Following Devil May Cry 2’s disastrous, to say the least, release, Capcom needed Devil May Cry 3 to be more than just a good follow-up; it needed to rekindle a fire that had been put out. Devil May Cry 2 felt more like a copycat than it did a proper sequel to the original Devil May Cry. For the franchise to regain any semblance of good will, Devil May Cry 3 would not only have to clean up the second game’s mess, it would need to remind fans why the original was so beloved in the first place. While it would have been easy to take Devil May Cry 2’s criticisms to heart and build off the foundation Devil May Cry left behind in a safe, but respectable manner, DMC3 took a more ambitious approach to remedy past mistakes. Instead of simply making an acceptable sequel to the original Devil May Cry, Hideaki Itsuno and his team outright refined the hack ‘n’ slash genre.
For as impressive as the original Devil May Cry still is, it’s nonetheless quite obvious it wouldn’t have been able to lead into a sustainable franchise without a few changes moving forward. Devil May Cry 2 was a bad sequel because it misunderstood what made the first game so good. Devil May Cry 3 just as similarly would have been a bad sequel had it simply placed DMC1 in a new setting. A good sequel can be similar to its predecessor, many are, but Devil May Cry had effectively already did everything it could as best as possible in a format that it had, more or less, created. Any sequel that didn’t play with the foundation Hideki Kamiya left behind would run the risk of being considered a pale imitation. Considering the circumstances the franchise was put under thanks to Devil May Cry 2, a straight up sequel might actually have worked, buying back some of the series’ lost goodwill, but at the expense of taking a chance to genuinely push Devil May Cry forward.
Taking into account Devil May Cry 3’s legacy, it perhaps goes without saying that Itsuno was right not to take the easy way out. DMC3 is often considered one of the greatest games of all time and the gold standard within the hack ‘n’ slash genre, but why? What is it exactly that propels DMC3 above its predecessors, contemporaries, and successors? Refinement. Devil May Cry 3 is elegant in every facet of its design, not unlike the original Devil May Cry. Where the original simply refined where it needed to, DMC3 goes above and beyond to ensure every detail and mechanic is thoroughly polished. The inclusion of Styles give Dante six different base play styles to fool around with; Dante now has ten weapons to choose from and can have four equipped at all times; the level design takes after the first DMC with arcade-esque missions; Dante’s brother Vergil is a playable character with an arguably just as in-depth play style; and the story actually works in benefit of the gameplay.
Of all the methods Itsuno and his team used to evolve Devil May Cry’s gameplay, Styles stand out as the most overt and important. In the original DMC, Dante effectively only had two base play styles: Alastor and Ifrit. Alastor was a faster, more versatile weapon that shared most of its moveset with Force Edge, Spara, and Yamato when playing as the Legendary Dark Knight, while Ifrit was a slower, close ranged set of gauntlets that gave Dante access to heavier combos. While there were multiple guns to equip Dante with, none of them could lead the gameplay in the same way Alastor and Ifrit could. Styles serve as a way of varying and enhancing Dante’s abilities at their most basic. In the original Devil May Cry, every player was essentially forced to take the same approach to the first mission due to Dante’s early game limitations. This isn’t inherently bad for DMC1, and actually works in its favor, but it’s simply not a sustainable approach for a growing series. Just from the outset, DMC3’s Styles allow players to take four varied approaches to the main game.
Even though Dante only has Rebellion and Ebony & Ivory starting out, the Styles add enough variety to his moveset to keep the first mission from devolving into uniformity. As it’s equipped to Dante by default, most players will tackle the first mission with Trickster as their initial Style. A carryover from DMC2, Trickster gives Dante far more maneuverability by allowing him to dash and run up walls during gameplay. Devil May Cry 2 handled Dante’s acrobatics rather poorly by constantly placing him in far too large environments with far too easy enemies. Devil May Cry 3 remedies the issue by implementing far tighter spaces for combat and considerably more aggressive enemy AI. A dedicated dash that flows in and out of combat does a lot for Dante’s play style, as does Wall Hiking since it can serve as a quick, stylish way of dodging enemies when pinned up against a wall. Although it doesn’t add directly to Dante’s core combat, it does enhance it by giving him an additional controlled method of movement, one where he can dodge an attack and immediately dash back into the action.
Swordmaster is the most conventional of Dante’s Styles as it’s the one that directly enhances his core combat. In the original Devil May Cry, all of Dante’s combos were done with pause presses and directional inputs associated around one button. In equipping Swordmaster, Dante gains access to new, weapon-specific moves, associated around a separate button. It seems like a relatively simple addition, giving Dante access to another button for combat, but it’s one that greatly opens up the combat. DMC1 proved what could be done with one button so there was no need for DMC3 to rigidly follow that philosophy. Swordmaster adds another layer of complexity to the combat, rewarding players who take the time to learn all the new techniques the Style brings with it for each of Dante’s five main weapons. Using Swordmaster makes playing as Dante feel like the natural evolution of DMC1’s combat. At the same time, making Swordmaster optional allows players to forgo it in favor of single button-based combat, keeping the spirit of DMC1’s gameplay alive. It’s a best of both worlds situation.
On that same note, Gunslinger does to Dante’s guns what Swordmaster does to his Devil Arms. While far from useless, guns weren’t exactly Dante’s best call to action in the original. They worked great for crowd control, filling up the Devil Trigger, and keeping combos going from long range, but damage needed to be done with either Alastor or Ifrit most of the time. Gunslingers not only gives Dante more leeway with how he uses his guns, the Style makes them a viable alternative. Like with Swordmaster, Gunslinger is a logical next step for how combat should work in Devil May Cry. Keeping a combo stylish is far more manageable with guns now, and Dante’s long-range versatility goes a long way in varying up the combat. Gunslinger encourages a different approach to action, but one that feels completely in-line with Devil May Cry’s groundwork.
Of Dante’s four default Styles, Royalguard is easily the most unique as it’s the only one without a basis in the rest of the series. Swordmaster and Gunslinger are evolutions of DMC’s combat while Trickster comes straight from DMC2. Royalguard is a Style that was designed specifically for Devil May Cry 3 in mind. A dedicated block, Royalguard adds defense into the mix of combat. While this may seem like a cheap way of circumventing the series’ inherent difficulty, Royalguard avoids that dilemma by also turning it into a counter of sorts where blocking at just the right time stores up energy that can be released in order to do damage against enemies. This keeps Royalguard from devolving into a mindless block button, instead encouraging players to parry properly in order to do as much damage as possible. While Royalguard has no base in the series, its risk versus reward style of gameplay feels right at home with Devil May Cry’s gameplay.
In addition to his four main Styles, Dante also gains access to Quicksilver and Doppelganger over the course of the game, two Styles using Devil Trigger for far more leeway in combat. The former outright stops time for Dante to quickly experiment with combos he wouldn’t be able to use in an active environment while the latter spawns another Dante that’ll attack in unison with the player. Both can conceptually break the game in the right context, but they’re controlled by the use of Devil Trigger, making them another risk versus reward situation. Players can use the Styles for quick bursts of success, but at the expense of being able to heal and do extra damage with their Devil Trigger. As different as Quicksilver and Doppelganger are compared to Dante’s four default Styles, they still fit into the overarching theme of moving the combat forward.
The six Styles exist not only to keep gameplay fresh, but to genuinely build off DMC1’s foundation. They’re not just cool ideas implemented for the sake of it, they have a deliberate purpose within the game design and each Style is polished to the point where they feel totally natural in the gameplay without superseding the others as some sort of intended play style. In that sense, while the Styles are certainly impressive and well thought out additions, it’s the game design that allows them to work as well as they do. Stages and enemies are clearly designed with each of the six Styles in mind, meaning that Dante never comes off over or underpowered depending on what Style he’s repping. More importantly, there’s nothing locked behind a single Style. Dante can still reach far away heights with careful platforming without Trickster, and reach SSS rank in combat without Swordmaster or Gunslinger. Styles are simply a way of varying up the gameplay without replacing legitimate game design.
Devil May Cry 3’s 20 missions are easily the best set of levels in the series. Pacing wise alone, they’re brilliant thanks to how frequently Dante fights new bosses and gains new weapons. There’s a continuous feeling of progression and each mission feels designed with a purpose in mind ala Devil May Cry 1. Good level design is tremendously important for the hack ‘n’ slash genre as it serves as the grounds where battles take place. An empty arena certainly works in special occasions, allowing players to go all out, but it’s necessary for pacing to throw in hallways, cramped rooms, libraries that limit visibility, areas with spike traps, and enemies that take advantage of verticality to best bring out a player’s skill. DMC3’s stages are varied and dynamic with unique setpieces often dedicated to building up to a boss fight. Just getting to a boss on the higher difficulties can feel like a genuine endurance match due to how deliberately designed the stages and enemies are.
Side content is also used as a way of expanding stages and increasing replay value this time around compared to DMC1’s permanently missable per playthrough approach. DMC2’s returning Mission Select feature helps with this quite a bit, but it’s the Combat Adjudicators that specifically encourage revisiting stages. Throughout the course of the game, Dante will stumble upon ten Combat Adjudicators that can only be damaged with a specific weapon, and broken with a specific ranked combo. Along with nudging players back into previously cleared stages, they serve as a way of training a player through side content. Since the hardest Adjudicators all require varying levels of S-ranks to break, they force players to fully understand every weapon in Dante’s arsenal. For as noteworthy as the Styles are, it’s the weapons that are the star of the show here. DMC1 was great with just two static main weapons for Dante, but DMC3’s five core Devil Arms open up the combat considerably, especially since two can be equipped at all times.
Returning from DMC2, weapon switching allows Dante to juggle between his two Devil Arms and two guns at any given time during combat. This is easily Devil May Cry 3’s best addition and the one that benefits the core gameplay the most. Weapon switching is seamless, keeping Dante’s combo intact and allowing him to transition into new techniques at the quick press of a button. Battles became far more engaging when using both of Dante’s weapons to their fullest. Devil May Cry 1 allowed Dante to switch between Alastor and Ifrit, but chaining combos in and out of the switch was virtually impossible. DMC3 makes it not only possible but almost required for just how hectic and hands-on the combat becomes on higher difficulties. It’s yet another useful tool for Dante, but it never trivializes the game. This is a recurring element in Devil May Cry 3’s design. Dante is at his absolute peak in terms of what he can accomplish, but these aren’t just mechanics that have been tossed onto him for the sake of some faux-variety. Enemies have weaknesses and strengths this time around, and weapon switching plays off that, giving players a chance to outfit Dante for any type of combat scenario.
With how seamless all of Dante’s Styles and weapons work in the context of Devil May Cry 3’s level design, it almost seems impossible that Vergil, another playable character altogether, would be able to work alongside his twin brother. Taking cues from Lucia and Trish from Devil May Cry 2, the addition of another playable character seems like a no-brainer, but Vergil doesn’t have his own set of levels this time around, in large part due to only being added in DMC3’s rerelease. Developed independent of the rest of the game and simply taking place within stages meant for Dante, Vergil truly should not work as a playable character. Of course, that’s assuming he’s implemented like Lucia and Trish were where they were only slight reskins of what Dante was capable of. Vergil is his own beast entirely with his own weapons and a unique Style designed to keep him feeling like his boss counterpart found in the main game while also adhering to the same game design rules as Dante.
Whether it’s a testament to Devil May Cry 3’s level design of gameplay, the fact Vergil works as well as he does without feeling derivative of Dante is downright incredible. Removing all context of Dante from the picture, it can be easy to believe that Vergil’s mode was always designed with him in mind. There is nothing that Dante can accomplish that Vergil ultimately can’t. Some feats are significantly harder, especially when verticality is involved, as Vergil does not have a double jump, but combat feels natural and clearing his mode up to Vergil Must Die is more than doable. His mere inclusion opens up the gameplay all the more, offering an acceptable alternative to Dante, and one who’s is arguably far more complicated to control and master. It also helps that Vergil is a pre-established character in the franchise, introduced as Nelo Angelo in DMC1, and plays an active role in DMC3’s plot. By the time players unlock him, they have an intimate understanding of the character which makes playing as him fare more appealing than playing as someone like Lucia.
While the original Devil May Cry wasn’t poorly written, it also wasn’t exactly impressive. It was mostly carried by its B-movie charm and goofy dialogue for Dante. It was likable, but not exactly worthy of analysis. Where its story shined was in how the gameplay reflected character beats for Dante with each boss, Nero Angelo in particular, creating an almost three act structure where Dante faced a challenge, learned the skills he needed to succeed through gameplay, and then ultimately overcame adversity. Devil May Cry 3 pulls something similar although on a much larger scale with each fight against Vergil serving as the end of an act giving DMC3 a clear, identifiable three-act structure. More importantly, while the cheesy dialogue from the original makes a return, it’s embedded with much more heart this time around. Devil May Cry 3 is a story about family and, as goofy as Dante can be, it really works to the game’s benefit.
Much of the narrative is spent building up to the inevitable showdown between Dante and Vergil. The first game established that Vergil had been missing for years and fallen under Mundus’ control, and DMC3’s nature as a prequel means that the finale could only go one way. Even then, the build-up to climactic battle between brothers is handled superbly with Vergil nearly killing Dante in their first fight, reaching a stalemate in their second, and ultimately teaming up in what seems to be a replacement for their third. Once they take over the other overarching villain, however, the two brothers are thrust into a final mission where Dante simply has to defeat Vergil in a one-on-one fight. No tricks, no gimmicks, just pure skill built over the course of the game. Vergil 3 is the quintessential hack ‘n’ slash final boss, not just because it genuinely tests everything the player has learned up to that point, but because the story has made players care about Dante and Vergil.
They’re likable, and they clearly love one another, so seeing them tear at each other despite putting aside their differences moments earlier is a classically tragic moment. It’s made all the more impactful due to the fact that Dante actually grows throughout the course of the plot. He had a reasonable character arc in the first game, but it was rather subdued and took a backseat to the rest of the plot. Dante’s arc is the driving force of Devil May Cry 3 and watching him mature over the course of the narrative is a satisfying sight to see. It’s not the world’s most creative or dynamic arc, but it’s well executed and depicts a more vulnerable Dante, one lost within the idea of his heritage without succumbing to melodrama. There have been better stories told in the genre, but Devil May Cry 3’s thematic cohesion and refined simplicity nonetheless add another welcome layer to the entire experience. Just as the gameplay evolved, so did the story.
It’s easy to take for granted just how much of a risk Itsuno was taking with Devil May Cry 3. Fans wanted Devil May Cry and the ones that stuck around after DMC2 might have been completely satisfied with a sequel derivative of the original, but that would have locked the series into an awkward position where the first game all but invented a genre, the second ignored everything the first introduced, and the third simply reiterated everything the original established. For the benefit of the franchise, Devil May Cry 3 needed to be a risk. It needed to look at what made DMC1 such a masterpiece and expand upon it in every way imaginable. Were Devil May Cry 3 just another sequel, it wouldn’t be discussed today. It needed to remind audiences that Devil May Cry wasn’t just another hack ‘n’ slash, it was the hack ‘n’ slash. Devil May Cry 3 is everything a sequel should be. It is a culmination of Devil May Cry’s strengths, Devil May Cry 2’s faults, and Devil May Cry 3’s desire to innovate and evolve. It is the direct result of refining a genre.