Now I’m motivated!

 

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The climax of Devil May Cry‘s magnificent return to form is nothing less than an epic clash of fantastic characters bearing the faces of literal models motion-captured and voiced by honest-to-goodness ex-Power Rangers, all set to what could only be described as the boppiest bop your ears will ever hear, like a beautiful dream given digital flesh.

But even after waiting well over a decade just for the chance to officially square up to Vergil once more – a character who has managed to sell two special editions of previous games almost entirely off the back of his playable presence alone isn’t enough to keep anyone coming back over and over again for one more round (not even “Oh dear looks like I’ve sailed past the 100 hour mark without even noticing” me), so what is it that keeps this showdown feeling so electric?

For a game that puts just as much emphasis on fighting with confidence and style as it does with actually getting on with dispatching the hordes of the underworld this ultimate conflict’s secret sauce appropriately enough begins with an act of courage: Devil May Cry 5’s designers had the brass balls to make the last area of this expensive “Heaven help our careers if this doesn’t score well” game be nothing more than a plain circular arena with no gimmicks or points of interest and populated by just one enemy – an enemy who looks very similar to every single one of his previous and already high-profile appearances (whether that’s in Devil May Cry or elsewhere), has no eleventh-hour social media impressing screen-filling transformations, and to top it all off you have to fight him like this twice. This is where a lesser game would stumble off the reviewer’s cliff and die: A repeated fight that’s already similar to the one literally millions of people cleared on their Playstation 2s? No fancy QTEs? No overly scripted dramatic escape sequence? And you’re seriously saying we can’t play as the delicious Goth poet (Who is canonically wearing no underpants. No, you cannot un-know that fact. You’re welcome.) any more?

This is all very not final boss-y, isn’t it? Especially for a modern “AAA” game – and even more so for one that has nothing less than the continued survival of the entire brand resting on its shoulders.

And it is perfect.

It all starts off ordinarily enough: As with any other good boss fight the first time is as intimidating as it is deadly, as you are mocked all the while (“Scum“) before burning through an initially scant supply of continue-granting gold and red orbs until – somehow – you finally come out of the other end, as exhausted as you are relieved. That D rank’s nothing to worry about – you’ll do better next time! …Only it turns out “next time” – even with another full run through’s worth of practise under your belt, is very much like the first time as Vergil’s damage output as well as his total health capacity markedly increases on every new difficulty tier, and then Son of Sparda (“hard”) mode has the sheer cheek to go and introduce some devastating new moves that will utterly destroy you you hope you will learn to parry one day with something other than Dante’s chin.

Great – but again this is all mostly (well crafted but) standard stuff. You play more, the boss hurts more, you learn more, you win more, and then…

For most games, even really good ones, once those early rushes of panic and wonder fade and give way to cold, hard, experience they leave you with an empty husk of an encounter to deal with – a strict set of rules and timings to observe as you skilfully erode their screen-wide health bar. It’s like finding out where a magician stores his rabbits, or that your dad wrote the reply letter you got from the Tooth Fairy after you lost your tooth at school and begged the teacher to write an apology note for you that time. Possibly. Nothing’s really changed, but the magic’s gone.

Of course Devil May Cry 5 is no different, not really – there are no tiny Dead Weights living inside your hardware primed and ready to perform an infinite set of improvised variants of the script at your whim; but it does do a much better job of keeping its wizard’s curtain closed than most.

It manages this because even though the sublime battle system –  all free-form combos and deft parries that can have you dancing around the denizens of hell once you know what you’re doing is where the game’s bread and butter lies, everything from the idle animations to the battle AI are always, always, guided first and foremost by the diverse personalities of the cast. Which doesn’t mean that I think the game’s “Stabbing yourself with a giant sword will either solve or cause all of your problems… maybe both” storytelling is particularly excellent (beyond getting loads of unsuspecting nerds to read William Blake poems); but the crucial part is that at all times, whether they’re under your control or not, the characters behave and react in an internally consistent way that matches their own unique temperaments – yes, even when dealing with Nico’s ACME-like van. This need to prioritise the characters above all else turns the final two missions into something exceptional – they aren’t just the last hurdle before the end of the game; they’re your victory lap, your chance to play to the crowd, to prove yourself – and the game does everything in its power to put on a show worthy of you.

This is never at the expense of putting up a real fight though: Vergil is as fleshed out and dangerous as any playable member of the DMC crew, bearing a versatile range of moves and counters that allow him to quickly adapt to anything you can dish out and when he catches you his attacks hurt like heck; and while it may not feel like it for a long while as he repeatedly skewers his only surviving relatives you really do have ways to combat everything the teleporting sod can throw at you, even if you deliberately strip both Dante and Nero down to the absolute bare essentials. But it’s far more than just learning how to cope – in keeping with the fluidity and personal freedom shown throughout the rest of the game’s scuffles you have two answers for everything: There are the safe ways to keep yourself from getting hit, and then there are stylish ways. Playing it safe aligns more with basic gut reactions to new or tricky attacks – plain old running away will actually keep you out of a lot of trouble, even if it does make following up with an attack of your own that much more difficult. Hey – it’s reliable and it works. On the other hand if you’re feeling brave you can try directly countering an attack or using the short window of invincibility the dodge rolls provide to get out of the way instead; these naturally come with the risk of being eviscerated but they also greatly increase your damage-dealing opportunities – and it doesn’t hurt that pulling off a slick counter at exactly the right moment, especially against a character who’s portrayed as being so very personally invested in taking you down, is one of the most *chef kiss* things gaming will ever have to offer.

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The crucial thing to keep in mind here is that both approaches work equally well from a pure “I don’t want to die” angle and both can be used in any and every situation during the fight and on any difficulty setting. This latitude means you can always mix and match your approach to every single attack thrown at you as your health and personal bravado levels allow, a form of organic on-the-job learning that lets you push yourself as far as you dare yet always entirely at your own pace.

What does that mean in practise? Let’s start by taking a look at one specific incident:

Vergil has a habit of throwing Summoned Swords at you from a distance in a relaxed and steady manner – it passes the time between cutting you down, I guess. On the grand Devil May Cry scale of ouchies these come in at somewhere around the “Ooh, that stings a bit” level – they’re no great threat to your survival and on their own they’re quite easy for both Dante and Nero to avoid, even without any last minute roll-to-the-side dodging. But this also makes them super-tempting parry practise – easy to see, low-risk, and predictable? Oh you are so going to regret hurling those things at me, Blue Dante. So the only thing to do is to start trying to send them back at him, relishing in the sound of that oh-so-satisfying *ting* as the parried shard is deflected by a perfectly-timed blow and then squeaking with joy as the returned sword buries itself in his shoulder, stopping him in his tracks. You don’t quite know what to do next – not yet – but it doesn’t matter because you’ve just been part of an exciting and visually rewarding micro-event and it’s all entirely of your own doing. No “HEY HAVE YA SEEN WHAT THIS GUY’S UP TO?” camera-zoom encouraged you to do this. There was no button prompt or tutorial pop-up. No “We’re going to keep repeating this until you do what we want you to do” design going on. You were dared and given the tools to follow through, and you were rewarded for it. The only thing to do once you’ve tasted that first sweet success is to try and do it again, building on the confidence boost that comes from visual feedback and practical advantages this counter provides until Vergil may as well save you the bother and bury them in his elaborate lapels himself.

…Except this time you mess up, and the first one hits. Not to worry though, the second one’s already on the way and you know the timing on th-*oof* Wait there’s ano-*ouch* Oh c’mon gi-*eep* Oh look, Dante/Nero are now stunned and completely helpless. This is where most enemy designers would twirl their stick-on moustaches and make sure their boss rushes in for the kill, immediately punishing both your mistake and your arrogance with a huge loss of health. But oh no, not Devil May Cry 5. What can happen next perfectly captures the game’s priorities and is a prime example of the reason why this fight will never get old:

Vergil doesn’t want you dead – he wants you defeated.

And you know this in your bones even without the game pausing here for a cutscene, or because the Sad Katana Hedgehog suddenly becomes invincible as he gives you a lecture on how badly he wants to see you put down – you know he wants you defeated because of how he behaves.  If he’s not already repositioning for another attack Vergil, the show-stealing sod, will turn his back to you and walk away. For a game that has invested so much time in making you feel like a demon-crushing badass of a hero – all rocket arm air tricks and chainsaw motorcycles – this is an insult. Yes, you’ve clearly made mistakes if you’ve ended up like this. Yes, you’re completely vulnerable in this moment. And now what – you’re not even worth fighting?!

This goes against every last line in the action game rulebook: It isn’t a typically “showy” animation, the boss isn’t even engaging you – never mind putting up a fight, and it’s not a special cutaway “event” for added tingly fight-drama or anything like that. But it is absolutely a Vergil move – especially when you realise he’s now just standing there, looking over his shoulder and waiting for you to recover before moving in for the (avoidable) kill. It makes you desperate to relieve him of his recently-revived guts, even though in the grand scheme of things nothing’s happened at all. This significant insignificance works as part of a normal playable attack sequence: You can see exactly what he’s doing, and you can dodge the painful follow up attack just like any other. It works as an expression of a character’s established personality: There’s no question that this is a believably Vergil-y thing to do (the arrogant sod). And it all works together to create a satisfying and believable whole: You – the player – are still part of the action, you are still in control, and yet there’s still a tangible real-time interplay between the two characters on screen as participants in an interactive event.

That’s where the magic lies, in the a back-and-forth alchemy where player, character, and boss meet and their reactions to the actual battle as you choose to play it, not through cutscene chatter or flashy but ultimately hollow QTEs. You’re doing this. You’re doing all of this – and you can trust that the game will respond to every last drop of extra effort you put in and do its best to play along with you. 

This is why Dante will call out a cheeky little “Give up!” as you successfully make him Royal Guard yet another attack, why Nero whittling away his dad’s health bar triggers several determined attempts to get his newfound father to acknowledge him, and why Vergil can even be goaded into taunting you back if you’ve got the nerve to break off an S-rank assault just so you can throw a little verbal punishment his way. Heck, even when you’re on your knees on the continue screen Devil May Cry 5 still asks itself how it can draw the cast into the moment, Vergil standing over you as he spouts lines like “You’ve disappointed me, Dante” or “So that’s it…” as you’re deciding whether to call it quits for the night. And if you do press on? “Round two!” – there is no escape, you can’t even agree to use a continue without the game turning it into another chance for Capcom’s “Legendary Devil Hunter” to inject some of his pizza-loving playfulness into the experience.

This game is determined to envelope you not just in a game, or a setting, or a story, but all three combined – and it works. You’re not merely fighting a boss, not any more. You’re not even fighting a designer’s finely-crafted enemy AI routine. You’re fighting Vergil.

Or to be more accurate: Vergil is fighting you.

Who’s the last boss in Devil May Cry 5? You are.

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