Breaking down Devil May Cry combat system

Some months ago I was asked to break down a system in an existing game as an exercise. Today I’d like to feature some parts of that exercise here.

Despite currently working on a mobile game that has no enemies or power-ups, my passion really lies in action games with strong narrative. I’m a massive fan of Devil May Cry series, and that’s what I chose. I’ve never formally studied game design, so I thought trying to analyze a combat system would be a good learning.

Devil May Cry is a linear action single-player hack’n’slash game, known mainly for its complex and deep combat system, as well as it’s pure ridiculous cheesiness and awesomeness.

The important feature that makes DMC DMC is the focus on stylish combos and introduction of combat styles, allowing for very different types of play. (To the point that DMC community creates contests for players best in each individual style)

The game has a simple core loop:
kill enemies and destroy objects to earn orbs that will allow to upgrade combat options

That’s a pretty tried and true strategy. The enemies grow stronger and so does the player.

But what if… disposing of enemies in a stylish way would reward more orbs.

BENEFIT: a system encouraging exploration and mastery rather than repetitive strategies. Buying new attacks feels meaningful, beside them just being more powerful.

Devil May Cry really puts the player experience at the center, carefully balancing the difficulty of combat and available attacks to allow the player maximum control over the encounter. I broke it down into 3 pillars based on the autonomy-competency-relatedness model.

Now it’s time to take a look at the overview of the system. On the surface level the combat system can be broken down into: enemy types, available weapons, combat styles, style meter, and other things like environment, Devil Trigger gauge etc.

Each of those categories intertwines with other categories, e.g. you need weapons to defeat enemies, certain enemies might be more better to deal with slower but more powerful weapons, while others require faster hits.

The most interesting part of the combat system, and one of the core features of recent DMC games are combat styles – they add yet another layer of complexity. Not only there are different weapons but now each weapon has additional attacks based on the chosen style.

Analyzing it further, each style has a clear use: gain a new ability while sacrificing something else in turn. Looking further at the devision them into offensive and defensive styles: the player can choose to gain mobility to evade enemy attacks or sacrifice that mobility to gain a powerful blocking skill. (Again, that’s just a surface level analysis, there’s so much more to it!)

Looking at this breakdown I also realized that some styles feel safer and more beginner friendly, while others are high-risk-high-reward and encourage mastery. (This might be a subjective opinion). One of the reasons why some styles feel safer is their zoning capacity, allowing the player to maintain a safe distance away from the enemy (Trickster, Gunslinger). On the other hand the high-risk-high-reward sacrifice mobility for powerful attacks in a very close range to the enemy.

Where all that comes together is the possibility to switch styles on the fly and adapt the style to individual enemies, or even cycle though them during the same encounter. 4 styles are mapped on the controller d-pad for quick access.

From the UX side it’s also pretty neat, as all these styles and new abilities are assigned to a single controller button, while the other 3 buttons remain fixed to base actions: melee attack, gun attack, jumping.

And this it where I’ll finish my breakdown. there’s certainly a lot more to dive into, but it was just a quick exercise.

PS. I absolutely adored making that simple animation of Dante switching styles. It brings me joy every time I see it! And it was made in Figma, my absolute favorite tool for everything these days.