The Excellent Devil May Cry 5 Falls Just Short of S-Rank

Games Reviews Devil May Cry 5
The Excellent Devil May Cry 5 Falls Just Short of S-Rank

It’s not open world, and there are no outposts or incidental world quests to pick up. There’s no crafting system, or the dozens and dozens of loot types that would feed it. There are meaningless corridors filled with meaningless rooms where enemies spawn in waves. There are no major puzzles, and the narrative is entirely linear—it doesn’t even fork. It’s a mission-based character action game that comes in well under 20 hours of playtime.

In a lot of ways, Devil May Cry 5 feels like an anachronism. Aside from the graphical potential of the RE Engine, it’s just not what a AAA game looks like in 2019.

And, real talk? It might be one of the best games I play this year.

That’s a big statement for mid-March, and a bigger statement for me, generally. But Devil May Cry 5 is big and brash enough that perhaps it deserves to be discussed in the same terms. It’s loud, colorful, and revels in the ridiculousness of a world where hot dad bods are frequently impaled with unreasonably large swords as a matter of course.

It’s been 18 years since Capcom gave birth to the Devil May Cry franchise under the directorship of Hideki Kamiya, who would go on to launch a thousand discourses (and some very good writing and discussion too) about sexuality and objectification in games with the landmark Bayonetta. Meanwhile, Devil May Cry would be handed to the stewardship of Hideaki Itsuno from the tail end of development of Devil May Cry 2 up through the latest offering. 18 years and five main line titles is plenty of time for a franchise to drift far away from the initial premise or stall out and crumple. But a ten year break has proven to work out well for Dante and his companions in the endless quest against bigger and badder demons.

The basic premise of Devil May Cry 5 is this: a demon more powerful than Mundus or any other ever faced before in the franchise has brought a gigantic demonic tree over into the real world which is destroying everything and draining the blood from the human populace. It’s all very “What if The Happening, but Cloverfield, and also demons?” Nero, Dante, Trish, Lady, and newcomers V and Nico all set out to save the world and slaughter some demons while being incredibly badass.

Except, this demon is extremely badass. Like so badass you’ll end up fighting two-and-a-half unwinnable battles against him before it’s all over. I’m telling you this, because this game is extremely about empowering the player to be the supreme ultimate badass, except in these moments. Where I spent nearly an hour in total dodging demonic laser bullshit and not making a dent in a health bar before finally my thumbs quit and I watched Nero get his ass handed to him as a cutscene let me know “This is Plot.”

After your first unwinnable fight, Nero is spirited away by V for the purpose of literally getting buffer so you can go back and kick the demon’s ass and maybe save your friends Dante, Trish, and Lady, who all got laid the hell out. Meanwhile, V sets off to track down the legendary sword of Sparda (remember Dante and his brother Vergil’s demon dad?) because it might be Nero’s only hope of saving humanity this time.

Listen. The plot is ludicrous. But the developers understand this and take it just seriously enough that it more or less works. Besides, you’re not here for the plot, you’re here to wreck the shit out of some demons. Itsuno understands this, and this time more than any other, he’s got you.

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Remember how everyone loved the way it felt to recall Kratos’s axe to his hand in God of War last year? It’s nothing compared to harpooning a demon from across the room and slinging him directly into your fist…that is also a goddamn rocket sled, or a power drill, or a demonic Nikola Tesla beatstick.

Nero is the most basic of the three playable characters. But he only feels lesser for it late in the game after you unlock Uncle Dante. The raw aggression in his combat style, and the lower degree of real strategy means his playstyle is all about wrecking shit up close with an often unpredictable assortment of mechanical fist-types. This is as close to the stock Devil May Cry experience as returning players will be used to. It’s simple to learn, easy to master.

After enjoying the robust violence of Nero, the description for V put me off, almost instantly. The game switched me to a new mission with a new character whose playstyle is described in almost passive terms. I’m pretty sure I involuntarily rolled my eyes until the first wave of demons showed up and I watched as tweaker Adam Driver became an enthusiastic conductor of a symphony of efficient death.

It’s like this: Demon Iago is your gun and Spooky Panther is your sword. You can direct their targets with lock-on, but V is far too weak for active combat. Positioning becomes key as you hobble across the field of combat telegraphing to your summoned companions who to slaughter for you. Unleashing V’s demon trigger summons a giant laser-firing, AI-controlled demon to help. And balancing the two normal companions, this super companion, and reading poetry (this is seriously how V recovers his Devil Trigger bar) while maintaining positioning to avoid damage creates one of the most novel and exciting methods of play ever seen in this genre.

And then, for the final third of the game, Dante shows back up and steals the entire show.

Looking like a washed-up, puffy Trivago Dad, Dante has been having a rough month. But he quickly gets back to his potency. He is, afterall, this series’s main character. He’s got seniority, so he gets all the toys. Dante has four stances, and starts with two melee weapons and two guns, and from there he just adds more. Like…

…a demon motorcycle, with chainsaw tires…

…that Dante can break it in half to make two chainsaw demon motorcycle heavy maces.

The effect is spectacular. Nothing in this game can clear a room like it. It’s the exact kind of absurd, excessive, boy-child sense of cool that Devil May Cry excels at. Going back to other playstyles, even V (who I loved), but especially Nero feels so thin by comparison. Devil May Cry’s controls are so responsive, the animations fluid enough that switching weapons and stances on the fly while air-dancing across the arenas in Trickster mode feels natural, perfect, and glorious. It’s the most excessive expression of what this series, and even genre, can be.

The unwinnable-for-plot-reasons boss fights aside, Devil May Cry 5 never wants the player to feel any less than like they’re the coolest person on earth. While the game isn’t overly easy, health and upgrades are plentiful, every character has multiple options to handle any situation thrown at them, and the checkpointing system is gracious. Before every boss fight you are given a chance to upgrade and heal back up. In boss fights, if you go down you can use basic red orbs or special gold orbs to get right back into the fight. And this game is constantly tripping over itself to give you all the orbs you’ll ever need. Devil May Cry wants you to be the ultimate badass, and it’s going to give you every opportunity and tool it can. However, despite the fun and enjoyment I got out of Devil May Cry 5, there are a number of issues that give me serious pause.

First is the return of “Savage!” as a style rank, complete with announcer bark. It wasn’t until Ninja Theory’s reboot DmC that this word entered the franchise, and it sucked then, and it sucks now.

There are plenty of S words. Devil May Cry 1 through 4 used Stylish, Showtime, Sweet, and Smokin’. Spectacular, super, sensational, sick, are other perfectly valid alternatives, some of which even show up in previous games or on higher ranks. There’s no need to use a term that has been systematically deployed to disenfranchise and oppress Black and Indigenous people for centuries in a videogame in 2019. And hearing it shouted by the announcer every time I started kicking ass really sucked.

And then there’s the continued treatment of Devil May Cry’s women.

Trish, Lady, and newcomer Nico are three incredibly capable women who are relegated to psychosexual fixation fodder. It’s the least fresh, most antiquated thing about this latest installment. This is where the game begins to fall apart.

Devil May Cry has always prioritized its male heroes and a playfully aggressive masculine idea of cool. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, in 2019 not only are we in a post-Yakuza world, we’re in a post-Yakuza Renaissance world. The kind of masculine cool that Devil May Cry has to offer feels woefully inadequate and out of step. It’s the most PS2-era throwback element of this game. Once we step out from under how great it feels to rip demons apart with motorcycle chainsaws, this is a game about three guys who really refuse to grow up, deal with their dad issues, and still think the crass one-liners are the height of comedy.

The special edition of Devil May Cry 4 had Lady as a playable character. And in this installment we see Trish and Lady actually beating Dante and Nero to the demonic showdown, only to be quickly battered into submission and needing the manly heroes to save the day. Nico is the only one who gets any kind of screen time and when she does she steals the show, careening through a devil infested hellscape in new and inventive ways to bring her traveling gunsmithy to whatever pre-boss nightmare the player ends up in. Nico is loud, takes no shit, chain smokes constantly and is more than capable of being a badass, but like Trish and Lady her role is to take care of the men, to help them become better than they are. It sucks, and it sucks because there’s ample opportunity for Devil May Cry to make the decision to imbue its women with the same depth, agency, and player access as Nero, Dante, Vergil, and V.

It just chooses not to.

And this is why the power fantasy falls apart. Because as much as Devil May Cry’s developers have decided to empower players to be as badass and have as much fun as possible, the question remains: who is being empowered here? And the answer almost across the board is straight, cisgender guys. That’s the only real audience this game can envision. And in 2019, that’s one hell of a way to sensationally mar an otherwise exceptional gaming experience.

Hopefully, next time the ladies will finally get their turn.

Devil May Cry 5 was developed and published by Capcom. Our review is based on the PlayStation 4 version. It is also available for Xbox One and PC.

Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer, photographer, and founding editor of CapsuleCrit.com, a monthly journal dedicated to microgenre work about games. She tweets too much at @dialacina.

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