There’s little in the depths of hell that surprises me anymore. I wander down cramped hallways built from still-wet bone and sinew with nauseating puddles of blood dotting the ground. When the space opens up, I know exactly what’s coming: a fight with demonic hordes with strange, bloody membranes blocking every exit. Once I kill the skeletons and lizard monsters, I’ll be free to move through the next ghastly hallway on my way to kill even more undead creatures. The life of a demon hunter might sound mundane, a repetitive existence of whirring blades, smoking guns, and copious amounts of blood. It’s a job, after all.
But honestly? I’m having so much fun that it doesn’t feel like work at all.
That concept, making action both feel and look amazing, has always been central to the Devil May Cry series. And that hasn’t changed at all with Devil May Cry 5. Your characters battle evil while wearing flashy leather jackets, and after each chapter, you’re ranked on how stylish your combat skills are. The game gives you all of the tools you need to stand out in battle, too. There are multiple playable characters, all with wildly different abilities, and as you progress, you’ll unlock a huge range of new skills and weapons. Even if you’re terrible at action games, it shouldn’t take you too long to start juggling bad guys in the air using only a pair of pistols.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about Devil May Cry 5, though, is how strictly it sticks to the formula that has made the series so beloved. In an era dominated by constant updates, open worlds, and live games that never really end, Devil May Cry 5 is defiantly old-school. It’s a strictly single-player experience with clearly defined boundaries and goals. Even the copious cutscenes are amazing, something that’s become increasingly rare. There are some drawbacks to this structure, such as the tedious loading times, but for the most part, it’s refreshing. Games like this, particularly ones as lavishly produced as Devil May Cry 5, are a dying breed.
Though it’s the fifth proper entry in the series and the first in more than a decade, Devil May Cry 5 is very welcoming to new players. You start the game as Nero, a silver-haired demon hunter who wields a giant sword, a pistol, and a prosthetic arm that doubles as a grappling hook. At the outset, a hellish plant-like creature is taking over an entire city, sinking its roots into buildings and roads and just generally turning it into a hell on earth. Naturally, this involves hordes of monsters ranging from giant bugs with explosive abdomens to floating masks that wield giant scissors. One of the best things about the game is its hideously inventive creature designs, which offer new and disturbing takes on familiar monsters like fiery hellbats and scythe-wielding skeletons. The bosses, culled from religious folklore and mythology, are particularly unnerving.
After a few years of well-documented decline, Japanese publisher Capcom has become a commanding presence once again. That shift has primarily come through revitalizing the company’s biggest franchises. It started in 2017 with the terrifying Resident Evil 7 and continued last year with the long-awaited open-world Monster Hunter World and the pleasingly retro Mega Man 11. Capcom is already behind two of the best games of early 2019, with the grisly remake of Resident Evil 2 and, now, the pure action bliss of Devil May Cry 5. These games are all very different from each other, but each manages to narrow in on precisely what made the particular franchise so beloved in the first place, while updating it for modern tastes. Now, we just need the company to revisit Dino Crisis.
While things don’t start out all that gruesome, the game gradually eases you into its nightmare. Early on, you’re fighting bad guys in the remains of a ruined city, but as you progress, you find yourself slowly descending into hell. There are subway tunnels where demonic tendrils shoot out of the ground and old hotels with hideous growths on the walls. Eventually, nothing looks familiar. It’s all bone and blood and burned monsters with far too many eyeballs.
For a game that is almost entirely about action, DMC5 also has a surprisingly elaborate and engaging story. It jumps back and forth in time, with events viewed from multiple perspectives. While it starts out simple enough, eventually, it becomes an intricate mystery that’s fascinating whether you’re familiar with the characters or not. (However, the developers have included a helpful backstory video if you want to get up to speed.) Thankfully, it also doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it frequently shifts toward delicious camp. At one point, when Nero miraculously survives an ambulance crash, he shouts, “Somebody call a doctor?” Later in the game, the grim demon hunter Dante does an impressive Michael Jackson impersonation after acquiring a new weapon.
All that said, action is the core reason to play this game. The story is mostly there to give you a reason to learn how to swing a sword. On a moment-to-moment basis, DMC5 simply feels incredible: the way you can chain attacks together, the satisfying weight and punch of each weapon, the explosive special attacks. When you push a button, the effect is immediate. Not only does the action look cool, but the game encourages you to be stylish and inventive. Simply standing in one spot firing a shotgun at demons is a terrible strategy that will get you killed. It’s also boring. Once you start to mix and match abilities, that’s when you’ll start to have success — and fun.
Considering how straightforward the game really is, DMC5’s action has to work well. There wouldn’t be much of a reason to play otherwise. While the world is a gorgeously detailed, fully realized hellscape, there isn’t much to explore. It’s mostly a series of hallways that connect larger rooms where the combat happens. There’s some light platforming and a few simple puzzles to solve as well as a handful of (barely) hidden areas where you can find power-ups, but mostly the world is basic in its layout.
In a lot of games, this would be a major issue. But in the case of DMC5, it allows the game to focus entirely on what it does best. Those moments when you’re confronted with waves of demonic monsters aren’t filler material like in many other games. Instead, they’re the entire point of the experience. What keeps them from feeling tedious or frustrating isn’t just how thrilling they can be; it’s the way you’re constantly learning new things. Much of this comes down to the different characters. While you start out as Nero, you’ll soon take control of V, a new character who looks like Adam Driver crossed with a SoundCloud rapper. Unlike Nero, he doesn’t fight directly. Instead, he commands shadowy creatures to fight for him, only swooping in himself in order to deal the final blow. Eventually, you’ll also play as Dante who has a range of fighting styles that you can alternate between at any moment.
Not only does each playable character feel distinct from the next, but they also evolve over the course of the game. The Nero you start out as is nothing like the one that enters the final battle. Ostensibly, you’re doing the same thing constantly throughout the game, but it never feels that way. Instead, each confrontation is a chance to test new skills. It’s hard to explain how exciting it can be to trial a new missile launcher or a pair of demon gloves or a mechanical arm made out of cutlery. The battles in DMC5 may all look the same to the uninitiated, but each one is a unique, blood-soaked snowflake.
That’s not to say that the retro structure is without its flaws. There are a lot of long loading times in the game, and, even as a self-professed fan of old-school cutscenes, I still found the extended cinematics to be a bit much at times. This is particularly true toward the end of the game as it starts to descend heavily into DMC lore. If you aren’t a longtime fan, there are elements that will go right over your head, but these are minor quibbles.
Devil May Cry 5 is a very particular kind of game. Most modern blockbusters fuse together elements of different genres and play styles in an attempt to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. DMC5 doesn’t do that. Instead, it zeroes in on what it does particularly well: fast, fluid, and frantic combat that remains fresh even a dozen hours into the experience. Despite its stunning presentation, it can feel like a game from a different era, as if you were playing the best-looking PS2 game ever made — and I mean that as the highest compliment.
The hallways may all look the same, but no two encounters are alike.
Devil May Cry 5 launches March 8th on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.