By Neil Merrett
Devil May Cry 3, released on PlayStation 2 in 2005, developed by Capcom & ScourgeBringer, released on Nintendo Switch in 2020, developed by Flying Oak Games
ScourgeBringer can be a hard title to describe in terms of any single genre. It’s a game that appears on its surface to be a hectic 2D platformer with lightning quick action that marries gunplay with sleek, samurai-style manoeuvring. Its designers argue the game is less of a platformer and more an intense combat game that incentivises the player to leap from danger to danger while smashing opponents into pieces with your sword or explosively launching them into each other.
The title feels spiritually like a successor and a refinement of decades-old 3D action games such as the Devil May Cry series, with their emphasis on stylish combos, quick reactions and the idea of trying to look a little bit cool amidst the explosions and chaos going on around you. So just what lessons did ScourgeBringer’s designers take from an almost 20 year old PS2 hack and slash adventure game in terms of making a player feel actually like a ‘bad ass’ in their game, as opposed to just playing one?
Going back to 2005
Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening opens with an intro scene where the main character nonchalantly beats a horde of spectral demons using the broken blade of a scythe that has just been impaled through his arm.
Throughout this opening and the game’s many other cut scenes, the main character of Dante, with his three quarter length leather trench coat and nu-metal aesthetic is cocky, unflappable and can back up his arrogance in front of an overwhelming number of cursed warriors using an array of martial arts and bladed weapon skills. If that fails, he can always just shoot a bad guy in the head with his hip-mounted twin pistols.
The original three Devil May Cry games released on the PS2 between 2001 and 2005 were built around the concept of creating a carefree and stylish character whose combat and moves could evoke the finest action movie choreography of the era.
Dante is designed to be unflappable and able to overcome insurmountable danger and pain with a glib one liner….
….and then the player takes over.
Dante is now no longer using the corpses of discarded foes like a skateboard or kicking a scythe or blade into a bad guy like in the cut scenes. Instead, the player is hacking and slashing or maybe dodging and jumping around the game’s levels trying to string together sword and gun attacks to battle their way through an army of monsters and giant boss creatures and generally stay alive.
Perhaps understandably considering the relative limitations of the hardware of the time, the actual in-game action brings the player down to earth with a bit of a thud.
For the early 2000s, all three games had a unique style and pace whereby the player could swap out shooting and sword attacks, juggle enemies in the air with bullets and build up hit combos that provide points that can be spent unlocking and powering up abilities while you grind out the levels.
However, the process of playing through these first three games in the series – particularly with their high difficulty – is not entirely as empowering an experience as the game’s cut scenes and trailer suggest.
The relatively high difficulty of the first game and Devil May Cry 3 requires a certain level of caution and perseverance. Boss fights are particularly punishing and can require a slower and more careful approach to combat that is at odds with the character of Dante and his portrayal as a carefree, cocky demon slayer with a cool coat.
The trailer to the original game promised a title where the player could leap on the heads of gigantic fiery bone spiders and unload a few clips into them while springing to safety. This was totally possible in the game, but the experience of trying to beat the game’s relentless bosses was anything but carefree.
Dante as controlled by the player is more likely to find himself dodging, dying, healing, desperately slashing away at foes and gradually stumbling their way to victory with the occasional stylish flourishes, as opposed to dismissing certain death with complete ease.
Devil May Cry can be joyous thing to play through when things are going well. It is blisteringly violent and a little bit strategic in all the ways your inner moody teenage self would want – plus it was genuinely unique back in the early 2000s when gamers had not yet been able to live out their dreams of being Neo from the Matrix. But it is also a game series that – in its earliest iterations at least – can feel punishing to play through as opposed to something you want to endlessly return to and master in the hope of living up to the stylish delusions of the main character.
In the middle of a boss battle in DMC3 for instance, a player can find themselves blasting away at a powerful foe with their dual pistols but can only gradually chip away at their sizable life bar. But the need to create challenge and difficulty can make your guns feel a little underpowered when you most need them – even after some levelling up.
At its most existential, firing hundreds, if not thousands of bullets into a gigantic boss while hoping to avoid becoming its dinner can go from being amusing to almost tragic as the player can fire themselves almost impotently firing away at bad guys with guns that, in certain boss battle are essentially redundant beyond looking quite cool.
Decades later and after a huge number of acclaimed sequels launched across successive consoles – Devil May Cry has been a hugely influential series in videogaming. However, some of its key aims with regard to gameplay have arguably best been refined in unrelated game series. One such title is the Bayonetta series. But more recently there is one title that transports the concept of blistering aerial combos, mixed with intense gunplay, into a 2D, retro-looking format.
Enter the ScourgeBringer
ScourgeBringer is less-focused on the playful, churlish sarcastic nature of Devil May Cry’s main character and is more concerned about creating gameplay that can at least temporarily defy the laws of gravity and physics. To this extent your character has the abilities to better dismiss imminent danger with some perfectly timed smash attacks or ‘dragon punches’. So if and when the going gets tough, you can blast, slice and literally smash your way through the bad guys.
The metal soundtrack, firearms and sword combat from Devil May Cry are all still here, but they are now are matched to more modern game design elements that better match risk and reward in order to incentivise stylish play with having to perfectly time attacks and movement.
The adoption of a Rouge-like structure to the game means the player can not only level up their abilities over time, but also select power ups during each new playthrough that can allow for a significant boost in ability if certain stylish conditions can be met. How about brutally increasing your sword damage so long as the player can avoid touching the ground and deliver attacks while running up walls and launching off bad guys?
It’s highly acrobatic, quick and challenging. The precise timing of a few button presses can allow the player to phase through projectiles, before being able to instantly dispatch several nearby enemies with their blade and then launching a mini nuke into a faraway opponent before they can blow you away.
It has a high level of challenge, but also facilitates teaching the player how to use various different special moves and attacks at times that can feel genuinely powerful and unstoppable – at least until losing your rhythm and launching headfirst into some poison slime and undoing all your good work.
Each frustrating failure that requires the player to start the game afresh, is balanced with the excitement of perfecting the timing on your smash attack to rebound back projectile blasts at the bad guy with a stylish flourish. The player can feel more than a match for the game’s bad guys, but success isn’t guaranteed, no matter how much you might have upgraded your firearm damage to go along with the mini-gun you picked up on the second level specifically for an upcoming boss.
Gamers might care
It might not be fair to compare the Devil May Cry series to a title that was released a good decade and a half later. However, It is one of the key inspirations for the programmers at Flying Oak Games in the development of ScourgeBringer.
Flying Oak Games co-founder Thomas Altenburger said that Dante’s high flying, sword wielding adventures have had a pivotal impact on ScourgeBringer alongside some more recent seminal 2D games. These include the challenging platform leaper Celeste and the combat-focused game Dead Cells, which combines deck-building-style mechanics with more precision-based combat associated with games such as Dark Souls and the exploration of the Castlevania series.
Mr Altenburger said, “Generally speaking, we tend to describe ScourgeBringer as mashup between Dead Cells, Celeste, and Devil May Cry, though this is more in regard to the game feel than actual features and has been a marketing hook more than strict references. Dead Cells has been our main quality target in terms of game feel and polish.”
Mr Altenburger said the aim was not so much to perfect the gameplay established in these titles, but to try and emulate the main gameplay mechanics into an entirely new experience.
He said, “We’ve also been lucky enough to know the Dead Cells team and we have discussed designing action games together.”
“Celeste is a reference in regard to smoothness and controls. Our main priority when we were designing the game was to make the smoothest possible game, and giving the player a sense of permanent control, which was important given the intended pace we were targeting. ScourgeBringer isn’t quite a platformer, platforms are a mean of transportation, but are not a gameplay incentive.”
From the perspective of combat, Mr Altenburger said the aim was to capture the raw feelings of frenetic combat associated with a series such as Devil May Cry. This is specifically the case in terms of building a combat system that encourages and incentivises a player to push forward rather than being cautious and holding back from danger.
This led to the development of a ‘smash attack’ within the game that can be used, if timed well, to rebound and deflect most energy projectiles or even enemies into a certain direction to block or interrupt opponents that may be planning an attack.
This added to creating the sense of a game where ‘the best defence is a well-timed attack’, according to the developers.
Mr Altenburger added that that another focus of development was trying to give the player a satisfying feeling and sensation of risk and reward where certain attacks and combos can be perfectly executed to avoid taking damage whilst destroying a number of foes in short succession.
He added, “We wanted things to be non-stop yet manageable, to reflect the fact that the playable character is a fierce warrior with no fear, making you feel her wrath.”
“And then the goal was to polish all that to put players in a state of flow. The objective was that ultimately, when you enter a new room, you unconsciously read the room and define the best route to clear a room without having the touch the ground. It’s been all about flow, empowerment, and readability of the action – for example, not relying on scrolling to avoid out of screen threats, focusing the action on the centre of the screen and using a high contrast with the background to see enemies instantly.
ScourgeBringer’s own developers note that the final product is a game that is both stylish and demanding to play. Mr Altenburger said that this process may have made the game more difficult for “onboarding” new players, but has proved very satisfying for audiences that had kept playing and seek to master the game via speedruns and other means of performative play to show the skills they have developed.
He added that the developers future titles would consider issues of onboarding, but the difficulty and sense of style were believed to be spot-on based on audience and gameplay feedback.
As with many developers, getting the balance between empowering and challenging a player to improve has been a complex challenge for the team at Flying Oak Games. Mr Altenburger added that the development team, as with games such as Dead Cells, released ScourgeBringer in ‘early access’ to try and learn directly from the player’s experience.
The process of game telemetry, where raw data from how players interact with the game and its mechanics, was used to try and better understand how to get the balance right.
Mr Altenburger said, “We heavily relied on telemetry to gather anonymous game data. This is because the players who are giving their written opinion are very likely to be hardcore players, and analytics help a lot in knowing that your main audience aren’t.”
“If we only listened to written feedback, the game would have been even more difficult while missing its core audience.”
One interesting aspect of the development cycle was an initial attempt to give the player a style rating popularised in games such as Devil May Cry that provide rewards based on how effectively they may be playing through the game and making use of a variety of combos.
Mr Altenburger said that a combo system was introduced to the game instead, that is used to multiply points that can be spent as in-game currency for new weapons and upgrades if players can avoid taking damage between their attacks.
“We tried to go more into the combo aspect, à-la Devil May Cry with style points, but we quickly stopped because it didn’t make sense with our intent.”
“Yet the combo system is reminiscent of this attempt, but is likely something superficial that we could have removed from the game entirely, although it’s been a relevant incentive for players when the game entered early access with just 3 realms.”
However, the idea of style points and rating how good a player performs in a level can seem arbitrary when compared to those fleeting moments where skill, instinct and blind luck perfectly mesh to create that almost zen-like state where a gamer leaves behind the real world and can joyously pretend they are late 90s Wesley Snipes instead.
Now that’s a pretty good ambition for a piece of code.