Devil May Cry 5’s Director Tells Us How They Made Combat Feel So Damn Good

Devil May Cry 5’s Director Tells Us How They Made Combat Feel So Damn Good

Devil May Cry 5 is a fever dance of slashes, air-steps, and ball-crushingly powerful grapples—a bloody monster mash caught somewhere between street brawl and mosh pit. It’s also, according to director Hideaki Itsuno, a “good-feeling” game. When I met him at Capcom’s offices in San Francisco last Wednesday, I wanted to know exactly what that meant. “What are video games that feel good?”

I expected Itsuno to mention something like Bayonetta. Instead, his face lit up and he mimed out a baseball swing worthy of Barry Bonds.

Itsuno has worked on the Devil May Cry series since 2003’s Devil May Cry 2. He’s helped define video game action. The latest entry, Devil May Cry 5, quickly became one of my favourite games of 2019, so when I learned that Itsuno was giving a talk at this year’s Game Developer Conference, I shot a quick email off to Capcom asking if we could speak.

They happily arranged a meetup with Itsuno as well as senior producer Michiteru Okabe and producer Matt Walker. I spoke with Itsuno over coffee at a conference-room table far too large for any of us to sit at, and Walker translated. I could have asked throwaway questions: Does Dante fuck? What are Devil May Cry 5’s themes?

Instead, I eagerly leapt at the chance to talk about game mechanics, and Itsuno was happy to outline the components of a good action game.

“What does it even mean to have a ‘good-feeling’ game?” I asked. The term lacked a certain specificity. “I’m clumsy, so I like to think it’s about control. Control over my body.”

“Response,” Itsuno answered quickly. “The game should respond in a way that the player expects. So if you’re talking about Super Mario Bros., the player should be able to stop when they want to stop and jump when they want to jump.”

Itsuno was prone to acting out his answers. For this, he picked up an invisible controller and began pressing buttons. A heavy press here, a tap there. The idea was that a button press is complicated.

There’s the press itself, which sends an electrical signal to a console, which then needs to carry out an action. In reality, there’s a distance between pressing a button and what we see on screen.

“When you press a button, there should be a clear result on the screen,” Itsuno explained. “It should be visual, audio. You need to hear it. All of that creates a visceral response.”

Walker translated enthusiastically, speaking with showmanship worthy of a sports commentator. Before he could finish, Itsuno interrupted in English.

“One more thing,” he said, reminding me of Colombo. “The character!” Each response needed to fit with whoever you were playing as.

I still wanted examples. I asked Itsuno what some “good-feeling” games were. Before the interview, I had joked with a friend that instead of action titles, I wanted Itsuno to say something like Ridge Racer or Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball. Imagine my surprise when Itsuno mimed that baseball swing.

Famista!” He was referring to an old Famicom game, also known as Family Stadium. It’s been an ongoing series in Japan since 1986. Pro Baseball: Famista Evolution released in Japan on the Nintendo Switch last August. Not quite Ken Griffey, but close.

The thing that made Famista work, according to Itsuno, was a sense of impact. It wasn’t a complicated game, but hitting a home run was exciting. The swing, the hit, a brief hit-stop that emphasised the powerful connection between bat and ball.

Then the ball flying back, back, back — home run! He acted out portions of this as well, and the room erupted into laughter. Even Okabe, who’d watched silently from the sidelines, grinned.

“I wish we were filming that,” Walker said. I settled for sketching out some of the re-enactments in my notebook.

Itsuno applied the lessons he learned from Famista to many games over the course of his career. Before working on Devil May Cry, he also planned and directed games like Street Fighter Alpha and Power Stone.

The sense of impact from hitting a home run ultimately figured into how to make a satisfying punch or kick. Closely examining games like Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo made it clear to him that animation was key.

If something hit hard, even if the attack animation only took a few frames, it was important to stress impact by using a hit-stop — displaying certain parts of the animation for a little longer. Ryu’s powerful shoryuken uppercut paved the way for Dante’s sword swings and Nero’s devastating Devil Breaker-boosted special attacks.

But there are complications to creating a sense of response and impact. The biggest is that designers can’t control what players are going to do. If someone throws a ball at us in real life, even if we’re not completely aware, we react naturally. Emulating that fluidity of response is difficult in a game because players can wait until the last possible moment to do anything.

Itsuno demonstrated this with a slow-motion punch. When we see a punch in real life, there’s tension. Walker stressed this further as he translated, flexing to show off muscles and tendons in his forearm. For an action game to feel good, that tension needs to be present.

“For a proper punch,” Itsuno said. “You need to know how a human moves and why they move that way.”

Some of that comes down to character and emotions. In my own review, I noted that I understood the kind of person each playable character was simply through gameplay. I asked for a breakdown of the emotions that each character’s skills were meant to evoke. Itsuno had a fast answer for Nero.

“Kuyashii,” he said. It’s a tricky word that doesn’t have a perfect match in English. Walker simplified it as “rejected.” Nero had been dismissed by Dante as “dead weight” at the start of the game. That makes him angry and eager to prove himself. It’s apparent in his gameplay, which involves reckless swings and wrath-fuelled charges.

Breaking down Dante and V was more difficult. Itsuno initially found Dante’s motivations in other games simple: “Beat this bad guy.” Here, the goal was to imbue curiosity and drive. Walker pointed to Dante’s desire to see if Urizen was connected to his brother Vergil.

It gives Dante a focus that previous versions didn’t. As for V, the series newcomer, it was hard to talk about it without spoilers — which the team danced around even though we all knew V’s deal. V is supposed to be complicated, flawed: a representation of humans with both good and bad intentions. As a result, his gameplay is more calculated.

On the topic of characterization, though, I had one last question I wanted to ask. Trish and Lady had been integral to the series but weren’t playable in Devil May Cry 5. Why not?

“From the beginning, the goal was these three playable characters: Dante, Nero, and V,” Walker said. “But we only have so much money. We need to have Lady and Trish into the game. They’re integral to Devil May Cry, but it gets to a point that they’re not playable this time.”

I would have loved to explore the affective tones fuelling Trish and Lady’s combat mechanics, but it was understandable if disappointing, especially given the game’s scope—maybe they’ll end up playable in a special edition down the line, as it did for Devil May Cry 4.

Itsuno expanded on the emotional themes driving Devil May Cry 5 in his “Creating a Standout Action Game” talk at GDC the next day. Eager fans packed the massive hall, some with copies of the game they hoped to get signed. I was front-row when Itsuno, Walker, and Okabe arrived — dressed as Nero, V, and Dante respectively. Walker translated once again as Itsuno talked at length about crafting Devil May Cry 5’s narrative.

The goal of any game, Itsuno explained, is to evoke emotions in the player. In order to make that happen, the designers needed to have a broad range of life experiences to draw on. Skydiving, running races, eating good food, and playing both good and bad games.

New situations provide opportunities for designers to consider what they think an experience will be like and then compare it to the real thing. Formative situations or pieces of art give insight into the feelings and emotions that can be created.

To make the point clearer, Itsuno referred to scenes in giant-robo anime that he enjoyed. Unable to get the rights to show clips, he instead shared slides drawn by Devil May Cry 5’s art director Koki Kinoshita.

Itsuno, who had loved the genre since childhood, recalled a movie he watched in his 30s where three robots couldn’t defeat an enemy on their own. When the situation was at its bleakest, they combined into one giant bot and overcome their foe. Itsuno claimed the triumph moved him to tears. He wanted to create similar moments.

Itsuno modelled Devil May Cry 5’s climactic anime moment early on, and the rest of the story was made to lead up to that particular point. Of course, talking about that meant spoiling the game.

Everything in Devil May Cry 5 leads to the moment where Nero awakens his demonic powers. V, having revealed himself as the human half of Dante’s brother, Vergil, has reunited with the demon Urizen.

After Vergil is made whole again, he and Dante face off in a fight to the death. Nero rushes to stop them and awakens his Devil Trigger in the process. He battles Vergil and ends the brothers’ blood feud.

“This is the moment,” Itsuno said, pointing to the scene as it played on the projector. “This is where I want to move them to tears.”

To give Nero’s awakening more emotional weight, Itsuno crafted a series of defeats and setbacks into the narrative. It’s why Dante and Nero fail to stop Urizen in the prologue, and it’s why Dante’s iconic sword Rebellion is broken and Nero loses an arm. It’s also why players only gain access to Nero’s new powers right at the end of the game.

Itsuno explained that instead of granting players access to Nero’s full potential halfway through and letting them enjoy the abilities, Itsuno wanted the gameplay to crescendo right when the narrative did. It was, essentially, his version of the brand new robot beating up the previously invincible villain.

Having a powerful ending moment means nothing if players get frustrated and give up halfway through the game, though. To help accommodate players, Devil May Cry 5 works hard to make sure that success and failure aren’t binary states. Players can achieve partial success and be satisfied. Itsuno explained this by referring to Nero’s MAX-Act ability.

Payers are able to rev Nero’s sword like a motorcycle to give it extra power. If players hit the right button exactly as Nero’s attack lands, they gain a big burst of power. In Devil May Cry 4, players either succeeded or failed. Devil May Cry 5 adds states where even if players mistime their button press, they can still get some charge for their next attack.

In a similar fashion, Itsuno adjusted how the series treats continuing. If the player dies in a fight, they can spend orbs to revive on the spot and win. It’s a gamble that expands the range of success and failure. The goal is a game that’s fun to play and emotionally evocative. Itsuno’s planning paid off.

Dozens of fans lined up to meet Itsuno, Walker, and Okabe after the talk. I left feeling energised to play Devil May Cry 5 again with a deeper understanding of what a “good-feeling” action game is. And whenever Nero winds up for a massive sword slash, I’ll think of Itsuno’s enthusiastic baseball swing.

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