Imagine a moody twenty-something revving the hilt of an oversized sword like a motorcycle handlebar. Or, if that’s too subtle an image, imagine instead a man shredding demons with an actual motorcycle made of buzz saws. One does not play Devil May Cry 5 for its nuance. As the originator of a genre Capcom likes to refer to as “over-the-top,” Devil May Cry occupies a special spot in many a twitchy gamer’s heart, and DMC 5 delivers a long-awaited return to franchise form 11 years after its direct prequel, DMC 4, and six years after Ninja Theory’s polarizing DmC offshoot.
Perhaps more than for most games, it’s important to come into DMC 5 with the correct expectations. Series newcomers probably won’t be much more confused by the story than seasoned veterans a decade removed from the loose sprawl of the plot to date. That relative equality may not, however, extend to the game’s mechanics. For experienced players, the gameplay fits like a comfortably worn-in red leather coat, but the quirky legacy of stylistic choices and specific combat rhythms may take first-timers a few hours to parse.
DMC 5 is faithful to the franchise’s history in that it’s an unapologetically action-forward experience with very little fat to trim. Most of the half-hourish old-school arcadey missions involve a linear corridor leading from one combat encounter to the next, with a few off-the-beaten-path secrets sprinkled in for flavor. In another game, this setup might get stale, but for DMC, the approach of staying laser-focused on stellar combat systems is a strength, as no individual fight overstays its welcome and the pace remains brisk throughout. The fact that the perspective shifts between three main protagonists— DMC 4’s Nero, series mainstay Dante, and newcomer V— also greatly helps to diversify the experience.
V is the one who instigates the action by bringing in Nero and Dante to climb a massive demon tree called the Qliphoth and hunt a powerful enemy named Urizen. It doesn’t take a world-class detective to guess who the mysterious V may really be, but he plays unlike any character the franchise has previously offered. Rather than fight directly, V controls a trio of demons to do his dirty work while hanging back and waiting to deliver finishing blows. He also sports an interesting risk-reward mechanic that allows him to replenish his all-important Devil Trigger gauge by making himself less mobile and more vulnerable to attack.
Nero controls much as he did in his last outing, sporting the rev-able sword Red Queen and punchy revolver Blue Rose, but instead of his previous Devil Bringer, he now uses swappable mechanical grappling arms called Devil Breakers. These Breakers offer a variety of effects ranging from powerful single target blows to time-warping fields, but they’re a tricky and sometimes exasperating resource to manage. Breakers are easily broken and swapping to a different model mid-mission requires the equipped arm to be destroyed. After a few missions, the strategy of building a magazine of Breakers starts to make sense, but the feeling that there should be a button to hot swap situationally without discarding any arms never quite goes away.
Dante, as in past titles, has multiple short and long range weapons to choose from, as well as four distinct fighting styles—Trickster, Gunslinger, Swordmaster and Royal Guard—in which to use them. On its face, his variety can feel a little overwhelming, but specializing via the upgrade system allows for a more manageable approach to brawls.
Each character’s move set begins limited to a control scheme that is relatively easy to understand, but layers of complexity are added by gradually purchasing new attacks and combos. All three characters are afforded a plethora of upgrade options, allowing players to customize a style around melee combat, ranged combat, special abilities, or any combination of the above. Dante in particular has a staggering number of upgrade paths: one for each melee weapon, one for each firearm, one for each style, and a couple more for general use abilities.
Mastering more combos, gap-closers and dodges allows for the efficient build-up of style points, which are ranked on a letter scale that ranges from D to A, followed by S, SS and SSS. Completing a mission as stylishly as possible by dealing damage in non-repetitive ways while avoiding taking hits in return rewards more currency, allowing for more exaggerated customization.
DMC 5’s outlandish sensibility and wild humor are some of its biggest draws, but they aren’t without their oversteps, particularly when it comes to the blatant sexualization and objectification of female side characters Nico, Lady and Trish. In the grander scheme of things, though, character foibles and a barely-there plot hardly register when weighed against the giddy absurdity of non-stop SSStylish demon-slaying at its finest. Like the other main entries in the Devil May Cry canon, 5 isn’t a game that values style over substance so much as it is a game that emphasizes style as its substance.