pick up some extra items and techniques before moving on. Without Hard, Devil May Cry’s natural pacing falls apart. More so because the difficulty modes are analogous to how boss fights work on a first playthrough. Normal Mode teaches players how to utilize their skills, Hard Mode puts those skills into practice, and Dante Must Die throws in a “twist” that flips the game on its head. Hard Mode is essentially the second fight against Nero Angelo where players can start to solidify what they’re capable of doing with Dante. A successful player will reach the end of their second playthrough confident in their abilities, only to be immediately thrown off by the sheer brutality of Dante Must Die.
There is no easy way to tackle Dante Must Die. While clearing Hard Mode does allow players the option of running through Normal or Hard again to restock on items or red orbs before moving onto DMD, consumables will only get a struggling player so far. Dante Must Die is a challenge of pure skill first and foremost. Items can be used, and are often recommended, but nothing will save a poorly controlled Dante from the brutality that awaits him. Bosses have more than double their base health, enemy attacks hit even harder, and the stage remixes throw some of the hardest enemies in the game at the player right out the gate. Along with Devil Trigger no longer healing Dante and enemies now having access to a Devil Trigger of their own, Dante Must Die almost feels impossible. It isn’t impossible, though, far from it. In fact, Dante Must Die stands out as one of the fairer examples of difficulty in gaming.
For starters, by the time anyone reaches Dante Must Die for the first time, they have played through the entirety of Devil May Cry a minimum of twice. Whether they struggled or not, the fact is that they succeeded in beating the game two times and now, at the very least, understand what is expected from them. Secondly, enemies actually have less health in DMD than they do in Normal mode. To compensate for them having Devil Trigger, the development team had the foresight to lower their base health. Since enemy DTs work on a timer, this allows proactive players to clear rooms without ever needing to deal with Devil Trigger. Lastly, and most importantly, Devil May Cry is a game that is inherently beatable without taking a single sliver of damage.
With Dante’s combos and innate maneuverability, there’s little he can’t accomplish with a skilled pair of hands behind the controller. After all, every enemy, boss, and stage is designed with the idea that Dante doesn’t need to get hit. There are instances that do drain Dante’s health, but, as aforementioned, only to solidify the concept that everything is dodgeable. This goes all the more for Dante Must Die where bosses can tear Dante apart in just a few hits. The logical solution is to persevere and to practice. There’s no bad RNG, enemies tracking Dante’s movements, or attacks out of nowhere meant to surprise the player. If anything, Devil May Cry’s design exists in benefit of the player, difficulty and all.
Even in light of how DMC prepares the player for DMD, the mode can still come off overwhelming, especially since Devil Trigger loses its best attribute. Healing with Devil Trigger naturally becomes one of Dante’s best strategies in battle during Normal and Hard. It’s a free refill, after all, and one that allows him to do extra damage. In kicking the crutch from underneath Dante, Devil May Cry is, once again, demonstrating the importance of dodging and capable reflexes. A good player doesn’t need Devil Trigger to restore their health because a good player doesn’t get hit, to begin with.
Of course, this isn’t to say that anyone who takes damage during the incredibly difficult Dante Must Die is bad at the game. Simply clearing the mode is a measure of one’s mastery, but Devil May Cry is a game dedicated to bringing the best out of the people who play it. With enough patience and perseverance, anyone can master Dante’s controls and go on to, at the very least, start Dante Must Die. With so much time put into refining Normal, Hard, and Dante Must Die, it’s almost like playing three separate games. In many respects, Devil May Cry isn’t truly over until the credits roll after finishing Dante Must Die. It’s as close to perfect as difficulty in gaming can get, but DMC goes one step further by remembering what so many difficulty modes forget: to make the game fun.
From Normal to Hard to Dante Must Die, the core gameplay never changes. Dante’s skill transition from mode to mode, gaining new abilities, and getting challenged by new enemies and attacks. Each mode encourages experimentation to an extreme degree. On a first playthrough, players might find themselves falling into complacency with Alastor, but Hard Mode serves as a chance to explore Ifrit. By Dante Must Die, using both in tandem is just a natural part of combat. On top of that, repeat playthroughs pave the way to weapon experimentation all around. Once Hard Mode comes around, playing around with different guns to weaken an enemy’s defense imparts valuable, time-saving knowledge for DMD. Dante’s arsenal pales in comparison to later games in the series, but there’s a lot he can play around with and the enemy design in later difficulties reflect that.
Combat, on a whole, is simply engaging and it only gets better the more someone plays. There’s a thrill to parrying attacks in Dante Must Die, knowing that it was pulled off through legitimate, learned skill. Dodging at the right time once understanding how an enemy or boss attacks pays off tremendously in DMD as it’s a reminder of what the player is capable of. At times, it feels like Devil May Cry was designed with Dante Must Die in mind and then scaled back considering how fittingly everything comes together in the final mode. Dodging Phantom’s swipes, throwing in a quick helm splitter, and knocking his fireball back at him in Dante Must Die feels far more natural than his comparatively tame fight from Normal.
Nero Angelo especially shines in DMD as he’s no longer a benchmark for what Dante can become, but rather a genuine rival in every sense. He is Dante’s shadow and fights like him with his own twists. Taking on Nero Angelo is satisfying in Normal, but it’s downright euphoric in Dante Must Die from just how exciting his fights get. His first battle, in particular, is a reminder to keep those reflex sharp and fight strategically. He’s far more punishing than he every was in Normal or Hard, but he’s actually more fun this way since he forces the player to take advantage of DMC’s mechanics to succeed. It can seem like there’s little room for error in Normal and Hard, but Dante Must Die shows just how much DMC allowed the play to get away with on the lower difficulties.
That concept alone, of showing just how far the player has come while also making the rest of the game look easy in comparison, is one that makes replaying Devil May Cry incredibly rewarding and enjoyable. Once someone reached Dante Must Die, they know they can get through Normal and Hard without much trouble. They’re still difficult by design, of course, but they taught audiences to play well enough where repeated playthroughs should no longer be an issue. Knowing that a task is possible but still challenging is a fantastic way of testing oneself in an engaging manner. All the while, Dante Must Die looms around the corner, ready to be properly tackled,
Clearing Dante Must Die even awards the player with a “super” version of Dante with unlimited Devil Trigger. As far as endgame rewards go, this is easily one of the best available. Devil May Cry is not a game that can get easier from grinding or buying new upgrades or stockpiling items. It’s a hack ‘n’ slash that demands skill from the player. A bonus like Super Dante makes the game considerably easier, but not to the point where it absolutely breaks it. It’s the perfect kind of reward for a title like Devil May Cry because it refuses to compromise the core gameplay. Normal and Hard certainly feel more trivial with it on, but Dante Must Die can still pose a challenge to anyone relying on unlimited Devil Trigger entirely.
What makes Devil May Cry’s difficulty so perfect is simply how deliberate the design is, both in the core gameplay and in regards to the multiple modes. The gameplay loop never suffers, only improving with the introduction of harder enemies and bosses; the main game is paced with self-improvement in mind, and the player is never thrown into a situation they cannot reasonably handle; and the three main modes naturally build up to one another before ultimately culminating in Dante Must Die. The original Devil May Cry may not be the best game in its genre, or even its franchise, but it is without a doubt the best example on how to design difficulty in the gaming medium.
An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and pretentious French lit, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball on the internet and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he’s currently playing.
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