SEATTLE – As someone who's always been peripherally aware of the Devil May Cry series, I knew roughly what to expect when I went hands-on with its fifth installment at PAX West 2018. I knew I would take control of a demon hunter named Nero, that I would string together incredibly stylish combos with refined gun- and swordplay, and that I would take on a variety of fearsome enemies in challenging combinations.
What I didn't know was just how much I would love the music – and how said music would inspire me to become a better player.
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In what may be the best incentive I've ever seen to get better at the game, Devil May Cry 5's music actually gets better as your combat skills improve. And that alone made me completely reconsider the way I approached the game.
The demo progressed roughly the way I expected a Devil May Cry adventure would. Nero and his sidekick crashed a van into a city under siege by demons. There were human-sized monsters with four arms, flying insectile swarms, gigantic barbed tentacles and corpselike undead – a pretty respectable variety of enemies for an action hero of Nero's caliber.
As I worked my way from one enemy encounter to another, I had three tools at my disposal: a sword, a gun and a set of gauntlets known as Devil Breakers. The Devil Breakers are one of the more interesting things at Nero's disposal, since they pack an extremely powerful punch, but can break easily. I had to decide whether to use them sparingly with regular attacks or break them immediately for all-out assaults. In the demo, extra Devil Breakers were plentiful, but in the full game, they'll be a much more limited resource.
Combat itself feels fast and fluid, with Nero's blows having a real sense of impact against his enemies. But the ranking system is where combat really distinguishes itself. In a lot of action games (including the Devil May Cry series), encounters or stages will rank you based on how much damage you take, how quickly you complete challenges, how stylish your combos were and so forth. The rankings are good for bragging rights and may provide some in-game bonuses, but not much else.
In Devil May Cry 5, though, the rankings are immediate and impactful. You begin every encounter with a D (for "Dismal") rank. But as you start slaying enemies, your ranking can move up all the way to SSS. And as your rankings improve, so does the music.
A D-rank gives you a few basic percussion beats, and not much else. In most battles, I achieved a B (for "Badass") rank, which gave me a satisfying techno melody, too. It was enough incentive to vary my melee and ranged attacks, as well as keep up the pressure on enemies rather than trying to hang back and play conservatively.
But in one incredible moment – a beautiful combo against a scythe-wielding undead, which combined sword, gun and Devil Breakers – I achieved the coveted SSS rank, and everything changed. The simple techno melody had complex harmonies, and an intense female vocalist blasting out lyrics. A run-of-the-mill combat encounter went from routine to thrilling in the time it took me to land a single good combo, and I couldn't help but feeling like I'd lost something when my rank slipped back down to the B-range.
The demo ended with a battle against an enormous boss called Goliath, who shot flaming fireballs out of its stomach. This time, I didn't do as well, succumbing to its attacks after I'd lopped off about 3/4ths of its health. Needless to say, the music this time wasn't nearly as memorable as I'd hoped – but that's partially my own fault. If I play the game again, I'll be sure to improve my skills, if only to get the full scope of the soundtrack.
Devil May Cry 5 will be out for PC, PS4 and Xbox One on March 8, 2019, with a probable price of $60.