Devil May Cry 5’s Cathartic Purity

Devil May Cry 5’s existence is remarkable. Devil May Cry 4’s troubled development led to a positive response upon launch, which has fallen more out of favor as discourse has evolved through the years. Ninja Theory’s divisive reboot, followed by a Definitive Edition release two years later didn’t instill much confidence in the original series’ return. The DMC 4 Special Edition released that same year felt more like throwing a bone anything else. 12 years after Devil May Cry 4’s original release and only a year and a half after vanilla DMC 5, Devil May Cry 5 Special Edition is the culmination of the genre’s growth since its inception. As Hideaki Itsuno said, “DMC IS BACK!”

Design By Subtraction

Devil May Cry 5 trims the genre’s fat. There’s no puzzle solving, backtracking, and platforming is practically non-existent outside secret missions. In cutting every other pillar, Capcom is laser-focused in proving pure action games have their place. In a world so far removed from the industry’s simplistic beginnings, developers strive for consumers’ attention with unending systems to keep players engaged while also acting as a value proposition.

After all, more systems translates to more opportunities to create content centered around those systems. In a triple-a industry leaning so heavily on cinematic direction, genre hybridization, and massive open worlds, gaming’s purity has been lost. Hideaki Itsuno crafted Devil May Cry 5 as the answer to that bloat.

I wanted to prove that the genre could exist if you just focus on that

Its unobtrusive cinematics, straightforward level design, and dynamic music reinforce the action genre’s purity and it’s that distillation that makes it the greatest action game of all time.

Bang, Bang, Bang!

After a brief prologue, Devil May Cry 5 begins proper with one of the slickest opening credits sequences you’ll ever see. Nico ashes her cigarette against a demon’s forehead meanwhile Nero preps himself for the oncoming onslaught. Nico swerves as she hits a bump, causing it to barrel mid-air. Cue a slow-motion action sequence filled with Nero busting demons up as Nico attempts to catch a cigarette in her mouth mid-air set to the game’s theme: Devil Trigger. All this with clever implementation of credits throughout the scene.

This opening credits sequence acts as a statement of intent, characterizing the game’s attitude. You’re here to have fun killing demons and shit. This infectious attitude is further bolstered by the dynamic soundtrack.

The typical structure of these dynamic tracks involves the instrumental intro playing when an enemy encounter begins, which doesn’t segue into the verses until either the player attacks or is damaged. After which, it randomly starts with one of the verses, switching to the other upon completing a loop between D-B. Reaching A-rank style triggers a transition between the verse and bopping chorus, which plays when the player reaches S-rank.

Dynamic music isn’t a new concept. Tons of games across different genres use it, but it feels more personal in a stylish action game like this. Having the player dictate the song based on their skill-level is one piece of the puzzle aiding player encouragement. You want to do better so you’re rewarded through its stellar music.

Pull My Devil Trigger

All this would be for naught without strong enough mechanics to justify such a laser-focused approach to game design. Thankfully, Devil May Cry 5‘s combat apes just about anything the genre has seen. Before getting into Nero, Dante, and Vergil, the elephant in the room needs to be addressed.

Yes, Devil May Cry 5 is the franchise’s most accessible entry, with the default Devil Hunter difficulty being a pushover for series’ veterans. Special Edition still requires completing the game multiple times to unlock Son of Sparda, Dante Must Die, and so on, but Legendary Dark Knight is selectable from the outset.

On a more controversial note, DMC 5 increased the jump cancelling window. While the most hardcore of the hardcore may scoff at this notion, it makes sense. It isn’t so much a means of lowering the skill floor as it is opening the possibilities. DMC 3 and 4‘s more precise jump cancel windows restricted them to an execution-heavy part of the repertoire. DMC 5‘s jump cancelling is so forgiving, players would have to actively avoid using the mechanic altogether to not utilize it properly.

This de-emphasized execution provides a different utility, transforming jump cancelling into another tool to extend combos just as with the simplistic basic combos. Devil May Cry’s complexity never came from elaborate built-in combos akin to Bayonetta or fighting games like Tekken. Its complexity derived from mixing its mechanics in different ways to see how far its systems could be pushed. Individual combos and motions are easy, but stringing them together becomes an elaborate, skillful dance.

This is why its surface level single button combos never mattered. Jump cancelling fills that same role now. Without players so focused on perfecting that jump cancel window, they’re free to plan out the next several actions in the most elegant manner.

This philosophy surrounding player expression also feeds into Intertia’s removal. Inertia was introduced in Devil May Cry 4 as a byproduct of its physics. Inertia refers to the momentum players retain when jump cancelling out of specific actions. This momentum transfers, requiring players to be more aware under what circumstances to jump cancel out of something. Exploiting these physics also led to players discovering advanced techniques such as guard flying, which essentially lets you zip briskly across a combat space without using teleport.

When you pull off certain moves that originally had inertia, now they don’t (in DMC 5). But when you do that enemy step, now you can control what direction you’re going to step in. The idea is that we want to try and give people more options for that fight.

That’s really a conscious decision by all the game designers, including Itsuno-san, that every time we make one of these games, they kind of revisit all the moves and there are also new moves that we add.

Devil May Cry 5’s philosophy doesn’t surround extremely precise, execution-heavy play, though there is still tons of that with Vergil and Dante. Rather, it’s about opening the floodgates, letting players freely express themselves. Look no further than the combo MADs for an idea what is possible in Devil May Cry 5.

I Am The Storm That is Approaching

Vergil’s calculated playstyle adds a needed level of reprieve from Dante and Nero’s more demanding combat. Vergil strikes an interesting balance between the two characters in that he’s easier to build style meter with. His teleport also removes the dexterity required to remain airborne for extended periods of time.

Many of his moves like Judgment Cut and Yamato Combo C have stun-locking AOE properties, making crowd control more manageable. This doesn’t make him an easy character, though. Vergil’s moveset prescribes to the notion of a low skill floor with a high skill ceiling. While mastering him doesn’t require the same dexterity as Dante or split-second critical thinking and exploitation of Nero’s more limited arsenal, it requires patience.

Vergil has a three-segment Concentration meter that fills up during combat while standing still, moving slowly, dodging, and teleporting. It decreases when running, whiffing attacks, or taking damage. Higher levels of Concentration increase Vergil’s general power, alter move properties such as increasing Judgment Cut’s area of effect, and open entirely new moves. Judgment Cut End is a devastating screen-filling attack that can only be performed while the Sin Devil Trigger meter is filled along with level 2 Concentration. Vergil’s access to blocking is also dictated by Concentration with that block changing to a parry with a level 2 or higher Concentration meter.

The extent of Vergil’s combo potential hinges upon managing that meter. Whereas players can get by with losing health as Dante and Nero, taking damage as Vergil inhibits your options. Vergil also has less opportunities for refilling his health. Dante and Nero automatically refill health while in standard Devil Trigger. Vergil doesn’t have a true Devil Trigger form. In its place, he uses the Devil Trigger gauge to summon a doppelganger that mimics his actions while increasing his attack, defense, and speed. Keeping it on the battlefield does nothing for his health.

All these systems working together necessitates the most extreme spatial awareness and keen perception of enemy’s tells of all the playable characters. The chaos and fury enemy types, especially, require a different approach with Vergil under the hot seat.

Embrace The Darkness That’s Within Me

Nero is the most immediately enjoyable character with his leveled up attitude over DMC 4 communicated through his brash gameplay. His single melee weapon is counterbalanced by the exceed system. Nero can Rev his sword to fill up his Exceed gauge, which has three bars. More bars equates to stronger attacks and more significant alterations to existing moves. As an example, Streak is a single AOE slashing attack used to close distance. Level 3 EX Streak turns that simplistic forward slash into a flurry of spins as he clears the combat arena like a Beyblade.

This system’s depth comes from Revving with the right timing after an attack to fill either one bar or the entire Exceed gauge. Revving manually is an option, but it’s inefficient during battle. Managing the Rev timing in the midst of combos keeps a consistent level of engagement.

As much as Capcom retooled Nero for the better, upon a first playthrough, his combat can get a little stale by the end. This is when Nero’s true potential opens up as he doesn’t gain access to his Devil Trigger form until the final boss fight, opening up its use in future playthroughs.

In addition to the expected Devil Trigger specific special moves, his awakening maps the Buster Arm utility to the right trigger. The Buster Arm acts as a contextual grab, changing with each enemy type, with different variations for ground and air grabs. This was part of his standard DMC 4 arsenal, being lost with the Devil Breakers’ inclusion, requiring players to find or buy the specific Buster Arm breaker to use it.

The Buster Arm returning as part of his standard moveset adds an extra layer of complexity to offset the more limited Devil Breaker system. Capcom wanted this system to force players into thinking on the fly. When do I expend this devil breaker? Shit. I took damage while using my breaker and now it’s gone. I’ve got to improvise. It’s an intriguing concept that never fully pans out, though there are flashes of brilliance.

It is legitimately terrifying or rage-inducing losing a breaker and being forced to rethink the situation. Losing them when taking damage makes sense, but being unable to freely switch between them feels antithetical to Devil May Cry 5’s vision. There’s no player expression if I can’t switch between Gerbera, Ragtime, Punch Line, Rawhide, then back to Ragtime, then back to Rawhide, and finish it off with Overture as an example.

There’s validity to the amount of forward thinking that goes into building a deck incorporating your plan of attack, but once it’s gone during a mission, you’re at the mercy of randomized pick-ups during levels. These are the compromises Capcom could have made:

  • Reducing the deck from six to four (maybe five) Devil Breakers
  • Retaining their loss when taking damage while using them
  • Increasing their red orb cost

These three alterations would have let the Devil Breaker system exist without necessitating a major change to their abilities. There’s still consequence and critical thinking required without inhibiting the game’s proposed freedom.

You Cannot Kill Me

Dante is the franchise’s lifeblood. Casual Devil May Cry fans are much like casual fighting game fans. A fighter’s success isn’t determined exclusively by sales, but also its community’s longevity. The tournament scene defines a fighting game’s true success.

If players aren’t committed enough to delve deep and continue to discover tech so that it remains in the public consciousness, that fighter becomes a flash in the pan. Dante’s depth, beginning with Devil May Cry 3’s inclusion of fighting styles along with unique skill-based weapons such as the Nevan, became integral to Devil May Cry’s relevance. Devil May Cry 4 upped the ante with a larger weapon-set during during gameplay in addition to letting players swap between styles on the fly. Nero and Vergil have had their fans, but it was Dante’s tech that kept Devil May Cry 4 relevant in the hardcore scene. It was that fervor that contributed to Devil May Cry 5’s existence.

Because of this, Dante is extremely daunting for new and intermediate players. Gamers can get by on the default Devil Hunter without switching styles and weapons much, if at all. Cavaliere, a motorcycle that splits into individual melee weapons is the most noob-friendly tool in his kit. It deals exorbitant amounts of damage with armor properties letting players act a little carelessly.

This is fine for one-and-done gamers, but the committed bunch will need to push Dante’s arsenal further. There’s something to be said for a game’s difficulty and design necessitating making use of its mechanics and this becomes more true for Devil May Cry 5 as you climb the difficulty ladder.

Here’s the thing, though. DMC 5 is built on the foundation of player expression. Maybe somebody really likes Cavaliere and only occasionally switches it up for style meter. Maybe another person exclusively uses the Royal Guard style to flex their parry muscles. Then again, another person may want each combo to involve multiple weapons and styles. Naturally, higher difficulties and/or Turbo Mode are built to force players to use more of the game’s systems.

At the end of the day, though, players not enjoying the core combat won’t push themselves through the harder difficulties. This is why giving them options is paramount. If they’re not enjoying playing the way they want to play while acquiescing to the game’s systems, they won’t want to push outside that comfort zone when tested.

With a weapon set that involves up to seven melee weapons and six ranged weapons and four styles, all usable on the fly, Dante’s versatility is staggering. If that sounds too daunting, up to is the key phrasing. DMC 5 allows players to fill that deck or limit it as much as possible so as to prevent overwhelming themselves.

Even if Dante doesn’t end up being your favorite because of the astronomical skill ceiling, getting better with him provides the most intense reward of the entire cast. There’s nothing more satisfying than performing several perfect Royal Guards in a row, building up to S-rank in seconds, then Royal Releasing at the right time to demolish bosses. Putting in the leg work with Dante is more demanding than Vergil and Nero, thus less immediately engaging. However, effectively using any of his tech like perfecting the Royal Guard style or switching between Trickster to gain distance and another style for whatever utility is needed at the moment is Devil May Cry 5 at its most euphoric.

If You Have to Ask, It’s Too Late

Note the lack of a V name-drop all article. That’s because his disconnected combat was a waste of development time. Moving on.

I’ve Come to Take What’s Mine

Devil May Cry 5 is the action genre’s most cathartic distillation. Its no frills approach to design gives its deep action the breathing room it needs to shine. With so many options and such intense reward as a result of engaging with its systems, it’s hard to imagine an action game topping this.

There’s nothing wrong with other action games distributing their playtime across different pillars ala Bayonetta, Ninja Gaiden, or God of War. Those experiences are valid and the industry should embrace different kinds of games and approaches to design. With that said, Devil May Cry 5’s confidence is infectious.

It may be the franchise’s most accessible entry, but it’s also a love letter to character action fans. Anyone with the tiniest inkling of interest in deep gameplay will appreciate what Devil May Cry 5 offers. It’s the kind of bliss that makes you feel bad for people that don’t play video games. It’s a watershed moment for character action games, especially in a space that’s so different from when the genre was birthed.

Some may lament its wider windows for actions such as jump cancelling and MAX-act, but no action game encourages freedom like Devil May Cry 5.

Hideaki Itsuno, Matt Walker, and the rest of the team at Capcom deserve a very long vacation. DMC IS BACK!!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s