The Art Of Fighting
Capcom takes stylish action to its peak in Devil May Cry 5, Dante’s most spectacular game to date
The hit pause is one of videogaming’s greatest tricks. A brief, brief, almost imperceptible freeze in the action when a blow hits home, it may have been invented primarily to help fighting-game players react to the hit and continue their combos, but its real magic is in the way it emphasises the impact of a successful attack. Devil
May Cry 5 is full of them, naturally; this is a Capcom game of supremely fast, impeccably stylish action. Yet here it feel sit feels celebratory, reverential even, pulling in references from the wider Capcom universe and delivering them with, in the context of its publisher, an unprecedented visual sheen. Dante, Devil May Cry’s headline protagonist, has here been blessed with a Shoryuken. Its animation has three obvious, lengthy and quite beautiful hit pauses. Bang, oof, pow. Magic.
As if the Street Fighter reference wasn’t clear enough, the weapon Dante uses to perform the iconic move is called Balrog. It has two modes, one a peek-aboo boxing style that recalls not only Capcom’s famous boxer, but in its rapid bobs, weaves and bobs, the sadly overlooked God Hand. The other, focused on kicks, has its roots capoeira, ,but it equally calls to mind Street Fighter Vs Ken. There are moments where Devil May Crys feels like a kind of Capcom uber-game, a collation and celebration of some of tis finest work delivered in dazzling style. Director Hideaki Istuno acknowledges them again: "The Balrog is absolutely a Street Fighter reference, but the moves themselves weren't really inspired by our other games. Though our intent was very much to say,'Alright, let's see if we can make a boxing fighting style that looks cooler, and more stylish, than any other boxing style Capcom has made: We were trying to one-up the rest of the Capcom teams in that respect, for sure." Bang,oof,pow,Job done.
THERE ARE MOMENTS WHERE DEVIL MAY CRY 5 FEELS LIKE A KIND OF CAPCOM UBER-GAME
Itsuno’s return to Devil May Cry has been a long time coming. Too long, if you ask the small, but tediously vocal, subset of DMC’s fanbase that took such umbrage at the series’ previous instalment, 2013’s
DmC: Devil May Cry. Developed by UK studio Ninja Theory and powered by a needlessly controversial visual redesign of Dante, it was overseen from Japan by Itsuno. Without it, Devil May Cry 5 would likely look very different. Itsuno took frequent trips to the UK during the game’s development, and has fond memories of its fish and chips (and less fond ones of its immigration queues, since one of his visits coincided with the London Olympics). “I really fell in love with it,” he tells us. “You have all these amazing elements in the architecture; it’s modern, but it’s gothic. You’ll have this great gothic architecture, and on the first floor there’s a McDonald’s. I thought that was so cool, this amazing juxtaposition, and I thought it would be a great place for a Devil May Cry game.” When the time came to scout locations for DMC5, Itsuno sent a squad to the UK – to London primarily, but also further afield, to castles and cathedrals around the Home Counties.
The result of that endeavour, Red Grave City, looks a little familiar, the series-standard looming gothic towers surrounded by pillar boxes, street-signs and level furniture captured on research trips and implemented to give the place a distinctly London flavour – albeit one that has been overrun by demons and an evil tree that’s smashing through its glorious architecture and drinking the citizens’ blood. Nothing worse than what you’ll find on the District Line at rush hour, perhaps, but while Red Grave is clearly modelled on London, it’s also obviously a work of fiction. “We set the game in a fictional city, but we use references so we can hopefully recreate the feeling of a place,” producer Matt Walker says. “We don’t want to copy anything that exists in the real world, because that would be, well, copyright infringement [laughs]. But we want it to be something people can relate to.”
Whatever the inspiration, Red Grave City looks sumptuous, and even before the steel starts flying it’s clear this is one of the prettiest games Capcom has yet produced. Character work has come on leaps and bounds, with a far more realistic look to the central cast (a Hype in E324 featured an uncaptioned portrait of new NPC ally Nico; one reader got in touch to ask why we hadn’t named the girl in the picture, assuming her to be part of the dev team). Hair and clothing flaps realistically in accordance with character movements. And once the action starts and the alpha effects kick in, it is simply something else. This is new territory for Devil May Cry, which has always had a b-movie aesthetic to it, a certain grubbiness entirely in keeping with its blood-splattered, metal-soundtracked demonic grime. The claret is still there, of course. The music, too (Devil Trigger, the typically ludicrous theme for
DMC5’ s announcement trailer, hit number one on the iTunes rock chart during E3). But it has never looked quite like this.
That’s all thanks to the RE Engine, Capcom’s internal tech that was built to power Resident Evil VII but which on this evidence is far more versatile than its name suggests. Well, it is now Itsuno and team have made a game with it. “The engine was originally made for Resident Evil, and it didn’t have all the functionality we needed to make Devil May Cry 5,” Itsuno says. “But that actually played to our benefit. We had just the essentials: a limited set of functions that we needed in order to get started. Because of that, we were able to build out the game in such a way that it didn’t have a lot of fluff; it would be a nice lean engine that had specifically what we needed.”
“It’s Capcom’s first time implementing a proper, physically based rendering pipeline for a product,” Walker adds. “But we did add other stuff. The reason the facial animation looks so good is we implemented blend shapes, which a lot of the best triple-A developers have been using for a long time. But we didn’t have them in MT Framework, and we didn’t have them in RE Engine until Devil May Cry 5 came along. We spoke to the engineers, told them what we needed, and worked with them to get that up and running. We did, and it’s become a new tool for the engine.”
This push for realism is not without its problems, however. This, lest we forget, is a game in which you can swing a sword with such force that it throws the enemy into the air for some gravity-defying aerial combat. It is a game where you fight your way through an increasingly bizarre, gruesome, and enormous set of demons. It is a work of arch fantasy, in other words, and when reality intrudes, things can get complicated. Itsuno recalls working on Devil May Cry 4, which released in early 2008 and was, the development team felt, a realistic-looking game. “But you look back at it now and it kind of looks like anime. Now we’ve moved forward, and we’ve made it as realistic as we can, but
WHATEVER THE INSP IRATION, RED GRAVE CITY LOOKS SUMPTUOUS
we realised that a lot of the game-y stuff we’ve done before doesn’t translate well to this new look.”
Animation was a particularly difficult thing to get right, with the tricks and techniques previously thought as genre standards proving no longer fit for purpose. How do you deal with cancels, for example – where one animation stops and is overwritten by another when the player hits a different button – when your character looks real, and therefore needs to move as such? And how do you respond to that problem without spoiling the responsive feel of the controls that fans of this genre demand?
“We used to procedurally interpolate between two animations, so it would come off pretty smoothly,” Itsuno says. “But we found that with such realistic graphics, the procedural stuff only works in certain instances. There were a lot of cases where we couldn’t interpolate like that and have it look natural, so we had to go in and create, by hand, new animations to insert in between them. They’re not that long, maybe just a frame or two, but they let us create something that feels as responsive as a Capcom game should, but still looks natural in this context. That’s something we’re really proud of.”
DEVIL MAY CRY IS NOT A DIFFICULT GAME TO PLAY; IT IS SIMPLY A DIFFICULT ONE TO BE BRILLIANT AT
If things have had to change under the hood, we certainly don’t notice during a lengthy hands-on session, comprising multiple playthroughs of the demos Capcom took to Gamescom and Tokyo Game Show. This is, for all the technical tweaks and graphical splendour, still Devil May Cry. That’s most obvious when we play as Dante – no surprise, since he’s the series’ only constant. This is Itsuno’s Dante, meaning he has access to four distinct styles, switchable on the fly using the D-pad, and a host of melee and ranged weapons, which can also be changed in realtime with a tap of either trigger. Despite the complexity, the controls themselves are reasonably straightforward, with the movelist requiring little more than slightly different timing, or a directional modifier on the analogue stick. Timing windows are generous, too.
Devil May Cry is not a difficult game to play; it is simply a difficult one to be brilliant at, and that is the heart of its appeal.
That’s not to say we don’t struggle. The TGS build, where Dante was playable for the first time, supports save data, and a Capcom UK community manager has been busy in the weeks since Japan’s biggest videogame show. Dante has access to half a dozen melee weapons here, and if we’re honest, it’s a little overwhelming at times – especially when an intended tap of a shoulder button to lock on or modify an attack comes out as a trigger press, switching our weapon. Some have multiple modes, too (the Balrog’s punch or kick mode is selected with a button combination). It won’t be this way in the final game: as before, Dante will start out with a couple of weapons, and unlock more as he progresses through the story. But it does mean that we spend much of our demo feeling a little clumsier than we – or Dante, you suspect – might like.
This is the point of Dante, however. While he has ranged options, he does his best work up close, and rapid switching between different fighting styles and melee weapons is the key to climbing the style rankings. As ever, enemies are designed in such a way as to encourage, if not quite force, you to switch up your approach; large, or shield-bearing foes require a heavier weapon, while the smaller, flightier kind are best dealt with using something with a little more zip. While we’ve always felt more comfortable with the latter, the bigger weapons here are an absolute joy to use. The pick of the bunch sees Dante fight with half a motorcycle on each fist. Normal blows pack quite the punch, but hammer an attack button and the two halves are joined together, Dante sending enemies back to the netherworld by jumping on the saddle and performing a relentlessly damaging series of donuts.
It’s bonkers, yes, and we can’t help but wonder if there’s a limit to what Capcom considers acceptable when it comes to Dante’s most outlandish attacking tools. “There such a thing as too crazy!” Itsuno says. “The motorcycle that changes into, essentially, a dualwielded chainsaw? It’s pretty cool. But you can go over that line, and have ideas that are so ridiculous, they’d just feel like we were trying too hard. We’re constantly trying to straddle that line.”
THE PICK OF THE BIGGER WEAPONS SEES DANTE FIGHT WITH HALF A MOTORCYCLE ON EACH FIST
“FOR A SERIES TO HAVE STAYING POWER, IT HAS TO BE ABLE TO BRING IN NEW FANS”
Nero, the second playable character, is further evidence of that line being straddled, since he fights with a series of disposable (and explodable) prosthetic arms, dubbed Devil Breakers. Yet his is a very different fighting style. “Dante is about choice,” Walker says. “You can change your fighting style and weapons at any time; he’s all about style and grace. Nero’s supposed to be a bit more head-on.” His is a more patient, controlling and strategic playstyle; not only do you need to think about your loadout, since you can only carry a certain number of Devil Breakers at once, but you also need to manage their use. A tap of L1 will disrupt an opponent’s attack or combo, pushing them away, but it’ll destroy the Devil Breaker immediately. Pick-ups dot the levels and restocks can be acquired from a travelling NPC, but when supplies run dry, Nero is a good deal weaker.
With them, though, he is a dramatic improvement on his incarnation in Devil May Cry 4, though the fundamentals of his playstyle are the same. If Dante is about getting up in the enemy’s face, Nero is about putting them exactly where he wants them; get up in the air with one opponent and, once they’ve been dealt with, you can pull the next up towards you, or you to them. New special attacks, unique to each Devil Breaker, add the requisite style and destructive power, the effect depending on whether you’re on the ground or in the air. One Breaker’s grounded special is a Kamehameha-style energy beam, which can be manually aimed as it fires; in the air, Nero will unleash a volley of lasers in multiple directions.
Less is known about V, the third playable character, beyond his role in the story: he’s the one who seeks Dante’s help to rid Red Grave City of its demonic infestation. Yet one look at V tells you that he is going to handle quite differently. He carries a book and walks with a cane; he doesn’t exactly scream heavy-metal badass. “With Dante and Nero, we did our best to make them so that they would have separate playstyles, but there is some overlap between them: they both have guns and melee weapons,” Itsuno says. “If you get good at playing one of those characters… they’re relatives, so it makes sense that you’d be able to get good with the other one, to an extent. V, on the other hand, doesn’t have a sword or a gun, so he’s in a completely different place, and fights in a completely different way.
“Because of that, whether you’re a fan of the series of are completely new to it, V is a new starting point for everyone. We’re really looking forward to seeing how people are going to respond to it. We think he’s really cool.”
Dante may be back, and may never have looked better. But V, as his name implies, is Devil May Cry 5’ s secret sauce. For all the advancements in technology, for all the new additions to one of the most satisfying battle systems around, the most remarkable thing about Devil May Cry 5 is the number at the end. This is a beloved series in a genre with plenty of passionate fans, but it’s all too rare for a game of this kind to have staying power. How has Devil May Cry bucked the trend, and spanned three console generations? Itsuno, naturally for someone who’s worked on every game except the original, has the answer.
“In order for a series to have staying power, it has to be able to bring in new fans, as well as continue to please existing ones,” he says. “If it can’t bring in new people, the series is going to die out. I think about the games I love – fighting games and horizontal shooters. They come out with an amazing game, and it’s exactly what players are looking for at the time. Then you have to look at, what’s the Plus Alpha for this game? What’s the extra element that you’re going to add on? And it gets more and more complex, so it gets harder and harder for newcomers to come in and enjoy the series.
“In Devil May Cry 4, I very specifically tried to address that by making the initial playable character Nero. By giving people a new character to play with we were saying, ‘Okay, this is a new style for Devil
May Cry’. Eventually we gave people Dante, so once newcomers were used to playing Nero, they had Dante and all his different options at their disposal. That’s the key, really. You have to have something that’s approachable and enjoyable for people who are new to the series, as well as people that already love it.” That may sound like, with V waiting in the wings,
Devil May Cry 5 is yet to reveal to us its real magic. If that’s the case we may be in for something special indeed. This series has never looked so spectacular, or been so varied in its combat; we have seen barely a sniff of the former, and the latter will be further bolstered by an apparent wimp with a walking stick. It may call to mind a handful of other Capcom classics, but Devil May Cry has a class and style all of its own. In the unlikely event it somehow doesn’t quite come together as planned, it will at least go down in history as Capcom’s finest love letter to the hit pause. Bang, oof, pow. See you in March.