Devil May Cry: The Bloody Palace is a Steamforged Games title. There’s some baggage there. It’s also a James Hewitt lead work. And there lies expectation.
Like Sabertooth meeting Wolverine, impediment meet badass. May the stronger come out on top.
I know a bit of the Devil May Cry series. Enough to examine this game through a critical lens and arrive at a substantive conclusion. I could fill this review with quotes from Dante or Nero, but I’m not going to do that. I want to spend your time talking about something else.
Adapting one medium into another is hard. Video to tabletop game arguably more so. The foundation for such an endeavor was laid with the remarkable Gears of War board game by Corey Konieczka. That is still one of the best games ever designed.
What Konieczka understood was that you have to take one or two key elements, those facets which you find of vital importance in capturing the essence of a property, and build the entire design around them. If you can create a compelling tabletop system around those qualities then players downstream will experience a feeling that is familiar and true.
The feel is important here because it’s how participants crystallize the abstract. By capturing that sensation the nostalgia and warmth associated with the original property will do the heavy lifting. You’re ultimately making a connection in the player’s brain, but the pleasure is derived from the end point as much as the linkage itself.
To accomplish this one must thoroughly understand that which they’re translating. James Hewitt knows Devil May Cry.
Here the application is basing the game entirely on building lengthy maneuver combos framed in a push your luck mechanism. Each character is fueled by an asymmetric deck representing their various signature abilities, including some really satisfying aspects such as Dante’s different fighting styles or V’s use of familiars. This deck evolves as you purchase upgraded cards over the course of the game offering more complexity and personalization.
Executing these principles involves playing maneuver cards to a chain springing from your player board. It’s akin to a fancy tableau with an added restriction of newly placed cards must connect with the same symbol as the previous move. So if Dante performs a Balrog Strike with a red chain as the exit link, you could slide in a Balrog Blow that has a red chain entrance. Further texture exists in wild and gray chains, the latter working with any color and providing a throughput exit of whatever it linked to previously.
There is a bit of difficulty in building the longest of chains which is primarily a factor of the game offering few ways to mill or search your deck. However, this system on the whole sings as it provides a physical representation of your character’s escalating action. There is great tension as you must decide whether to leave your extended tableau in a fragile state or scoop it up and score it for style points. The challenge is that if you are hit by one of the AI controlled enemies your combo is physically wiped from the table and no points are awarded. As you’re shooting the moon and whooping serious Empusa ass, it stings like a mother when the Geryon Knight gives you the blade. Then your maneuver line collapses under its own weight and that concrete action of scooping up your cards and tossing them into the discard pile is a jolt. It’s like a rumble pack speaking to your sweaty palms in thrashing tongue.
That representation of gain and tension by a growing tableau of cards really grounds the emotion as a physical link to play.
The focus here is also supported by a restrained scope. It must have been tempting to create a dungeon crawl of sorts – Hewitt already proving his mettle in that format multiple times – but the additional required systems would have been a surrender to fat over muscle. By tearing all of that away and keeping this a contained arena battler based on the Bloody Palace mode, it forces the experience directly through the combo system. With such a modest framework there are no distractions and no bloat.
Now, the natural limitations of this approach do cause issues. By narrowing the scope you’re reducing the variables. This is a bit of a loss particularly because there is such little player interaction. While you can thwart your opponents with a few dirty tricks, it’s almost entirely a race with the other demon hunters to score the most points before the end of play. Because interaction is limited to pressuring tempo, the primary interface of your combo-chain with the environment is the enemies. There are no varying terrain elements or event cards to shift the status quo. The only parameters are adversaries that spawn at the beginning of each stage and the ingrained vagaries of drawing cards from a deck you’re tuning over time.
The challenge here is maintaining a high degree of engagement over a rather lengthy session. That interest naturally wanes as your experience with the design grows. Enemies start to become routine once you’ve repeatedly worked your way through the cast. The inclusion of only a single boss option is the most blatant affront.
Games played primarily against an artificial intelligence are often described as puzzles – DMC certainly has a puzzle aspect of pairing your moves with the evolving board state – and once that environment becomes a little less interesting the combo building does as well. Switching to a new character and embarking on the learning curve again provides some fresh life, but it’s still a finite proposition.
The arc of maximum player engagement can be extended by picking up some of the expansion content, but that doesn’t altogether excuse the limitations of this base game. Now this quality doesn’t seem an egregious mistake. The degree of content (primarily enemies) is linked to the intersection of plastic and price point, so compromises have to be made. But it’s more pronounced in this design because the enemies are the environment.
Gears of War gets away with a limited cast of antagonists because the actual terrain you interact with enhances the overall puzzle. It presents an evolving challenge. This is primarily a courtesy of the fantastic cover system employed. DMC on the other hand relies entirely on the AI foes and it comes at a cost in overall entertainment in the long term.
While I understand this problem, which is unfortunately a consequence of the design philosophy, it’s one of the biggest challenges of this style of game and one which creates a ceiling. Additionally, the emphasis on tactical over strategic play also inflicts more pressure on limiting the design’s tail.
While the comparison may not be completely fair, you can draw a connection to engine building tableau designs like Race for the Galaxy. Race attains indefinite interest because of the sheer number of vectors availed. There’s many different paths you can take and the game forces you down alternate sub-branches over the course of play.
Devil May Cry is more obvious as a tactical affair which gives up combo building depth for spatial board play. It shifts the joy of manufacturing deep engines with delayed gains to short term ploys that you ride for as long as possible before they are dismantled for profit.
I hinted at this earlier, but let’s also take a moment to talk about the length. Unfortunately at a full complement of four players it suffers quite a bit. Unless players are executing their turns swiftly – a function of experience as well as a commitment to speed – it will last a substantial three hours. The pace of play isn’t quite dynamic enough to sustain this requirement and the game feels much more comfortable playing with two or even solitaire.
When you achieve a snappy tempo and you lean into all the drama of the combo system, this work delivers. That central mechanism is unique and it conveys velocity and tension admirably.
Because of all of this, Devil May Cry: The Bloody Palace is a fine board game that actually proves rather clever and unique, but it’s going to be niche and is not likely to attain historical significance. Despite the limitations it does what it sets out to do extraordinarily well; well enough that even those who are unfamiliar with the source material will find quite a bit here to enjoy. Frankly, that’s an unmitigated achievement for a derived property. While it may not accomplish sterling status, I’m comfortable placing this in the highest tier of cardboard adaptations of video game properties. It may not be Gears of War, but it’s still pretty slick.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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