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Devil May Cry 5 review - an unashamedly old school return for an action legend

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Capcom returns to its trusted formula for something that plays like a outrageously pretty PS2 game - and that's a very good thing.

Style is everything, and Devil May Cry 5 has it in spades. It's in the blithe way rakish new character V holds a book of poetry and reads from it in the middle of battle. It's in the adolescent aggression that flows through the attacks of Nero, the character who was front and centre in the last numbered entry finally coming into his own here. It's in the swagger of Dante - oh that sweet, sweet swagger - who brings along every trick he's learned in the series' long history alongside a few new ones. It's an outrageously broad vocabulary of punishment that Devil May Cry 5 boasts.

In full flow Devil May Cry 5 is a savage, spectacular action game, stylish to the extreme if not exactly fashionable. After the Shoreditch edge of 2013 prequel DmC: Devil May Cry, this is a return to the more classically teenage boy concerns of old; it's all long hair, leather jackets, motorbikes and demons and music that raaaaaaaaaaawwwks. I absolutely love it, even if perhaps the one misstep here is a failure to acknowledge Ninja Theory's frequently wonderful, wrongly maligned spin-off that feels a little like capitulation. This is Devil May Cry as you remember it from its noughties pomp, a rediscovery and thorough retooling rather than a reinvention.

And so it feels and plays like a PlayStation 2 game. Maybe you see that as a slight, but I certainly don't intend it to be - PlayStation 2 games were awesome, and I admire Devil May Cry 5 for forgoing most mod cons to deliver a game that's unashamedly old school (save for the spectre of microtransactions, admittedly, though they're so slight that after my first playthrough I had to ask Capcom if they'd been removed entirely - they're still there, it turns out, as a shortcut to unlocking moves, but so generous is Devil May Cry 5's economy you've got to wonder why Capcom invited ill-will by keeping them in at all). The focus here is on action, and on pushing it to new extremes, and so intent is Devil May Cry 5 on doing so it doesn't have much time for other embellishments.

Nico's new to Devil May Cry 5, though like Lady and Trish she's confined to a supporting role. It's teased that Devil May Cry's women will have a starring role in the not-so-distant future, though.

That action is exquisite, thankfully, and more lavish than ever before. This isn't merely the feel of 60fps, but rather the real thing (on the X and Pro at least - base consoles do a noble job of keeping up, I'm told, and Digital Foundry will be along to do its thing shortly), and in the hand it's just dandy. The camera, which is freed up from Devil May Cry 4's stiff and semi-fixed offering, does a good job of keeping everything in frame, and there's a giddying amount to keep track of in what's always a fantastic looking game.

The setting helps. Devil May Cry 5 takes place in Red Grave City, a lightly reimagined London with twisted little spins on recognisable places. An analogue of Regent Street gets torn asunder by a demonic apocalypse, while Burrow Market is based on - well, you can probably figure that one out yourself. It's dark and gothic and moody, even before you descend into the underworld, but Devil May Cry 5 wears the aesthetic well, always keeping on the right side of the thin line between stylish and sulky.

As does its story, told via sumptuous cinematics that have the RE Engine flexing its muscles. It's standard the-stakes-have-never-been-higher stuff that centres on the core enigma of new character V, offering up few surprises in its twists and turns. Amid all its absurdities and contrivances, though, it finds an emotional throughline, thanks to an abundance of character and a neat structure. There's not quite the blunt backtracking of Devil May Cry 4, but it's certainly economic with its backdrops, telling a tale that winds throughout the course of a single day (with a handful of flashbacks thrown in for good measure). Did it make me cry? Of course not, but it did make me laugh out loud on more than one occasion, and the cutscenes have a cinematic swagger all of their own.

Son of Sparda difficulty unlocks once you've seen the campaign through once, and it's as brutal as ever. Bloody Palace is coming a little later this year as a free update for Devil May Cry 5.

That Devil May Cry swagger is at its most pronounced in the action itself, of course. Levels are lavish, if curiously old-fashioned - there are awkward platforming sections, puzzles that are there to be blunt-forced rather than seriously thought through - and it's here that Devil May Cry 5 feels the most dated. Perhaps it's because we've been spoiled by the set-pieces and flair of Bayonetta and its sequel - both those games having come since the last numbered Devil May Cry, somewhat shockingly - but there's that strange feeling of playing a game so rooted in its PlayStation 2 origins, told with the muscle and flair of contemporary Capcom and its RE Engine. It looks great, in short, but plays it very straight.

When those invisible barriers pop up and you're forced into combat, that mandate of serving up age-old thrills with modern visuals comes into its own. Devil May Cry 5 offers up three characters - locked off at certain points in the 20-mission campaign - who are so diverse in style it ends up feeling like three very different games. Happily, each one is as enjoyable as the other.

Nero retains his grabby moveset from Devil May Cry 4, though it's flourished by his acquisition of the Devil Breaker - a prosthesis that can be swapped out with consumables acquired and loaded out before missions or found on the battlefield. It inspires a slightly strange, counter-intuitive feeling at first - we're so used to having our entire vocabulary to hand in action games - but it opens up a new layer of strategy, and several new layers of depth. Each type of Devil Breaker comes with its own attributes and moves, so one moment you might have access to a shockwave, while another the ability to heal. The permutations are dizzying, and make playing Nero a constant journey of discovery, and if, like me, you felt his starring role in Devil May Cry 4 felt something like an act of Metal Gear Solid 2-esque misdirection, then here he finds something like redemption. He even comes close to stealing the show.

The difficulty scales nicely here, with an auto combo mode that can be toggled on or off in-mission. Nico pops up every now and then to lend a hand, too.

As does V, Devil May Cry 5's new addition who plays quite unlike anyone else in the series' past (well, okay maybe a little bit like one other character, but let's not go there for fear of spoilers). A sorcerer-style character, with more than a hint of Dragon's Dogma in the way he goes about business, V introduces ranged play as he fights from afar with the help of familiars - the avian Griffon, the panther-like Shadow and the demon Nightmare, all who can be controlled remotely before V steps in to finish the job off with his cane. It's a very different rhythm, and a welcome one too even if, in comparison to his companions, V ends up feeling a mite under-developed come his story's end.

Those familiars might seem, well, familiar, too, having all featured as enemies of one sort or another in the series' very first outing. Devil May Cry 5 is full of such throwbacks and fan service, and of course there's no greater throwback than Dante himself, a playable compendium of the entire history of Devil May Cry. In the hand, he feels exactly as he should, and so painstaking is the commitment to make him faithful to his past selves at times playing Devil May Cry 5 feels more like you're engaging in a Resident Evil 2-esque remake than something entirely new.

Switchable styles return, allowing you to flick between Trickster, Gunslinger, Swordmaster and, of course, Royal Guard, giving you access to different movesets that can be used in tandem with Dante's arsenal. The sheer breadth of it all can feel a little unwieldy at first, though you're given plenty of room to grow into it, and there's the promise of depths to be mined for countless playthroughs. It's all culled from familiar stuff, but this is the best Dante has ever felt.

Red Grave City's take on London is sublime - and Devil May Cry 5 is one of the best looking games around at the moment.

And as familiar as it is, there's still room for a new move here and there. The Cavaliere is Dante's headline new acquisition, a motorbike that can be torn in half to cleave through enemies. Or, if you'd prefer, just pull off an endo and grind the rear wheel into an enemy's face, a move as preposterous as it is satisfying. It's silly to the extreme, but nailed with the exquisite execution that can only come through a deathly serious approach.

Such is the charm with Devil May Cry, really, an action game of outrageous extremes delivered with a craftsman's touch. Devil May Cry 5 is an inescapably backwards-looking title, though in referencing its past it discovers and invents whole new depths. It's the kind of thing where the first playthrough feels like simply the warm-up before you explore those reaches further with the help of higher difficulty levels, and that rewards you with spectacle the more you master it.

Is it the measure of the action titles that come out of that other studio in Osaka? At times it feels a little too retrograde to be the best in class, but I'm certain it's the best Devil May Cry there's been yet - which is still quite the claim to be able to make. This is a more vintage type of action, though that ends up serving Devil May Cry 5 incredibly well. Style like this never really goes out of fashion, after all.

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