So, I guess I should say this up front: I've never played a Devil May Cry game. It's probably important to lead with that so you know, if you are coming here to know if it holds up to previous entries in terms of SSSing every combo on the hardest difficulty, you might want to look elsewhere. However, I can tell you how the game holds up to a newcomer who has never touched the series.
Now, let me tell you, as that newcomer – it's quite 'something'. Exactly what variety of 'something' is difficult to pinpoint as Devil May Cry 5 throws so much at the wall, it can be hard to tell exactly what's sticking. What becomes clear pretty early on though, is that enough of it is.
To sort out the continuity first, Devil May Cry 5 is a continuation of the original franchise. Sorry Ninja Theory, but the 2013 reboot has fallen to the wayside in order for original director, Hideaki Itsuno to return unburdened for this one. The game opens with a Qliphoth (a big demon tree) sprouting out of the ground of Red Grave City, which ends up being bad news for those in town as they quickly find themselves being harvested for their blood in order to satisfy a mysterious need of a demon called Urizen. The game takes place partially out of sequence. This allows it to throw players into the deep-end, putting you in the shoes of Nero, who is accompanied by the mysterious V on the way to finding Dante, who is already in heated battle with the impossibly powerful bad guy. You then spend the next 15-20 hours trying to sort out how things went so terribly wrong before moving into some truly ludicrous territory.
It's clear Devil May Cry 5 has a distinct tone. Due to the utterly ludicrous nature of the events of the story, it's clear that things are turned up to 11 for the latest instalment. If you are coming in looking for a grounded, heartfelt story, Devil May Cry 5 has no time for you and your pithy wants. It's about paying off characters, if not by top of the shelf writing, than by having them navigate a blood-drenched neon rave party that's sponsored by Hot Topic. That works for the most part. The sheer absurdity of the whole thing is almost impressive, and it's clear that the team at Capcom knew what it was doing. It's silly, but when it hits its peaks, it had me exclaiming to myself 'oh, come on!' then followed by a gleeful laugh. It's indulgent, but I suspect that is the point.
However, because Devil May Cry goes for so much so often throughout its campaign, there is a lot that doesn't quite come together. There is a gradiant at work. On one side, you have brilliant absurdity, on the other. a juvenile gratuitousness. I'll keep spoilers light, but I'm one of the weapons you get mid-game is a motorcycle made of a beaten boss that you get to ride and then split in two to use as melee chainsaw swords? Great stuff. Well done.
However on the other end of the spectrum, for example, you have the frankly astonishing way the game treats its female characters. There are three significant women in the game, and while it may be part and parcel with the series, their function in the story feels beyond outdated. They're either there to be diminished, saved, or ogled at. It's got a real brazenness about it too that is almost impressive, but not in a way I'd commend. It's pure gall. This and several occasions when it feels like it's trying just a little too hard to be kooky, are when Devil May Cry 5 can feel like hard work.
However, if you are a fan of the series with investment in these characters, the installment has a real sense of bringing together what and who is important. While there is plenty of room for the series to continue, the game has a sense of a final chapter. It's, if not exactly fan service, then at least meant to pay off what fans will want to see.
Of course, this is only a part of why people love this series. The combo driven slashing is where the real meat lies and in this area, Devil May Cry 5 succeeds impressively. That is, when it gets going. The early going in the game, which goes on a little too long, can feel very start and stop. While it's slowly unveiling its complicated systems, I found myself clamouring for more. I wanted fights to be just a little longer, feeling unable to really get an impressive sequence of moves together. It felt by the time the game's pumping soundtrack had just started to swell to its peak, an engagement would be over.
Thankfully, while that feeling persisted for a while, eventually the game takes the training wheels off and unleashes you against the beautifully grotesque demons (there is some seriously impressive work done by the artists of this game). When this happens, and you have spent enough to unlock special attacks and combos, the game burgeons into a delightful carousel of fury. Like me, you can button mash with vague ideas of how to execute specific combinations and have a great time, but it's clear, if you mastered the skillset, there is a depth here that would allow you to beautifully weave slashes, shots and demonic power into an elegant symphony of obliteration.
However, the game has a real strength in its variety. [If you want to go in with absolutely no spoilers for the game and haven't kept up with the pre-release coverage of the game, you might want to skip the next couple of paragraphs.] Throughout the playthrough, you will take up the mantle of three different characters in Nero, V and eventually, Dante. It's a credit to the designers how different each feels. Nero feels more combo focused all-rounder that has the nice wrinkle of the Devil Breaker, a variety of items that double as his amputated arm. These Devil Breakers all bring something different to the table, but all help him with his bread and butter, slashing and shooting.
V is something completely different. As a character he doesn't really get involved in the fight, instead commanding and relying on his three familiars, a wise-cracking vulture, a slashy panther and… a big goo monster. Each is bound to a different button, meaning you can be pulling off different moves and combos at the same time. He has a real patting-your-head-while-rubbing-your-tummy feel that is really neat. Also, he has a whole button dedicated to reading William Blake poetry which I find silly and charming in equal measure.
Dante on the other hand is definitely the most complex of the three. While at his core, he is functionally similar to Nero, bullets and swords and that, his wrinkle is to do with four different stances he can change between. There is one focused entirely on moving and dodging, one on melee attacks, another on shooting at range and the last on defence. You can change between them with just the press of a D-pad. That is only the tip of the iceberg. He has four different kinds of guns and four different melee options that can all be switched on the fly. This means you can combo a character into the air with one weapon and stance and then change the combination two or three times before even hitting the ground. When you start mathing out the options available to you, it begins to make your head spin.
Outside of combat, things are a little less interesting. The game from top to bottom has a real old-school vibe to it, and that can sometimes work for it, but not here. These sections of levels are generally about running down fairly linear rooms. To complete the retro vibe, you run around breaking big shiny environmental elements that then give you one of the many different currencies in game. Besides trying to find secret missions and maxing out the amount of currency you're gaining from each mission, these sections provide little but to usher you quickly into the next wide open space that is clearly going to house your next fight. It's not a huge issue as they serve a fairly simple purpose, but they feel menial. That feels at odds with a game that spends every other aspect of itself trying to be anything but.
Devil May Cry 5 certainly leaves an impression. What until recently felt like a franchise unable to come back from the brink, now feels like one with a future. It's a game that cranks up its absurdity and style to the max and sometimes that works. Other times, it doesn't. The core is solid as a rock though. That is important because, without the foundation of deep, varied and engaging combat that absolutely rips, it would fall apart. Its quality allows the game to be wrapped in thumping dance tracks, grotesque Gothic hellspawn, blood, melodrama and a sense of trying to one-up its own ludicrousness. All of its elements blend into a shameless cocktail that is sometimes wonderful glee and sometimes puerile. It strikes me that there is a real sense of adolescence to it, both the unburdened silliness and the wincing immaturity that comes with that. More than once, I rolled my eyes at it. More than once, I giggled at just how far they take it. Yet, my parting feeling is that I can't say I didn't have a whole heap of fun indulging in what it brings to the party.