It wasn’t until I revisited Ninja Theory’s take on the franchise that it truly sunk in just how much of a return to the conventions of the past Devil May Cry V is.
Where the reboot zealously sought newcomers, Devil May Cry V feels unapologetically slanted towards longtime fans. And this quality works both for and against the ultra-stylish brawler. The surrealist, graffiti-laden environments of the reboot are out and the anime-inspired action of the earlier Devil May Cry games is back in. And as someone who was introduced to the series with DmC, I initially found this regression a little off-putting at times.
Sure, the impending release of the fifth game in the series gave me a great excuse to go back and experience earlier entries. However, all the same, it sometimes felt like Devil May Cry V’s relentless obsession with pulling away from everything and anything DmC sees it dredge back up elements of its past that probably ought have remained buried.
At times, it feels like Devil May Cry V is the best installment since Dante’s Awakening. It’s one of those outstanding character action games that plays as good as it looks - and it looks incredibly slick. But at the same time, it’s also a deeply regressive installment in a series that’s often been unable to recognise, diagnose and grow beyond its shortcomings. It’s clear (to me, at least) that Hideaki Itsuno and co. know how to take the things that are awesome about these games and then make them even better.
Unfortunately, it’s almost just as apparent that they have no idea what to do about the series’ weaker links. Either that, or they just don’t see them as problems. It’s not a question of purity so much as it is a question of quality. Ninja Theory’s reboot might have been divisive but it’s easy to see where and why it soars where other Devil May Cry games stumble.
And where DmC envisioned a bold new future for the franchise, Devil May Cry V can’t seem to stop navel-gazing at the past.
Set following the events of the previous games, Devil May Cry V reunites Dante, Nero, Trish, and the rest of the demon-hunting crew as they take on an unruly demon king named Urizen at the behest of enigmatic newcomer V. There’s more going on here than first appears, but Devil May Cry V does mostly succeed at finding a balance between resolving the loose ends of earlier games and embracing the appeal of what is a mostly-straightforward premise:
There’s a new bad guy in town, it’s up to you to cut him down to size - either as Dante, Nero or V. Get to it already.
If you’ve ever played a Devil May Cry game before (or one of its many imitators), you probably already know the drill and what to expect from Devil May Cry V. Each mission is a fast and furious affair, broken out into a set of arena-like encounters. Defeat one lot of enemies, and you’ll be able to move onto the next. Eventually, you’ll get a boss fight or a cutscene. Sometimes, you’ll run into a puzzle.
If you’re just after a fun action-heavy romp you can pick up and play for a dozen or so hours, Devil May Cry V will do the trick. Turn the difficulty down, and you’ll be able to mash your way through the story in about seven or eight hours.
Alternatively, if you’re after a game with a high skill ceiling and plenty of extra bells, whistles and challenges to complete, Devil May Cry V delivers that as well. Crank up the challenge, and you’ll be pushed to string together more complex moves and maneuvers in order to overcome the waves of adversaries the game will throw at you.
Where Devil May Cry 4 split the campaign into two discrete halves (one where you played as Nero and one where you played as Dante), Devil May Cry V divides things by three, and mixes up the pacing for good measure. Over the course of the game’s single-player campaign, you’ll jump between controlling Dante, Nero and V. Some missions even let you choose which character you’d like to tackle things as, which adds extra replayability to a game that’s already got plenty of it.
Nero’s moveset in Devil May Cry V is close to what it was in Devil May Cry 4 but with a few key differences. The young demon slayer can still rev up his sword for bonus damage and blast away at enemies using his pistol. However, his “Devil Bringer” arm is no longer part of the equation.
This time around, Nero has swapped out his demonic arm for a mechanical one. You can still use it to grab and throw enemies around. But unlike his previous supernatural appendage, Nero’s “Devil Breaker” arm can be customized between (and during) missions. Some Devil Breakers unleash elemental effects upon groups of enemies. Others bestow Nero with buffs or healing when activated. There’s even one that replicates MegaMan’s iconic Mega Buster.
Durability is also a factor here. Each Devil Breaker can be damaged and eventually broken through use. Once Nero’s stock of spare arms have been expended, you’ll need to buy or find more. This scarcity breeds interesting situations. Do you burn through arms during a normal fight to keep that combo modifier high and hope you find more later? Or do you hold onto them until the next boss battle and cash them in then?
Games that embrace durability systems like this can often be divisive. I love the way Far Cry 2’s guns fall apart in your hands. I hate Breath of the Wild. Still, my gut-feeling is that the introduction of resource juggling doesn’t just make Nero a more distinct character but also serves to make Devil May Cry V a more distinct game.
Dante’s moveset has also received some minor reworks, though these changes feel more like a smart escalation than an meaningful evolution. If you’ve played Devil May Cry before, you’ll still be able to pick up and play Dante at a moments notice. Still, the biggest addition to the formula here is the ability for Dante to swap fighting styles mid-fight. Being able to swap from Trickster to Gunslinger at the press of a button feels super liberating. I found it helped encourage me to experiment outside my comfort zone in a way that previous Devil May Cry games didn’t.
Then there’s V. Similar to something like Diablo 3’s Necromancer, V’s gameplay relies on commanding a squad of demonic companions to fight on his behalf. They do the damage. Your focus is on avoiding enemy attacks. Then, once they’ve worn down enemies to their final sliver of health, it’s on you to come in and deliver the final blow.
There’s definitely a bit of a learning curve but V’s unconventional gameplay style is fun enough, different enough and “extra” enough to work. Where the dual-character structure of Devil May Cry 4 felt geared towards giving you somewhat-different takes on fundamentally-similar characters, Devil May Cry V does a much better job at making the most of its three-character roster.
Sins of the Past
Of course, all the above shouldn’t be a surprise. As I said at the outset, it feels the team behind Devil May Cry V have a firm grasp on how to take the things that work so well about these games. You get the sense that they know exactly push them further.
And in motion, Devil May Cry V looks as good as the version of the series’ you’ve always had in your head does. The combat system is easy to pick up and play (yet also deep enough to keep you interested over time), the character designs and animations are awesome to behold and the soundtrack rips. In addition, it actually feels like the technology behind these sorts of games has now reached the point where the in-game action finally reflects and embodies the hyper-stylish choreography previously only possible through cutscenes.
All the same, if you’ve found the series’ clunky and convoluted style of storytelling or penchant for overly-sexualized female characters grating in the past, that hasn’t gone anywhere. The dialogue in Devil May Cry V can often come across as pretty cringe-worthy and even the legitimately-cool turns that the story takes are occasionally undercut by iffy execution and a boring reliance on tired tropes.
There were a few surprises along the way but plenty of groans of disappointment by the time I saw the credits roll. The tone of Devil May Cry V often veered off into random directions in a way that sometimes detracted from the overall experience.
Though a marked-improvement on their counterparts in Devil May Cry 4, the environment and level designs in Devil May Cry V stand out as another weakness. They’re nicely rendered but there’s not a whole lot going on within them. The game only really has three biomes - urban environments, ancient ruins and bio-organic hellscapes - but neither of them are particularly memorable. Same goes for the boss fights in the game. They’re mostly fine - but they’re also mostly forgettable.
There is also a small co-operative element worth touching on. During certain sequences, other players are able to cross over into your game and take control of whichever character you aren't playing as. If you chose Nero, they'll be V - and vice versa. Though neat, this feature ends up being closer to the ghosts of Mario Kart than a fully-fledged cooperative experience. Nevertheless, it feels like a missed opportunity. I wouldn't be surprised if it ends up being something that many players outright miss on their first run through the game.
The Bottom Line
In more ways than one, Devil May Cry V often feels like a sequel to Dante’s Awakening than it does Devil May Cry 4.
Like the third game in the series, Devil May Cry V heavily emphasizes repetition and persistence. If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Thing don’t just become easier on their own. You become better.
And that methodology does seem to mirror some of the underlying ideology around the game. Devil May Cry V takes everything that earlier games achieved and improves upon it in smart ways that fans will be delighted to see and learn their way around. Unfortunately, this pursuit of perfection is one encumbered by tunnel vision. Compared to the combat and game-feel, everything else in Devil May Cry V feels like a bit of an afterthought. A secondary concern.
When it all comes together, Devil May Cry V feels like a confident fusion of everything that’s come before. At other times though, it comes across as merely competent fusion of everything that’s come before. It doesn’t feel like the pinnacle of the series that Devil May Cry 3 was (nor does it break new ground in the way that DmC did). That said, it’s still the closest effort to date. And that is something - even if it’s not really the something I really want from this series right now.
Although the modern comforts and production values involved serve to elevate it above previous entries in some regards, Devil May Cry V is ultimately held back by its own baggage. It veers so close to the past that it never truly escapes the long-shadow cast by its own history. It’s fun-as-hell to play but it’s fun-as-hell to play in the way that Devil May Cry has always been.
Devil May Cry V succeeds in recapturing the zest of the series' past but is ill-equipped to evolve beyond it.
Devil May Cry V releases on Playstation 4, Xbox One and PC on the 8th of March.