William Blake’s art and poetry has been well-received in Japan for many years. Nobel Prize-winner in literature, Kenzaburo Oe, has cited Blake as a significant source of inspiration. Several successful Blake exhibitions in Tokyo also signal that the English artist is a welcome addition to Japanese art connoisseurs. In a decidedly different direction, towards the low-brow and popular, Devil May Cry 5 has also struck Blake inspiration. True to the rest of the series, Devil May Cry 5 (DMC5) is an action-based, hack-and-slash video game. The term hack-and-slash is precisely what it sounds like; wherein the player utilizes an impressively imaginative arsenal of melee weapons used to beat up the baddies.
Capcom’s Devil May Cry is no stranger to fantastical literary allusions. The main protagonist, Dante, is named after the poet of The Divine Comedy. His coldly rational, and power-hungry twin brother is Vergil – as in, the ancient Roman poet that guided Dante through the Inferno. More phrases and nods from literature abound in the series, like Faust and Mephistopheles demons that you need to smash into smithereens. The phrase “give up the ghost,” found in Shakespeare’s King Henry VI and Julius Caesar, as well as in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is reworked into a combat phrase for a snarky, young protagonist called Nero. While maneuvering a pummeling move with his cyborgic arm, he teases the diabolical beasts on their futile resilience: “Don’t wanna give up the ghost, do ya?!” Beyond literary allusions, the Devil May Cry universe has its own extensive universe gleaned from six video games, a manga series, comic books, three novels, and an anime series.
In order to provide the most cohesive understanding of Blakean influence in DMC5, I’ve chosen to focus on crucial elements of the storyline. For this reason, consider what follows as spoilers. If you do choose to play the game, there will still be twists and turns that I have not relinquished – so you’re in luck. Or as the beloved protagonist of the games would say, “Jackpot!”
A mysterious, tattooed man arrives at the Devil May Cry office and asks for Dante and his team of devil-hunters (Lady, Trish, Nico, and Nero) to help him exterminate a demon. Dante asks the strange man for his name, who replies: “’I have no name, I am but two days old,’ but you can call me V.” The reference to Blake’s “Infant Joy” from Songs of Innocence, prepares the player for the oncoming barrage of Blake references. Over the course of the game, you realize that V is captivated by William Blake, as evidenced by his conversational references, adopting lines from the Marriage of Heaven and Hell as combat phrases, and when left in an idle position, flips through his book of Blake’s poetry and art. His fascination with Blake goes so far that he has named the demon they’re hunting after Urizen.
V explains that Urizen has planted a massive, demonic tree in the surrounding cities that exsanguinates humans to feed its thirst. After harvesting enough blood, the tree will bear a singular, fiendish fruit. Whoever is powerful enough to eat the fruit will assume the role of King of the Underworld. This information gives context to the opening title card of the game from “The Poison Tree”: “And it grew both day and night, Till it bore an apple bright.”
Eventually, after a few successes and upsets on the battlefield, V reveals that Urizen is the diabolical part of Dante’s brother. Vergil, encumbered by his humanity, excised his demonic and human divisions of his soul with a mystical sword. Resulting in the human embodiment of Vergil made manifest as V. Vergil’s insistence to annihilate this part of himself has proven largely successful, as V’s body is rapidly deteriorating, represented by his dependence on a cane, inability to move efficiently, and his skin cracking like dried earth. V’s deteriorating health factors into the gameplay of the character as well. Instead of Dante and Nero’s stylish and dynamic fighting styles equipped with an array of weapons like swords with motorcycle engines, bazooka-blasting prosthetic limbs, and a cowboy hat that spits destructive orbs – V uses demonic powers to summon familiars that can inflict massive amounts of pain on your enemies. The familiars take shape as: Griffon (an “avian monstrosity”), Shadow (a black panther that can shapeshift into needles, blades, and a ninja star), and Nightmare (an orc-like creature with gargantuan fists and lasers). As a character, V plays as a slow and deliberate type, underscoring the differences among this brazen troupe of devil-hunters.
Considering these differences, the group decide to split up to find Urizen, and Dante arrives first. He defeats Cerberus, the tri-headed canine beast that guards the underworld, and finds Urizen about to indulge in the diabolical fruit. The boss battle is challenging but not impossible, requiring the player to remain vigilant and change up their attacks often. Before you deliver the final blow to Urizen, the rest of your team shows up. V intervenes and asks for this final wish, insinuating he should be the one to kill Urizen. However, his intervention turns into a reunification of V and Urizen – culminating into Vergil.
DMC5 received a warm welcome from gamers. Metacritic, an online service that averages reviews from reputable gaming journals and blogs, determined it was “very good,” and received a reception score of 88%. The core, original team that created the series has reassembled to complete this game, including director, Hideaki Itsuno. Together again, they have created one of the most enjoyable installments of the series, thanks to their signature “stylized action” and impeccable technical aesthetic advancements. Devil May Cry 5 is absolutely bizarre, over-the-top, and campy which makes the use of Blake’s poetry and art so stimulating.
William Blake has permeated media across all platforms and often, in a very serious way. One of the most discussed and reworked examples is Hubert Parry’s arrangement of lines from Milton, as “Jerusalem” — a rousing song for British soldiers at the time of the first World War (Listen to the podcast about it here). Diverging from this style of reworking, the references to Blake seem alien in the comical DMC5. While V clearly finds solace and stoic inspiration in the works of Blake, the surrounding atmosphere and dialogue of the game subvert the grave nature of V. It reminds me of a brief moment in Mean Streets (1973) by Martin Scorsese. An intense and bizarre scene of Tony entering a young tiger’s cage, explains that he, “really wanted to get a little tiger…ol’ William Blake and all that.” Tony, the owner of a seedy strip joint, is immersed in a world of sex, sin, guilt, lust, and murder. The same thing V is encapsulated in – all the other characters revel in vulgarity and silliness. Because of their high-octane action moves and saucy banter, V can feel downright insufferable. Why can’t he loosen up and have a little bit of fun? But that’s why it works. The creators know that their audience enjoy high art references but indulge in cheeky buffoonery. After all, the series title is a reference to the phrase “the Devil may care, but I do not!”
Devil May Cry 5 is a stylish romp of carnage, glitzy action, and mythopoetic ponderings of our internal desires. Campaign mode is single player but online allows for 1-3 players. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rated the game as “M” for Mature as there is blood, partial nudity, strong language, and violence. Available on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. Amazon price: £36.99.