I'm a Devil May Cry nut, but also something of an outlier when it comes to certain received wisdom about the series. I thought Ninja Theory's 2013 reboot of the series, DmC: Devil May Cry, was both a brilliant game and exactly the reinvention that Dante and his crew needed. However, it inspired extreme reactions. A vocal minority decried the new start, picking on everything from the fact development had been moved out of Japan to the fact that Dante's hair wasn't white. On release it didn't sell as well as it needed to and Ninja Theory, given the experience, was probably quite glad Capcom didn't want a sequel.
This context matters because, where DmC was a fresh start, Devil May Cry 5 is a deliberate return to the 'classic' series style, and is arriving a mere 11 years (!) after Devil May Cry 4. Even at the time DMC4 felt a little played-out: it still had an excellent combat system, and for the first half focused entirely on new character Nero with his wonderful grabby arm. But it was the same old style with, for the most part, the same old ideas. The perfect example of this is the game's structure: after Nero's half, you play back through the same bosses and environments as Dante. DMC4 was a game that had all the elements, and its realisation of Dante was superb, but it lacked the flair and riotous imagination of DMC3. No wonder Bayonetta, developed by the original DMC team and released the next year, blew it out of the water.
It's therefore strange to see DMC5, so many years later, returning to this same battleground. If you've ever played one of these games, then this is like an old pair of slippers. You move through environments of impressive scale, albeit on a narrow path, and every so often walls appear and box you in with a bunch of enemies. You beat them all, the walls shatter, rinse and repeat until you hit the boss. The environments contain familiar elements like red stone clusters, which you attack to gain orbs, various pickups that eventually increase your health bar or can revive you, and enemies that die by bursting into goodies (which then flow into your character with a satisfying sound effect that always reminds me of the chinking of coins).
Yes, this is one for the fans alright. But if DMC5's structure feels a little too conventional, that's probably because all the effort has gone into making something fresh out of Nero and new character V. Along with Dante these are your three playable options, and each has a unique style. Dante is absolutely what you'd expect and, best of all, retains his ability to switch between his four styles instantaneously (using the d-pad). These styles have new elements but are arguably the core of what made the series (from DMC3 onwards) such an exceptional fighting game, and Dante's vanilla moveset has all the classics too: the stinger dash forwards, the launcher, a bunch of different basic combos based around timing attacks differently. In other words, this character is the heritage aspect of DMC5: the holy grail for long-term fans, the return of the king.
I initially spent less time with Dante than with the two new characters, but long enough to start knocking off some of my Royal Guard ring-rust and belt demonic heads together with SSStylish aplomb. Dante's sections are the purest and toughest fighting experience of what I played, and featured some superb enemy design: there are these giant armoured knights that, working in concert with less capable enemies, have the kind of varied and tricky moveset that will really ruin your day. Here you have to start being brave, going for counters and parries and breaking through into the mobs, because playing passively just gets you steamrollered.
It was after such a flattening that I tried one of DMC5's tweaks to an old feature, the ability to revive for a set number of red orbs (which increases each time it's used on a level) or a rare gold orb. The latter have been in the series since DMC3's special edition, but the ability to use red orbs is new and comes in three tiers: you can spend 1500 to revive with a little life, or multiple thousands more to revive with greater health.
These options work really well, because the nature of a revive system is you're (usually) going to be using it during an especially tough fight or a boss. And when the time came, I found myself with the interesting decision of whether I could finish off this enemy by spending the minimum amount — red orbs are the main currency and are used to buy permanent upgrades like new moves, among other things — or whether I'd just end up spending more anyway, or indeed whether I just wanted to be a total miser and restart the fight. It's not an Earth-shattering addition, but it's a nicely thought-through one.
There's a small theme of risk and reward going through a lot of DMC5's new stuff. Nero's magic arm from DMC4 has now been ripped off, and he has a very high-tech stump instead which can be fitted with various mechanical arms. Each of these does something unique: anything from an aerial dodge move, which is amazingly useful against larger bosses, to launching a rocket which Nero can then surf. But these powers take time to play out and, if Nero takes a hit during the move's animation, that arm shatters. This is great because it's allowed the arms to be completely overpowered, but you can't use them carelessly.
After surfing a rocket into a giant demon's face, cleaving through his stomach with a sword, and gracefully diving away from his wild flails using a new arm, I started to really enjoy playing as Nero. The arm system is a little confusing at first, simply because there are so many varieties: he carries three at once, others are found scattered through levels, and you can buy more at periodic shop screens. But once you've got a feel for the ones you like, each pit stop becomes an opportunity to fiddle with Nero's build. Maybe there's a lot of slow, powerful enemies around, so you want a max firepower loadout. Maybe you just want to take three rocket arms in and fly around. It's hard to tell, given I only played as Nero for a couple of hours, how flexible this system will ultimately prove, but it definitely distinguishes Nero's fighting style from Dante, and can lead to some spectacular battles.
Oh: one really annoying aspect of the game as it stands is that your combo, naturally, always begins at the bottom of the scale, with a 'D' rating. This is accompanied by a voice proclaiming that you're 'DISMAL', which might be fair comment but feels a little pre-emptive at the start of every attack. If I'm losing steam and dropping back down the combo scale, fine, slag me off: doing it at the start of every combo? Feels weird.
Nero's sections also felt, though your mileage may differ, a good deal easier than those featuring Dante. This may be because, if you get in a good rhythm with the arm powers, you can basically crush a mob in 20 pyrotechnic seconds without much in the way of response: when you start stuttering and can't come up with the right abilities, things do slow down. These fights are aiming to make the player feel good in what is, in comparison to Dante's intricate style-switching, quite an uncomplicated way. Your attacks are OTT, hit enemies like a truck, and Capcom's expertise in fighting game effects shines through every impact.
Then there's V, who offers something completely different. Dante and Nero share a basic core of sword combat, then shoot off in different directions. V uses three familiars to fight, demonic manifestations that have their own movesets and attack enemies on the player's behalf. They cannot kill enemies, however, and can be temporarily KO-ed themselves. So V's style involves fighting enemies at a distance, using these tools, then warping into a near-death enemy to deliver an achingly elegant finishing blow.
If you're reading 'V' and thinking 'Virgil', who knows where the story is going, but also: yes. Virgil in DmC had an amazing fighting style built around projecting swords, which allowed him to warp around, attack at distance, and shield himself. V's style has a lot of these principles underlying it, even if it ultimately operates in quite a different manner. Your familiars are both weapons and tools of distraction. They're how you space enemies, keeping them away from V (who, outside of his finishing blows, can't effectively fight back), and this element of crowd control extends into using their attacks effectively. So you use the annoying little owl to pepper shots into the mobs and take down flying enemies, and the panther to deliver great rending swipes and what is basically a souped-up Sonic spin dash. After the baddies are softened-up appropriately, or massed together, it's time to summon in the big golem thing and watch it effortlessly hook through the crowd.
After destruction like that, V now looks out at a mass of stunned enemies with button prompts above their heads, and zooms between them delivering the killing blows with a walking stick. Whatever else there is to say about V's style, this aspect of it feels fantastic. There's such a deep satisfaction when you get it right and the familiars batter everything in front of them, and you zip about in their wake like some goth executioner (come to think of it, V even looks like Kylo Ren).
V's fighting sections are definitely something new for DMC. Whether his capabilities expand enough to give this system more depth, however, remains to be seen. After an hour or so playing as the character I was getting a little bored of the core moveset: the familiars look great, watching them rip through enemies is never not fun, and the finishers are fantastic. But V's sections are easier than even Nero's, and while this combat system looks complex in motion it's much simpler than what you're doing with Dante or Nero. I don't want to be too down on V, because I was playing with the basic moves (all three characters have many unlockable skills) and the nature of games like this is that what initially seems simple can prove to have devilish depths. But I got bored of V pretty quickly.
I spent my last hour with Dante. Beautiful, recognisable, thought-I'd-never-see-you-again, old-school, hardcore Dante. I decided to just practice my Royal Guard again, and try to master the separate sword parry. I found one fight with a load of those knight enemies, and just kept playing it over and over, feeling the memories come rushing back, my brain gradually dredging up combo timings I first learned decades ago.
I died, lots, and restarted, lots, before hitting some perfect timings, slicing through the whole lot with a mix of counters and straight-up aggression. I started to use Cerberus more, a set of demonic boxing gloves (and shoes!) that let you dance in and out of range before delivering hammer blows. Now I was starting to slip the taunt button in there, watching the enemies get angrier, pirouetting past their flailing blows, and I was loving life. The feeling was a bit like meeting an old friend and realising, over a drink or two, that you still make each other smile.
So it's fair to say that, come release, I'll be spending some serious time with Devil May Cry 5. But make no mistake that, among Capcom's contemporary productions, this is something of a weird one. This series was already reinvented, and it didn't take, so now it's going back to the classic formula. But in the 11 years since DMC4 we've seen both the Bayonetta games, as well as titles like Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, titles that arguably set a new bar for this genre. Alongside this, we've seen DMC's traditional competitors either disappear or transition out of the genre: Team Ninja now make Nioh, not Ninja Gaiden; God of War is now a story-led adventure with great combat, as opposed to a hack-and-slasher.
Devil May Cry 5 is the game that certain vocal elements of the Devil May Cry fanbase said they wanted. Well, Capcom's certainly gonna give it to them. For all the new elements, the comforting glow of the familiar envelops DMC5. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, and the game may well turn out to be an absolute cracker. But one thought does keep recurring: be careful what you wish for.