In which Capcom try to repeat Resident Evil 2’s success by resurrecting another console classic from ages past. Except this time, it doesn’t go anywhere nearly as well.
There’s at least an understandable reason as to why, though. Thanks to the DMC series’ recent history the development of Devil May Cry 5 has been driven by an entirely different motivation to that of Resident Evil. I’ve not played a Devil May Cry game before but I’m very much aware of what happened to the last DMC title to be released: it was Ninja Theory’s reboot of the series back in 2013, and it got absolutely savaged by Devil May Cry fans because it had the temerity to mess with the DMC formula in an attempt to make it more palatable to a mainstream audience. Again, I didn’t play it so I don’t know how accurate or fair that criticism is (in fact all I know of the DmC reboot is this astounding cutscene), but accuracy and fairness aren’t what matter here; all that matters is that the people who buy Devil May Cry games thought that it was true, and that explains how Devil May Cry 5 has come to exist because it’s an hugely disproportionate overcorrection back in the other direction. It’s Capcom saying “Oh, you didn’t like that DmC game because it wasn’t like the old Devil May Cry games you played on the PS2? Fine, have this Devil May Cry game that is exactly like a Devil May Cry game from the PS2 era, warts and all.”
This is why Devil May Cry 5 has ended up as a game that’s in serious danger of being utterly incomprehensible to anyone who didn’t play DMCs 1 through 4, not to mention anyone who wasn’t around for console gaming circa 2005. It is a totally unashamed throwback to the brawler genre as it was a decade and a half ago, and while it’s been made with just as much care, talent and attention to detail as the Resident Evil 2 remake was, that effort has been focused in a rather different direction: making something that’s targeted solely at Devil May Cry fans and nobody else. It’s not remotely interested in trying to appeal to anyone outside of that narrow target audience, to the point where even somebody who enjoys the odd brawler (i.e. me) is struggling to get into it.
Devil May Cry 5 is, in theory, driven by a plot. It must be, since it takes frequent breaks for extremely lengthy cutscenes to the point where it’s arguably a ten-hour cutscene that’s sometimes punctuated by five-minute interactive segments where you get to punch monsters. I couldn’t begin to tell you what the game is actually about, though; apparently demons are invading the Earth, which seems to happen every other Tuesday in the DMC universe so you’d think humanity would be better prepared for it this time around. They’re not, though, so their last line of defense against the infernal hordes consists of the following:
- Dante, a man with grey-white hair, some guns, and a sword that is also a motorcycle.
- Nero, a man with white hair a, a bionic arm, and a sword with a motorcycle engine on it.
- V, a man with black hair that turns white when he summons his demons, who do all the fighting for him.
These are the three playable characters of Devil May Cry 5, and it’s here that we come to DMC5’s first problem: it’s a game with extremely fiddly controls and a high skill ceiling and a lot of moves to remember for one character. Three characters quickly results in information overload, especially since you’re only rarely given the choice of which character you want to play in a given mission and are otherwise forced to jump from one to another from mission to mission; as soon as you start to get used to Nero you then spend the next four missions playing as Dante and V and have lost your groove by the time you get to play Nero again. I’m all for a wide range of characters that support different playstyles and skill levels, but not when I’m forced to play all of them at once, and not when the simplest of them (Nero) still has a fair few things to keep track of thanks to the vast number of powers his various Devil Breaker arms possess. Of course if you’ve already spent, say, twenty years playing and replaying Devil May Cry games this is probably not going to be a problem for you since the learning curve is much shallower, but for the rest of us there’s a formidable barrier to entry just in terms of the amount of information you’re expected to absorb and retain before you can even start to play the game effectively.
Speaking of, the parts of Devil May Cry 5 that you can actually play consist of the following: you run down a linear path through a dull, grey, post-apocalyptic city, or alternatively the interior of a red-brown demonic toilet, until you get to a big room. When you go into the big room, all of the entrances are locked and enemies start to spawn in. You hit them. They die. More enemies spawn in. You hit them. They die. Eventually you run out of enemies and the doors unlock and you can resume your trek through this entirely dull rendition of the apocalypse, until you hit the next combat room. Once you’ve done enough combat rooms a boss will turn up, and you fight that, and then the mission ends and you get to watch another ten minutes of cutscenes. This repetitive, formulaic structure is exactly what I’d expect from a game released in 2001, which is why I’m somewhat surprised to see it in a game released in 2019 — and not even artfully camouflaged as the Doom reboot did with its combat encounters. This is how Devil May Cry did it, though, and dammit, Capcom are going to give the fans what they think they want, even if that means boring the rest of us to death.
In terms of the actual nitty-gritty of combat DMC 5 is, at least, not too bad; it has a dizzyingly high skill curve that I can’t even see the top of but it’s fun enough to punch the monsters with a series of pleasingly over-the-top attacks. Each character gets ranged and melee attacks along with a selection of special attacks that vary based on who you’re playing. Nero is probably the simplest of the three, with a single gun and a sword that can be used to execute a variety of combos, along with a grappling hook that can be used to pull enemies towards him and a Devil Breaker arm with an attack that varies based on the type of arm you have equipped; the Devil Breakers are consumable and can be expended for an extra-powerful attack, so Nero walks around with a selection of arms stuck to his belt so that he can jam another one on when the first blows up. I’d say that V is the most unusual of the three protagonists, except he’s really not; he’s got a panther demon that does melee attacks and a bird demon that does ranged attacks, each of which has their own combos just like Nero’s sword, so the only thing that’s really different for him is that his attacks are being delivered via these NPC characters while he stands off at a distance — oh, and his gigantic demon golem Nightmare that he can drop into combat with the force of a small nuclear weapon. Nightmare fights autonomously, and although V can ride Nightmare and direct his actions this is curiously less effective compared to just letting him do his thing.
The first half of the game has you switching between Nero and V, and I wasn’t too down on DMC 5 during this period because the combat is decently good in spite of the game’s antiquated design. Nero is fine as a brawler character; he has the fewest special mechanics for the player to remember, he’s nicely mobile thanks to his grapple, and so you can focus almost exclusively on positioning, combo execution and not being hit; the point of the DMC series isn’t to win fights, but instead to win them as stylishly as possible by mixing up your attacks while avoiding your enemies’, and it’ll even track how well you’re doing as the fight goes on by announcing your steadily-increasing combat grade. Because Nero has the fewest tools he’s consequently the hardest character to get a high combat grade on as he doesn’t have as wide a range of moves to generate the needed variation in a fight, but it still feels like the game has the right amount of space to breathe when playing as him. V is more complicated, but because you’re standing off while your demon friends do the work you don’t have to worry about positioning so much and can concentrate on landing those combos. It’s still annoying to be constantly flipping back and forth from one to the other, but that’s precisely what it is at that point: an annoyance that can be lived with, and nothing more.
Unfortunately things nosedive once original series protagonist Dante is reintroduced into the game. Dante is the most complicated of the characters by far, because he starts with four different weapons, each of which have their own attack combos and one of which can switch between Punch Mode and Kick Mode (not that DMC will ever tell you how you do this despite it being key to some abilities and combos; I’ve done it accidentally several times but never intentionally). He also has four different styles, each of which determines his special ability with the given weapon, and he picks up more weapons with every mission he does, which pile on yet more combos and attacks. This creates a nightmare where I struggle to just switch between weapons effectively during a fight, let alone actually remember how to execute high-scoring combos with them. The reason Dante is like this is, I suspect, because this is his skill and weapon loadout from the first three DMC games and bringing those across 100% intact is yet more fanservice — except in those games he’s the only playable character and you have a full game to get used to his abilities. Here he’s one of three, and I already had my hands full keeping track of Nero and V without adding a whole other game protagonist into the mix. It’s kind of like if I were playing the Spiderman game on PS4 and it suddenly asked me to play as Batman from Arkham Knight with his complete, bloated skillset that had been built up across three games; that would never happen for a number of very good reasons, but it’s the broad equivalent of what Devil May Cry 5 is doing here. Twice.
The thing is, you don’t need to really understand any of the combat stuff in much depth to win fights and finish the game. You can’t quite get by on button mashing but you can certainly win by repeating the same two moves over and over — but that’s not fun, and this is a rare point on which both Devil May Cry 5 and myself agree. The joy of brawlers, and of Devil May Cry, is found in mastery; of being able to string together multiple different flashy moves and totally demolish the opposition without ever receiving so much as a scratch in return. That’s why DMC rates you not on how many enemies you kill or how quickly, but on how stylishly you do it. It’s also why I’m totally and utterly baffled as to how many totally artificial handicaps it threw at me on the way to achieving mastery, in a way that’s quite unlike anything I’ve seen in the genre before. Despite my avowed dislike of how Dark Souls handles certain things like player death I have a lot of respect for its core fighting loop because it’s almost never actively working against you during combat, it’s just really really hard and expects you to get good enough to match that difficulty, and importantly it never pulls the rug out from under the player by handing them a completely different set of abilities while they’re on that journey of improvement. By contrast Devil May Cry isn’t just indifferent to the player, it’s actively contemptuous of anyone who is struggling with these entirely artificial roadblocks to enjoyment, relentlessly piling on mechanic after mechanic until the player is stretched to breaking point, at which point they have two options: stop trying to play the game properly and just soldier through for the sake of the story (which, as covered, is so nonlinear and nonsensical it might as well be non-existent), or just stop playing the game period.
God, I haven’t even talked about the camera yet. Devil May Cry 5 has the worst camera I’ve seen since Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, except SoT had the excuse of actually being released 16 years ago. Any time you get into a fight — which, let us remember, is 90% of what you do in Devil May Cry that’s not watching a cutscene — you’ll not only have to remember which button presses do what for which weapon with whatever character you’re currently playing, but you’ll have to do it while struggling with a camera that desperately, desperately wants to be staring at the floor, or a wall, or the ceiling — just about anywhere except where the action is. Modern action games (which in this case means anything released after the original Devil May Cry in 2001, and several games prior to it) get around this by implementing a lock-on mechanic that keeps the camera pointed at the currently-targeted enemy, but that would be too easy for Devil May Cry, which instead chooses to make lock-on an integral part of certain combos and abilities, and which makes most others impossible if you’re locked-on to an enemy. If you want to use the vast majority of your moveset you’ll have to forgo lock-on and instead manually reposition the camera. Not only is the camera positioning yet another thing that the player has to keep track of during a fight, but it really cements Devil May Cry’s feeling of having been thawed out from a previous century of game development.
And that’s the thing that really gets my goat about Devil May Cry 5: usually when I spend a couple of thousand words laying into a game like this, it’s because of failures in the development process — design, programming, project management, something has gone wrong and injected flaws into what otherwise could have been a quite enjoyable experience. That’s not the case with Devil May Cry 5, though; the team behind it is clearly very talented and know their stuff when it comes to making video games, and so Devil May Cry 5 is possibly the first bad game I’ve played that’s a direct result of everything going horribly right with development. Capcom set out to make another Devil May Cry game for the Devil May Cry fans out there, and they damn well delivered on that design goal, even if it meant shutting out the rest of us.
The thing is, though, much as Devil May Cry 5 would like to pretend otherwise, it’s not 2001 any more, and it can’t just ignore the intervening eighteen years of progress in videogame design. Given that it’s so intentionally, bullishly antiquated in every aspect save the visual, what’s the selling point of Devil May Cry in 2019 to anyone who didn’t already love Devil May Cry? It’s not that it’s an excellent brawler, because a) it’s merely adequate at best, and b) Platinum have been making much better brawlers for at least a decade now. Is it the ridiculous over-the-top-ness of the DMC setting, where entire cities are slaughtered by demons and the heroes shrug and quip before fighting a two-storey-tall boss? Well, no, for two reasons; one is that this means your game has zero stakes because nothing matters (not to mention making every single one of your protagonists an unlikeable asshole) and the other is that Platinum also have Devil May Cry beaten here too. If I’m going to watch a ridiculous bossfight accompanied by trashy buttrock and chopped up by lengthy cutscenes and absurd dialogue, I’d really much rather it be the one at the start of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, thanks very much1. This is the problem with making your game a throwback: it only works if the genre hasn’t evolved since the time period you’re throwing back to (as with Shadow Tactics: Blade Of The Shogun). DMC 5’s approach of targeting core fans only may have paid off this time, since there are apparently enough DMC fans (and Capcom marketing budget) for the game to shift two million copies in just a few weeks, but it’s also an approach that leads to stagnation, atrophy and eventual death, so it’s really not a sustainable way to continue a franchise. Above all, I’m disappointed that Devil May Cry 5 is so short-sighted when Resident Evil 2 — also from Capcom, for crying out loud — was an almost pitch-perfect example of how to bring a moribund series back to life. Ironically, of the two games it’s Resident Evil 2 that feels fresh and newly vital, while Devil May Cry 5 comes off as nothing more than a shuffling, moaning zombie of a game by comparison.