Devil May Cry 5 starts off with a bang. You are immediately thrown into the middle of the action with a horde of demons to fight . Following that is a daunting scripted “supposed to lose” boss battle showing you just what you are up against. Then to help deflate the intensity is an elaborate credits sequence showing protagonist Nero twirling through the air in slow-motion, killing monsters with brutal grace while a vocal-heavy rock anthem blasts on.
It was in these first five minutes that a statement was made loud and clear by Capcom and Director Hideaki Itsuno: Devil May Cry is back. And after I completed the nearly twelve-hour long story mode, and had to stop myself from immediately jumping back into it again, I can say it also dethrones the beloved Devil May Cry 3 as the best in the series with its near-perfect pacing and red hot action.
Let’s Rock, Baby!
The first thing that struck me about this installment is how more narratively involved it is. Devil May Cry games aren’t exactly the most nuanced interactive stories out there, mostly amounting to stopping some all-powerful demon from taking over the world with some macho man drama mixed in. A vehicle for audacious spectacle, campy humor, and gauntlets of bloody demon destruction. But Devil May Cry 5 references and calls back to multiple characters, locations, and plot points throughout the series. There’s even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shout out to the controversial DmC: Devil May Cry developed by Ninja Theory.
It leads to a story that has a bit more texture to it compared to past entries. There is still the major plot, in this case stopping the demon lord Urizen from obtaining godlike power by eating a magical fruit that only grows from a gigantic monster-like tree that feeds on human blood, but there’s also a bit more of a focus on character development and character motivation.
An ambitious stance since the story juggles the motivations of three different heroes. Series mainstay Devil Hunter Dante is still the flippant cocky badass he’s been for the past eighteen years, but we get a bit more insight into his drive as a hero as the story unfolds. Nero, or Diet Dante as I will always know him, gets a major upgrade as well. In addition to having a robot arm and a sassy southern grease monkey support character, Nero fully embraces the role of being a new generation of hero. Something he was intended to be in DMC4 to mixed results, but here is more defined as an angry youngster trying to prove himself to a father figure.
Then there’s the mysterious summoner known only as V. I don’t want to linger too much on his deal since it involves major plot spoilers, but it’s an interesting meditation on personal worth and sense of self. A quite philosophical musing I wasn’t actively expecting in a game that boasts beating down skeletal horseman with electrically charged motorcycle chainsaws.
Pull My Devil Trigger
But while Devil May Cry 5 might be the most in-depth story installment by default with lavishly produced, jaw-droppingly gorgeous cutscenes, it is the gameplay that has made it endure. Flashy, responsive, and satisfying combat against varied infernal hordes, spiced up with a dripfeed of elaborate weapons and techniques. And it does not disappoint.
The level design is unchanged from the series’ PS2 routes. Mostly linear affairs where you go from location to location, get locked into a room full of enemies you have to kill, then rinse and repeat. It’s not a bad formula at all, and it’s broken up impeccably with hidden passages, some light platforming and key-hunting sections, collectible upgrades and secret levels. For fans of the series it can be seen as business as usual, even if it is a bit uncanny to see realistic looking human characters flail in front of invisible walls.
In many ways, Devil May Cry 5 is the perfect distillation of this level design. The different varieties of enemy are introduced at a steady pace and each one has their own special tactics, strengths and weaknesses that mix in horrifying ways with each other. The camera is no longer locked to fixed locations so you can freely control it and lock on to whatever monster you want to beat down. And the general feel of each level goes by at an almost dreamlike zen pace. Like you’re participating in a heavy metal music video edited expertly into nothing but gorgeous highlights.
The game’s signature style-grading system also returns. As you shoot and slice up demons, you are graded for your combo, rating D to SSS. Mix up your weapon usage, maintain a single string of continuous blows, and don’t get hit, and you’ll watch your score rise. All quite standard, but one of the cleverest wrinkles in this installment is how music plays a part. Every time a battle starts up, a music track plays, and as your style rank increases, more layers of the music track gets introduced. What can start as a simple guitar riff at D rank can slowly explode into a rock opera with vocalists jamming out while in S rank. It’s a subtle but nonetheless electrifying detail.
As mentioned before, Devil May Cry 5 sports three completely playable characters, and each one of them are boldly different. Dante remains the same, a complex grabbag of multiple fighting styles, firearms, and a standard array of melee weapons like his fast-hitting sword and slow but strong flaming gauntlets. He’s the most straightforward and classic distillation of Devil May Cry’s combat.
Nero also gets a significant redesign. While still having his own sword and revolver, Nero now has an arsenal of robot arms called Devil Breakers. Each level opens with you being able to buy and equip these weapons, each one giving you a different alternative attack. Overture lets you stun and knock back enemies with an electric charge, Punch Line lets you fire the arm like a rocket for some quick and nasty blows, and Ragtime lets you conjure time-stopping bubbles to freeze pesky speedy demons in their place. Each one of these weapons can also be charged up for a super attack or detonated to give yourself some breathing room in a pinch, but the Devil Breaker is destroyed in the process. It adds a much needed risk and reward wrinkle to Nero’s fighting style, which was decidedly bland and forgettable during his debut in DMC4, and keeps each fight interesting and suitably chaotic, knowing when to waste a Devil Breaker or when to hold on to it. The only real complaint I have is once you have your Devil Breakers bought and equipped, the order they pop up is fixed. No going into the menu to move stuff around.
But the most unconventional yet weirdly compelling fighting style has to go to the mysterious V. A scrawny little thing with a leather jacket, edgy emo tattoos and a book of poetry, this cane-wielding man looks more like Adam Driver going through a rebellious goth phase than a powerful demon hunter. Then you get to play as him and everything just clicks. V fights indirectly by summoning two demonic familiars, a bird named Griffon and a panther called Shadow. Each one of their attacks are dedicated to a single button, and enemy encounters become a large game of managing these two creatures while avoiding incoming enemy attacks. At first, I wasn’t too fond of him. Dante and Nero’s combat is so immediate and satisfying, hit the buttons and things happen, but with V it feels less like direct control and more like a delayed reaction. Like he’s giving his pets commands and they have to then interpret them and then act on them. But miraculously, once I got used to this disconnect, being able to chain combos with these creatures became second nature. It doesn’t feel stiff or awkward at all, just a different way to fight.
My only real issue with these three characters is how they are mixed into the story. Rather than playing as one character in the story from start to finish, each of the game’s twenty chapters are dedicated to each one’s perspective. Chapters one, two, and three you play as Nero. Chapter four is where you play as V, etc. Their placement in the story is perfectly fine, but it make events feel jumbled, especially near the end where time-lapses happen frequently.
There is also a very light online component in this installment. In certain levels you will be connected online to another player, one who will be playing as a different character and will be in their own part of the level. This includes a very simple rating system, basically thumbs-up or thumbs-down, at the end of the level where you can grade how awesome this other player did. It’s a novel idea, making this game feel bigger and grander, but there is some missed potential in the execution. There are maybe five instances total in the game where you and this other player can be in the same arena and kick demon ass as a team, which further highlights just how impressively different the three heroes really are. But most of the time, you two are sectioned completely off. It’s not a bad idea, especially since Devil May Cry has always focused on single-player experiences, but I would love to see this explored further down the line.
I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up that Devil May Cry 5 includes microtransactions, but in a baffling turn of events they feel completely arbitrary and pointless. Going into the in-game store, you can spend real-world money to buy red orbs, which you can use to buy new moves and abilities for all three characters. But in addition to there being no ham-handed or confusing prompts by the game to make you buy these packages, the actual in-game economy just showers you with red orbs. You can buy 100,000 red orbs in the store for a couple of bucks, but by the time I finished my first playthrough of the game on normal difficulty, getting constant A and B ranks at the end of each mission, I had easily amassed one million red orbs total. These things are stupidly easy to get, and you can very easily farm for them by just replaying levels again. The only case where the orbs feel valuable is you have to keep buying new Devil Breakers for Nero to replace the ones that break, but you can buy them in bulk easily. As much as I’m not fond of the “it has no real impact on things, you can still earn stuff in-game” defense for this form of monetization, in Devil May Cry 5 it fits perfectly.
The Devil’s In The Details
It would be far too easy for me to continuously sing this game’s praises. The demanding but satisfying boss battles. The introduction of new ideas and mechanics that are easily understood and utilized. The fact that despite the onslaught of particle effects, stunning animation work and visual glamour, the whole thing still runs at a buttery smooth sixty frames-per-second.
But there are some minor but annoying issues that Devil May Cry 5 does have. Despite this being billed as the conclusion of the Sons of Sparda storyline for the series, the characters of Lady and Trish are basically downgraded to supporting roles and token damsels in distress. It’s weird since they were playable in past entries and have been key characters before, now they’re merely set dressing. Several levels near the end get a little long in the tooth with deadly traps and confusing labyrinths, but it’s a small road bump in what is otherwise pitch-perfect pacing.
Finally, there are frustrating loading screens. Once a level is loaded in, everything works perfectly fine start to finish, but when transitioning between story cutscenes or even something as simple as the upgrade menu, there’s a momentum-killing loading screen. Want to pick up an upgrade before you fight that boss? Loading screen to the menu. Want to go into the practice room to try it out? Loading screen. Want to exit out back to the game? Yep, that’s another loading screen. It never completely reaches the likes of Anthem, but they are noticeable.
Devil May Cry 5 is the perfect distillation of what has made the series great. Satisfying combat, gorgeous visuals, cutting edge speed and fluidity, and a bold, brazen and completely devil-may-care attitude towards seriousness or self-consciousness. A game where you can be blasting ice-slinging goatmen with a shotgun one minute, then see a character moonwalk dance for no reason to an applauding crowd the next. It’s audacious, it’s exciting, and it is endlessly replayable if just to experience everything again. An early contender for Game of the Year, hands down. Do not miss this one.