When planning a videogame, classical literature isn't the first source material that comes to mind. For centuries, the Western concept of the afterlife has been framed by Dante's The Divine Comedy, which terrified and enraptured people with its journey through the lands of the dead. After all, wandering through bleak environments and simply talking to suffering people doesn't sound like engaging videogame material. Then Visceral Games and Electronic Arts came along, adding an action premise and some poetic license to create the game, Dante's Inferno. While it is a visually striking tour of Hell itself, the gameplay feels derivative, like a weaker version of God of War. This repetitive quality, combined with significantly flawed combat, keeps the game from being a truly great experience.
At its core, the story of Dante's Inferno is about a man's fight to save the woman he loves. Dante is a young crusader who becomes disenchanted with war and returns to his fiancée Beatrice in Florence. When he arrives, he finds his house destroyed and Beatrice lying dead outside. Even worse, as he approaches, Lucifer appears and steals away her soul, dragging her screaming into the depths of Hell. Dante chases them through the circles of Hell, trying to save his love before she is lost forever. He faces his own sins and mistakes before a final showdown with the fallen angel.
Check out our Video Review here.
As you might expect, this isn't exactly a faithful interpretation of the literary masterpiece, but the pursuit of Beatrice drives the action of the game forward and presents a goal for the player to hack, blast and carve a path through hell for. The story is told creatively, with a mixture of in-game cutscenes, CG movies for dramatic plot points, and animated sequences, primarily for the demonstration of personal sins. This approach is unique and mostly effective, although there are moments when the shift from CG or animated scenes to in-game scenes can be too abrupt and jarring.
Now, any game with levels based around the sins found in the Divine Comedy is likely to have its mature moments. Dante's Inferno literally pushes the Mature rating to its most extreme point, as you'll pass scenes of souls being tortured, loads of violence, and plenty of male and female nudity from level to level. Obviously, this is not a game for kids, but much of what you see is appropriate for a game that tries to explore the extreme nature of Hell and its punishments. At times, you do feel sorry for the people and creatures trapped there. On the other hand, there are times when the game seems to include things just for shock value – like monsters that project human genitalia as a ranged attack.
Combat is a key component of any action game, and Dante's Inferno is no different. Dante primarily uses his scythe to hack through demons and other malevolent creatures that get in his way. He can also wield the power of the cross as a ranged attack to keep monsters at a distance. When you destroy a beast, you acquire its soul. If you're thinking it sounds like God of War, you're not too far off. In fact, if you've played any one of Kratos' adventures, you'll be able to pick up and play through the Inferno with no problems.
The game gives soul collection a new twist with the holy and unholy meter. When attacking an enemy, you can perform a finishing move that lets you "judge" a creature. Perform a Punishment by destroying them with your scythe and you'll earn Unholy points. Absolve their spirit by blasting them with your cross and you'll earn Holy points. Collecting points helps you to gain levels and purchase new attacks and abilities. As a result, you can customize your Dante's skills based on how you like to play and get additional boosts by collecting relics. These are holy and unholy relics that provide unique bonuses like regenerative magic, increased damage, or evasion enhancement.
You will also have the opportunity to punish or absolve historical figures, like Pontius Pilate, who were damned to hell for their sins in life. You can earn Holy or Unholy points based on what you do to these characters, but you'll get much bigger benefits by saving them. Choosing to absolve a historical figure starts up a mini-game where their "sins" float towards one of four icons on a cross. By timing your button presses with the icons, you can purge their transgressions and receive many more souls than if you punish them. Think of it like "Hungry Hungry Sin-Eating Hippos," if you will. Even stranger, you can add special stones to your cross which will "auto-absolve" the damned, but automatic absolution doesn't earn as many souls as actually playing the mini-game.
With so many options, the combat system seems incredibly deep, and it does allow you to come up with creative ways to chain together attacks to destroy your enemies, especially when you start mixing cross and scythe attacks together. Unfortunately, at least 70 percent of your enemies can be eliminated with a single button press. When you finally get around to fighting stronger foes, you can kill most of them off with a simple combination of basic attacks. You never really need to use those complex button sequences for new attacks that you buy with your souls. Overall, you'll still enjoy the combat, and the game is still fun to fight through. This is especially true when you're slashing your way through the more unique demons on each circle and discovering some of their "specialized" attacks. But it is possible to button mash your way through fights, especially once you acquire magic to restore your health and relics that regenerate your magic.
The game does eventually send you into some very specialized attack situations, but these feel radically out of place. Near the end of Dante's Inferno, you'll have to go through 10 separate challenges, each of which requires different battle tactics and a greater use of combinations than ever before. It would've been awesome to include these tests in each level; for example, add a new challenge to the Gluttony level by making Dante's health constantly drain because the level is so disgusting. But cramming the challenges into the ending stages of the game only highlights how shallow some of the earlier combat is. When you also realize that you can get interrupted during hits and still pull off a combo without losing a step, it's clear the battle system needs some improvement.
Of course, there's more to the game than simple hack-and-slash. Dante's Inferno comes packed with a solid amount of platforming as you climb walls of the damned, push boxes around, or solve puzzles to access new levels. For the most part, these are solid, well-designed breaks from fighting through tons of demons. The one exception is a poorly designed Escher-like puzzle in the middle of the Gluttony level. After waddling through large segments of entrails, you suddenly have to move through a clean white room with strange mirrored doors that place you on the ceilings and the walls. This puzzle feels like it was taken from a completely different game.
The visual style of Dante's Inferno sets it apart from other games with its vivid and mature depiction of Hell. Inferno manages to sharply bring to "unlife" Wayne Barlow's disturbing vision of the circles of hell and the creatures that reside there. Each circle has a unique and memorable style, from the substantial amounts of sexual imagery in the Lust level to the circle of Greed, which looks like a gold foundry. The visuals are striking and run at a solid 60 frames per second, with slowdown only for dramatic effect on powerful attacks. However, many levels have an oppressive color palette of browns, reds, and grays, which gets old after a few levels.
You are at the mercy of a fixed camera, but once it's loaded, Dante's Inferno streams the entire game seamlessly, which is an impressive feat. Ambient sound is strong as well, from the lamenting cries of the damned to the screams of the creatures as they are killed. The soundtrack is notable, thanks to the orchestral score and choral presentation. The delivery of some lines can be hit or miss, but for the most part, the voice acting is solid.
Once you've defeated the game, you can replay it in Resurrection mode, which allows you to carry over your skills and acquired souls to a new game on a higher difficulty level or to take your skills into an timed endurance mode called Gates of Hell. PS3 owners can purchase the Divine Edition, which offers a few bonus items: a digital version of the poem, a game soundtrack, and some behind the scenes videos. There's also a voucher for downloadable content, such as a new costume, relic and prequel level, which will come out sometime in March. If you have a burning desire to own everything related to Dante, the PS3 version is the way to go. But for the average player, you're not really missing out anything if you get the 360 version.
©2010-02-03, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved