A familiar sight throughout the Devil May Cry franchise is the Divinity Statue, a depiction of “the omniscient god of time and space” that shows a kneeling woman with a lion’s head holding an hourglass on her shoulders. It’s the series’ signature checkpoint, appearing just before every boss and providing the player a moment to stock up on items or re-arrange their equipment. Being such an ornate object in the regular gothic and urban architecture of the series it looks completely out of place at all times, handy for making it stand out as a signpost while also giving it a sufficiently otherworldly feel in a game series where demons and hellspawn are a common occurence. So for any franchise regulars, the most recent outing Devil May Cry 5 makes a pretty interesting and noticeable change: the Divinity Statue doesn’t appear for the first time in the environment until a good halfway into the game, replaced by the much more mundane and unassuming phone box.
The setting for the game is Redgrave City (a nod to Dante’s original name back when he was a Resident Evil character), a psuedo-London environment that borrows heavily from the iconography of the city. The game takes a tour through familiar central London sights, from London Bridge, through a spot that evokes the huge advertising signs of Picadilly circus, to a fight in the crumbling ruins of a cathedral that definitely isn’t Westminster Abbey. In a series that’s previously been fairly non-committal to evoking any particular place, with Fortuna’s religious cathedral architecture or Devil May Cry 2 or 3‘s “a city, somewhere” vagueness, it’s even more striking to evoke so directly a place in the real world, especially since I live here and instantly recognise just about everything they’re referencing. Considering why they did this, however, I think London was almost definitely chosen as the visual basis for the huge red phone boxes that serve as one of its most famous and ubiquitous landmarks.
For most of the game the player can use these phones to call and summon Nico, Nero’s technical expert and driver of their mobile headquarters, bringing along her funky upbeat theme and her endless supply of Devil Breakers, fancy prosthetic arms for Nero with various weaponry built in. Laws of reality be damned, she does her best to arrive there no matter where you are – in one cutscene she drops through a building skylight, in another she explodes out of the ground, and so on. There’s a real contrast between this rush to your aid wherever you are and the comparatively lonely Divinity Statue; when the Statues do start cropping back up and reinstating themselves as the checkpoint again, this loneliness stands out even more, the player no longer being greeted on the upgrade screen by Nico’s dodgy Southern drawl.
Dante’s struggle as the son of the legendary Sparda along with his messy relationship with his brother Vergil are a driving force for the story of multiple games, and despite being so cocky and charming on the surface, Dante believes himself to be alone in the world and emotionally distances himself from others. It makes sense for his checkpoint to be some divine entity looking out for him, peering through the environments and warning of oncoming danger, if this is how he sees the world. However, the series’ newer protagonist Nero acts as something of a foil to Dante, sharing his lack of family and demonic heritage but with a much different perspective on family. While Dante is stuck chasing his past – both figuratively, with a demon creating Trish to look like his late mother in order to manipulate him (that’s a whole different can of worms), and literally with Vergil – Nero actively finds ways to identify family as something new, having no real connections to his past.
Devil May Cry has also always been in some part about the obtaining of power and what this means for certain characters (cue Vergil’s famous line), and this is another major point explored in 5. In the prologue, during their first unsuccessful bout with Urizen, Dante tries to cover Nero’s escape while yelling that in his current state Nero’s “just dead weight”, a line that becomes a running motif in the game as Nero struggles with this moment of weakness that meant he couldn’t save anyone he cared about. The game proper begins with an anxiety around Dante’s current state and whether he survived at all, which also helps tie in with the phone boxes – such an icon of communication and connectivity helps drive home Dante’s general emotional distance, as everyone except him is able to use them.
Then there’s the “mysterious” V, who spends his time sauntering around reciting lines from William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell and getting shouted at by a mouthy bird. Much like Nero and Dante are each others’ foils, V and Urizen are the same, with Urizen representing a pinnacle of unrestrained power and V being a wiry, weak human reliant on others to accomplish anything, both through needing the help of the devil hunters as well as his summons Griffon, Shadow and Nightmare. Obviously since the game has only been out a week or so and V’s story is integral to the plot I won’t spoil the game, so by all means discover the extent of this yourself.
Finally, a new feature to the series really helps to underscore its theme of cooperation – the inclusion of some very hands-off asynchronous multiplayer functionality. Missions with different characters will take place in the same locations but on different paths, and the game occasionally pulls the replays of other players to appear in your own playthrough off in the distance. It’s a neat reimplementation of the series’ frequent backtracking elements that helps to keep spaces feeling more involved, while still hinting at past and future environments. In a few areas another player can do something that will affect your own game, like a chimney that V can topple over in one mission that reveals some hidden goodies for Nero in another, previous one. It’s also a cool setup for one of the game’s biggest surprises later on, which again, no spoilers.
In a modern age where mobile phones are increasingly pushed onto us, the idea of a phone box is both extremely familiar and a tad old-fashioned, and watching the demon-killing experts of Devil May Cry deliberately slot pound coins into payphones is a fairly quaint sight in 2019. At the same time, of course these characters, who vent their grievances down the end of motorbike-handle swords and multi-barreled revolvers and mask their problems behind smug, cool personalities, would be too emotionally stunted to own any kind of personal communication system. Dante even still has the ancient rotary dial style phone in his office. But upending such a central icon of the series and replacing it with the one thing the characters barely ever use is one great and simple way that the game sets its own themes up. Right as the game starts wrapping up and reaches its final stretch, it’s a phone box that ends up holding the greatest importance for one character in particular, almost as a reminder that this was what was needed all along.