Dante’s Inferno Review

When EA publicised Dante’s Inferno at last year’s E3, it setup faux protests outside the LA convention centre from supposed religious evangelists denouncing the game’s occult and violent themes. It soon became apparent that the protests were a shallow publicity stunt for which EA PRs might one day find themselves burning in the eighth circle of hell (just kidding, they’re nice people really). But regardless of the mildly fraudulent stunt, it once again underlined what game publishers will do to increase the potential sales figures of one of their upcoming titles.

Yes, sensationalist press outlets will raise the panic alarm on violent games using loose arguments but, equally, publishers will then use this publicity to their advantage. The controversy raises a game’s profile, makes it more appealing to hardcore fans, and therefore increases unit sales. Dante’s Inferno is just such a game. Earlier this week, the American TV network CBS told EA to change the tagline of the game’s Super Bowl ad. It seems “Go To Hell” was too distasteful for prime-time TV. So, Dante’s Inferno has already managed to step foot in three of hell’s nine circles (violence, greed, and fraud) and that’s before we’ve even started talking about the gameplay itself.

Sadly, as far as Inferno’s gameplay is concerned, far too much time is spent in Purgatorio. There are sections where it becomes difficult enough to be hellish, but very few moments (if any at all) where the level of gaming fulfilment reaches Paradiso. It’s hard to think of any game on current-gen consoles that’s quite as derivative as Dante’s Inferno (and that’s a long list of derivative games). By our estimates, Inferno is roughly 95% God of War, 3% Prince of Persia trilogy, and 2% original thinking. While the odd environmental puzzle section and some occasional rappelling makes Inferno mildly PoP in form, the amount of tricks that have been taken directly from Kratos’ back-catalogue certainly books EA a second ticket to the fraudulent circle of hell.

Everything from the game’s mini-boss QTEs, to its charged breaking of health/mana fountains, the evasive moves on the right thumbstick, and automated camera direction is unmistakably God of War. Where Sony Santa Monica became the master of its craft though, Visceral Games’ imitation is weak with shallow interpretations of the Kratos formula. Apart from one puzzle in the game that uses M. C. Escher’s ‘Relativity’ painting as a point of influence, most of the game’s head-scratchers fall foul of the level exhibited in God of War I and II. Likewise, the combat, although solidly implemented for the most part, lacks the style and fluidity of Kratos’ Blades of Athena.

Inferno’s equivalent is Death’s scythe, which Dante manages to pinch from him in an unlikely opening boss fight. Light and heavy attacks come with the standard bells and whistles, which can then be upgraded and have modifiers added to them as Dante levels up. In all fairness it’s a good upgrade system, which introduces useful new moves at a well measured pace. Dante’s Holy Cross then makes for a strong alternative to the scythe, providing ranged attacks that are particularly useful against airborne foes. Blocking and counter-attacks are also well implemented, while Visceral does a good job of introducing different types of enemies that demand varied attack styles. Similarly, a system of Relic power-ups and additional Magic abilities make for plenty of options.

Visceral runs out of ideas fairly quickly though. It introduces new gameplay opportunities, such as rideable creatures, that manage to keep the game mildly entertaining for the first seven hours or so, but this level of engagement soon dissipates into lazy spawn fests that throw wave after wave of enemies at Dante with little thought for clever design or gameplay variation. At one point Visceral seems to simply run out of ideas and turn an entire circle of hell (fraud) into one giant enemy spawning ground that lacks subtlety, pacing, and build-up. A bone is thrown at the gamer as each spawn fest is referred to as one of 10 ‘Malebolge Challenges’ (e.g. defeat enemies without using mana or blocks etc.), but it’s a thinly veiled attempt at padding to say the least.All of this pales in comparison compared to the final boss (no prizes for guessing who, or what that is), which literally took us hours to complete. While you might suggest that this is befitting of the most feared bad guy ever, the way in which Visceral designs the boss isn’t quite so apt. It’s not that the boss is hard because, as core gamers, we thrive under those sorts of conditions (read our Bayonetta review to find out why); it’s just that the key to beating this final boss is less one of traditional gaming logic and more one of trial and error. Visceral doesn’t really drop any clues during the boss battle’s second critical phase (the hardest of the three phases), leaving you to commit any number of deadly sins (e.g. despair, wrath, and finally sloth) as you painstakingly attempt to figure out precisely what the game is driving at.

The real let down here though is that, in all of its God of War imitation, Visceral has forgotten that the gameplay it’s emulating is still decidedly previous-gen, regardless of how strong the source material was originally. Taken alongside other titles that are making leaps forward on current-gen consoles (e.g. Uncharted 2), Dante’s Inferno looks steeped in previous-gen thinking. While it may vaguely appeal to Xbox loyalists who’ve never played a God of War title before, there’s no denying the fact that Inferno is far behind the times. Judging from everything we’ve seen of Sony Santa Monica’s next instalment in the series, God of War III is set to push back the boundaries of the hack ‘n slash genre when it releases later this year, which is really what Dante’s Inferno should’ve been aiming at all along.

It doesn’t have any new ideas visually either, where it’s got more in common with the God of War Collection (Sony’s original God of War games remade at 720p) than some of the current-gen visual powerhouses. That’s not to suggest that it doesn’t run at 1080 resolutions, just that its visuals are more like a souped-up previous-gen game than they are Batman: Arkham Asylum, for example. What’s more shocking is what these visuals depict. When you consider that one highlight is a boss battle with an Amazonian-looking Cleopatra who spews unbaptised babies from her nipples, then this might give you a window into how gratuitous the imagery becomes.

Having said all of this though, there are positives to be taken from Dante’s Inferno. Despite what it lacks visually and the crude depiction of hell, it is nonetheless a depiction that manages to maintain a respectable level of immersion. The gameplay, despite its lack of innovation, is solid for the most part; there aren’t many chinks in Inferno’s combat and puzzles. The game’s previously noted 2% of original thinking also has some interesting ideas, allowing Dante to either ‘Absolve’ or ‘Punish’ key figures from history and various enemies that he meets on his journeys through hell. A neat absolution meta-game and levelling-up opportunities are then tied into this system, although it’s a shame that Visceral didn’t extend the system by tying it into alternate endings. The opportunity is definitely there but sadly not taken advantage of.

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