With EA and Capcom leading the charge in the race to successfully mimic console experiences on a handheld, it’s a great time for gamers who’ve never played some of their biggest releases in full fledged, home console form, which include some of their greatest hits. These experiences may not be perfect, but they’re certainly evolving and making progress, and this is clear in Devil May Cry 4: refrain, one of Capcom’s latest attempts to take a blockbuster console adventure and successfully miniaturize it. But the only question is whether or not the game itself survived the process.
Refrain is a barebones companion for Devil May Cry 4, compressing a narrative with Nero and Dante with text dialogue and zero spoken to the tune of being a sort of portable version of the main adventure, different puzzle, and area to wade through. Refrain kicks off with an uncharacteristic kill for Dante, something Nero needs to get to the bottom of. And so begins your journey as Nero, without backtracking as Dante all the way through the second half.
Refrain plays exactly the same as you’d expect. If you’re not familiar with the Devil May Cry series, it’s a string of hack-and-slash tiffs, go-here, pull switch there puzzles, and thrilling boss battles riddled with vicious demons, hard-hitting abilities, and “berserker” modes known as “Devil Trigger.” Nero’s Devil Bringer, his trademark weapon other than his more traditional arms, is available as well, only in miniaturized form like the rest of the game. You advance at a frenetic pace, and combat, hand to sword/hand/gun, or otherwise is scored with a letter ranking system depending on the combos performed.
This system and mechanics work beautifully on a gamepad, but as is usually the case not so accurately with touch controls. An on-screen analog stick and buttons representing melee/guns, jumping, and Devil Bringer actions are svelte enough, but utterly painful to use. It’s a battle in itself trying to get Nero to go in the right direction. It may well be one of the better-looking analog pseudo-controllers, but your thumb needs to be much further out on the screen than is comfortable, and much of the time I spent attempting to eliminate the on-screen baddies was squandered pulling off combos in the wrong direction or jumping when I meant to attack. When attempting to use the Devil Bringer, the clumsy proximity of the keys ended in an aimless jump.
When you get more used to fumbling around with the keys it’s a bit easier to manage, but I’ve played plenty of other similar games with better interfaces, and smaller budgets, so laziness seems to be the only excuse here.
Refrain spans ten levels, tossing plenty of bosses your way, along with brief interludes between characters and tons of opportunities to score big on your combo meter, S being the highest honor of all. Unfortunately, navigating the finicky attack keys make this more difficult than it should be. This makes some of the boss fights (and typical battles with enemies) more difficult than they should be, and infuriating as you can’t reach your full combo potential. Especially when you consider there is no real way to block aside from simply jumping or not attacking.
At least the character models look decent enough, though a bit of slowdown was noticed with a few enemies. Nero moves impressively smoothly, however, matching the finesse seen in the full-sized game, especially in the early tutorial fight against Devil May Cry mainstay Dante. The accompanying soundtrack is excellent, pulled straight from the console version of Devil May Cry 4. I enjoyed the thumping bass and guitar from those themes and they translate well to Apple’s iMachines.
Devil May Cry 4: refrain is an interesting and full-featured bite-sized offering from Capcom, but it simply tries to do too much and without much refinement. It tries to aim too high but controls and slowdown make the game feel more like homework than a faithful return to one of gaming’s most popular action franchises. If you have access to any of the original Devil May Cry titles, I would certainly suggest playing them first (and instead). If your iPod Touch or iPhone is your only viable gaming option, you’d do well to spend your money elsewhere, perhaps on one of Capcom’s better and more intuitive offerings. There’s a right and a wrong way to go about offering handheld hack-and-slash, and unfortunately, well, this isn’t really the right way.