Review: Capcom Devil May Cry 4 Refrain
If this hasn't already started thanks to the success of Rovio's Angry Birds, Firemint's Real Racing, and Gameloft's N.O.V.A. -- and the decline of Sony's and Nintendo's handheld platforms -- there will almost certainly be a point at which Apple's iOS devices become the primary target platforms for console game developers' latest handheld releases. When that day comes, we'll all look back on titles such as Capcom's Devil May Cry 4 Refrain ($2) and laugh -- first at the idea that major companies would knowingly release cell phone-quality dreck for such popular devices, and then that they'd risk damaging their most popular game franchises in the eyes of millions of players. As with several other high-profile Capcom App Store titles, this game falls so short of the original series it was based upon that it only barely belongs in the same family, and probably would have been better off never seeing the light of day at all.
Devil May Cry 4 Refrain is a semi-sequel to a nine-year-old PlayStation and Xbox action game franchise, based upon scenarios from the 2008 title Devil May Cry 4. Ostensibly set in the present day, the series is famous for its complex and gothic 3-D environments, as well as edgy fantasy-inspired characters who occasionally dabble in gunplay. Original series hero Dante carried both a sword and a gun, and now Devil May Cry 4 Refrain’s lead character Nero starts with a sword, a gun, and a glowing energy arm, enabling a mix of short-, medium-, and long-range attacks that grow slightly in power as the game progresses with automatic power upgrades. Everything is presented using a 3-D camera system that shifts automatically from a distant overhead view to something closer to a side angle as needed, turning automatically to present you with a view of what’s ahead.
Generally speaking, Nero runs from room to room killing demon-like attackers who appear from laser-like beams of red light; killing everything in a room unlocks one or more doors to move on to another room. A map overlay on the right side of the screen gives you a sense of where to go, with a tiny compass indicator showing your current direction. Looping music similar to Nine Inch Nails industrial angst plays whenever enemies are in the room, fading out when you’ve cleared everything from your immediate path. Clusters of similarly decorated rooms constitute each of the game’s 10 levels, and there are eight boss encounters to break up the running with more concentrated slashing and shooting action. You can expect to spend two or three hours playing the game once from start to finish, perhaps more depending on how much you backtrack through the rooms in a given level.
While there’s a laundry list of problems with Devil May Cry 4 Refrain, several key issues explain why the title won’t be worth even $2 for many fans of the series. The biggest is the iOS game’s absolutely lackluster graphics engine, which barely improves upon the ones used by Capcom for earlier titles such as Dead Rising Mobile and Resident Evil 4. Classic gothic architecture that was a stunning focal point of every past Devil May Cry game has been reduced to all but completely open, boxy spaces that are noisily textured but never particularly interesting to look at. Nero wanders through drab gray snowy areas and drab brown castle stages that may as well blur into one another, and would but for the fact that all of the rooms in a given level use the same color palette and textures. All of the original PlayStation 2 game’s magical elements—such as the zipping of orbs and the flashes of enemy attacks—have been completely stripped out here, leaving even special effect animations looking utterly flat and often triangular. It’s as if the game was developed for the iPhone and iPhone 3G and given only the most modest resolution bump to run on the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G; the polygons and textures are, by today’s standards, pathetic.
The action isn’t anything to write home about, either. Once the franchise’s famous 3-D backdrops have been collapsed into boxy shades of their former selves, and your character has been reduced to miniature size on an iPhone/iPod touch screen, the excitement of slashing, shooting, grabbing, and juggling enemies just flatlines. To Capcom’s credit, Nero still gets to do all of these things with the decent virtual controls, but the artificial intelligence is so weak that you can play through the first three or four levels without obviously sustaining a single hit from a regular enemy; fighting against even a dramatically larger boss leads to similarly dissatisfying results, quickly devolving into—and succeeding with—button mashing. Worse yet, the constant camera shifting and muddled art make the room-to-room adventuring tedious; unless you really focus on your entry and exit directions using the tiny map grid, you stand a significant chance of getting so spun around fighting enemies that you’ll exit through the prior entrance, then will need to repeat the room over again. We found this to be so barely fun that only the initially low asking price saved it from being a complete disaster.
Sonically, Devil May Cry 4 Refrain has just enough going on to keep the action modestly interesting. Though the frequent repetition of Nero’s same few voice samples (“Begone,” he says when slashing enemies or wood; “Catch this,” he repeats every time his energy arm expands) soon becomes mildly grating, the constant flip-flopping between the NIN-styled angry killing music and goth themes as you’re exploring is more audio than many inexpensive games offer. But the game’s numerous cut scenes are purely rendered with flat images and tiny text, omitting the voice narration and 3-D imagery from prior Devil May Cry titles, and overall, the game can’t help but feel like a mobile phone-quality experience rather than something worthy of a Nintendo DS or Sony PSP release.
To the extent Capcom sells games like this—at any point in their life cycles—for only $2, it is implicitly acknowledging that what it has published isn’t worthy of the sort of higher prices that properly-developed action games can fetch on the App Store; as was the case with the sub-Sony PlayStation Portable-caliber titles Dead Rising Mobile, Ghosts’n Goblins, and some of its other games, that’s certainly true with Devil May Cry 4 Refrain. But it needn’t have been. Had Capcom relied upon an iPhone 4/iPod touch 4G/iPad-only graphics engine akin to the one in Infinity Blade, it could have preserved much of the majesty and detail of the early PlayStation games. Instead, the company hacked and slashed away all of the impressive work done by the developers of the PlayStation versions, leaving so little here to impress iOS gamers that it really can’t justify asking much more for a game like this. Going forward, Capcom needs to make smarter development choices when porting its biggest past hits to Apple’s devices, because titles like this one are actively undermining the goodwill its franchises have built up over the years, and Capcom’s eventually going to be the one crying if its most popular past games stop drawing crowds.