Devil May Cry 5 is a wild mess of demonic magic, blood, brooding twinks, butt rock music, kung-fu homage, and joyous gameplay. By the end of it, I had killed literally thousands of demons and watched struggles of Biblical proportions. The experience itself is a blur, but I know two things for certain. The first is that while there’s nary a drop of romance in the game, every one of Devil May Cry 5’s sexy trash protagonists has absolutely fucked. The second is that every bone-splintering, blood-splattering moment I spent with them was a goddamn blast.
This piece was first published on March 6, 2019. We’re bumping it today for the game’s release.
Set after Devil May Cry 4, Devil May Cry 5’s story focuses on a massive demonic invasion led by a nasty-looking demon king named Urizen. Guided by series newcomer V, legendary demon hunter Dante and his erstwhile bud Nero square off against Urizen, only to face an astounding defeat at the start of the game. Nero survives, while Dante goes missing. Some time later, Nero embarks on a journey to set right was went wrong and save the world. The journey takes him through a monster-ravaged city and up to the top of a massive demonic tree. Each step forward involves a lot of hacking and slashing of bug creatures and shadow beasts.
There is an initial learning curve as the player is introduced to all of the violent options at their disposal. Players can slash enemies to bits, blow them up with rocket launchers, and capoeira kick demons silly. Once you get the hang of it, though, Devil May Cry 5 builds into the stylish carnage that the series is famous for. The joy of a character action game, be it Devil May Cry, Metal Gear Rising, or Bayonetta, is learning how to make hacking and head-stomping as graceful as a dance. Devil May Cry 5 is a subtle waltz where missing a button press by even a half-beat can have dire consequences. The allure of Devil May Cry isn’t simply the chance to play as a deadly demon hunter; it’s a chance to feel completely in control of your body. Devil May Cry 5 delivers even more by letting its protagonists’ personalities shine through in combat. When I play as these characters, I understand exactly the type of people they are.
Nero is angry. Not simply in that tough-guy, video game protagonist sort of way—he’s pissed off. Brushed off as “dead weight” by Dante during their ill-fated fight and reeling from the tragic loss of his right arm months before the game’s start, Nero has a lot to prove. Playing as Nero means channelling his frustration and loss into combat against any demon who wanders into your path. Nero’s sword can be revved like a motorcycle throttle to build up energy before attacking or to give your strikes some extra pop, Gunblade style. He also comes equipped with a variety of prosthetic arms crafted by the nerdy mechanic Nico, a new character to the series. The most basic of these releases a powerful lightning blast, but others have more dramatic effects. You find arms that let you slam enemies around like a pro-wrestler, charge up to release energy beams, propel you through the air, and fire off rocket fists that attack enemies on their own. If you want to kick ass as Nero, you need to lean into every one of these tricks. Here’s how a fight might go:
Rush in with a lunging stab, slash and then pause a half second before slashing again to trigger a furious series of overhead strikes. Do a rising slash to launch an enemy into the air, pull yourself to them with your grappling arm, punch them with your rocket fist, shoot them with your revolver to air juggle them, call your rocket arm back to you and ride that shit like a hoverboard. Glide that fist right into a demon’s throat and trigger an explosion. Leap away, dash to the next monster. Repeat until the room is full of bug meat and blood smears. Pause the game and smoke a cigarette because you’re a sexy bitch.
If you’re a sexy enough bitch, Devil May Cry 5 will let you know. Like previous series’ entries, each moment of gameplay is accompanied by a letter ranking to let you know what degree of badass you are. It starts at D for “dismal” and builds to the wonderful SSS rating for “Smokin’ Sexy Style!” Variety is the spice of life, according to Devil May Cry 5: The more you kill and the more you switch up how you’re killing, the more your rank increases. This means that the initial portions of the game can feel limiting, as you barely have access to the various sword combos, special moves, and tricky dodge skills necessary to earn those higher ranks. It can be frustrating at first, but as you play and earn orbs to purchase new abilities, the game world transforms from a paint-by-numbers kiddy book to a blank canvas where you are the master. As your rank increases, the game’s musical theme, “Devil Trigger,” begins to play. “Devil Trigger” is not a good song, but God help me if I don’t lose my shit every time I nail a combo and hear its gnashing butt rock wailings punctuate my carnage.
Nero is not the only character at your disposal. Much of the early game is spent playing as the mysterious newcomer V, whose frail body leaves him dependent on a swarm of animal familiars to deal with enemies until he can strike a finishing blow. Where Nero is angry and furious, V is slow and deliberate. In a series where aggression is everything, V flips that dynamic upside down.
Playing as V sometimes feels more like navigating a map of Into the Breach or fitting a Tetris block into the right place than it does Devil May Cry. Because he’s so fragile and slow in combat, positioning is incredibly important. If I’m playing as Nero, I know exactly where I need to be: right in a demon’s stupid face. As V, that’s more complicated. Combat as V is a combination of dashing and floating into the right position and then summoning the correct minion to punish greedy enemies. Not only does this help communicate something about V as a character—he is distant, reserved, and calculating—but it also brings variety to Devil May Cry 5’s missions. A wild stretch as Nero ebbs into a slower, counter-attack focused exhibition whenever you play as V. Both are equally satisfying, and both force you to think about enemy monsters in different lights. In rare cases, some missions give you the choice of playing as Nero or V. Not only does this offer replayability, but their diverging paths round out the gameplay experience.
It wouldn’t be a Devil May Cry game without Dante, and Devil May Cry 5 delivers the most freewheeling version of him to date. Dante has picked up dozens of weapons and fighting styles throughout years of demon slaying. Instead of forcing players to relearn his abilities or contriving some video-gamey scenario where Dante needs to regain his lost power, Devil May Cry 5 gives you access to everything immediately. To quote my coworker Tim Rogers, Dante is “a whole buffet table which happens to have some macaroni and cheese.” Not only does he have access to his signature sword and pistols, he also has gauntlets for kung-fu punching and a motorcycle to crash into enemies. He unlocks even more weapons throughout the story, such as transforming nunchaku and a cowboy hat that can be used as a projectile. All of these weapons can be augmented with one of four stances—Trickster, Gunslinger, Swordmaster, and Royal Guard. Each style gives weapons a different effect, and you’re able to mix a match all of the tools on the fly. It’s wild, stylish, and deliciously excessive.
Tons of melee weapons and guns, all augmented depending on your stance, might sound overwhelming. If I want to turn my magic nunchucks into a Sun Wukong staff, I need to remember to be in Swordmaster. If I want to counter enemies I need to time a block perfectly in Royal Guard. Oh shit, that demon is running right at me. What do I do? But let me tell you a secret: I played a fair portion of this game buzzed on wine and still managed to get mostly S ranks during missions, at least on the default difficulty. Because for all of the complexity of Devil May Cry 5’s combat, the gameplay is incredibly intuitive. After a little bit of practice and a few mistakes, you start to find what works for you. In my case, that meant falling back on Swordmaster’s ability to unlock new forms and attacks for my favorite weapons while swapping my arsenal around just enough to build up my score. Nero and V have their own particularities, but Dante’s status as Master of Everything means that you’re bound to find a play-style that turns demons into hamburger. Since Devil May Cry 5 makes swapping weapons and styles as easy as a quick button tap, you’ll start to dash around the screen like you were born for this. The core of Devil May Cry 5 is style over substance, fake it until you make it. Get your high scores, and if you mess up, just load the level again until you get those sweet S ranks.
Combat is intuitive, and the characters are clearly defined, but the surrounding pieces that make the experience stumble, if only slightly. The core gameplay is wonderful, but it’s in service of a plot that is fractured and honestly makes little sense, even to a fan of the series like me.
Much of this has to do with how poorly some things are communicated. At least one major character reveal was undersold so much that I didn’t even realize what had happened until I read about it again at a loading screen. The core concept is strong: Dante and the gang lost, and now it’s time to pick up the pieces. Character motivations are clear, but there’s not a lot of time spent on really understanding their relationships with each other. Key series characters like Trish and Lady are essentially left in the wings while the protagonists battle a generic demon villain with little charisma. Things finally come to a head near the end, but the process is so rushed that even the most elaborate and badass moments of fan-service land clumsily. Everything is stylish enough in the moment that I was enthralled. It’s only looking back that I realized that not a whole lot had happened in terms of raw plot or valuable character growth.
It’s tempting to say that the Devil May Cry series doesn’t need too much plot or interpersonal struggle. To an extent, that’s true. Even with this flaw, Devil May Cry 5 is an amazing ride. But games like Devil May Cry 3 and even the much maligned Ninja Theory reboot DmC: Devil May Cry found time to build out their worlds and bring richness to their characters. In the former, the baroque setting became a stage for a pseudo-Shakespearean tale of clashing siblings and patricide. In the latter, a They Live inspired aesthetic mocking cable news networks turned Dante into a sort of counter-cultural icon. Devil May Cry 5 takes bits and pieces from these games, crafting a setting that’s alternatively neon-lit and steeped in blood, but for all of the flash there’s not as much going on with its characters as I’d like until the final moments, even if the actors sell the shit out of the proceedings throughout.
Devil May Cry 5 is a firework. If you’re the one with the lighter, then setting the explosion off is as simple as flicking your finger. If you’re watching someone else, it’s more than enough to enjoy the bright colors and noise. Players looking to get dazzled will find themselves spellbound, while those who dig deeper will find a rewarding and expressive combat system. It’s a little superficial, but that comes with the territory. And while Devil May Cry 5 doesn’t completely redefine the series, it hones the gameplay to a sharp edge that will please diehards and newbies alike.