Dante’s Inferno isn't necessarily the first videogame to be based on a piece of classic literature - but it is the most mainstream title to do so. Published by EA and developed by Visceral Games, the team behind 2008’s fantastically terrifying Dead Space, Dante’s Inferno takes its cues from the epic Dante Alighieri poem, The Divine Comedy, specifically the first chapter, "Inferno".
Rather than directly re-telling the poem stanza by stanza, Visceral have instead opted for a thematic re-imaging of the source material, using the poems key ideas and imagery to create a very adult character action game.
Players assume the role of fictionalized version of Dante, re-imagined as a veteran of the Christian crusades. After literally staring Death in the face, he returns home to find that his wife, Beatrice, has been brutally murdered. To make matters worse for the chap, Lucifer soon arrives on the scene to drag her soul down to Hell. Doing as any self-respecting hero should, Dante, gives chase, beginning his oh-so bloody quest through the nine circles of Hell. As he descends deeper into the underworld, we begin to learn more about Dante and the sins he has committed in the past - as well as the Lucifer’s true motivations.
The narrative in Dante’s Inferno failed to grab my attention at all, as I sliced and diced my way through hundreds of demons I found myself unable to care why any of it was actually happening. For the majority of my time with game I felt a little confused as to what in the hell (no pun intended) was actually going on.
Admittedly, the story does begin to come together towards the end of the game, but by then I felt it was too little, too late. The actual ending was extremely anti-climactic and unsatisfactory — And it isn’t spoiling anything to say that Visceral make it blatantly obvious that they plan on sending Dante’s Inferno 2 our way.
But enough about the story; chances are if you are reading this you want to know about how the game actually handles. Like any character action game, the hacking and slashing is the crux of the gameplay, and of course Dante’s Inferno isn’t any different. So, did Visceral manage to deliver on that front? You’ll be glad to hear that the answer is a firm “hell yes” (pun intended).
On his quest for Beatrice, Dante will have to face hundreds of demons; fortunately for him he is more than well equipped for the task at hand. He is able to deal out swift melee damage using a massive scythe, or attack at range using Beatrice’s blessed crucifix. In addition to these weapons he also gains access to a few magic attacks as he advances further into Hell.
It is safe to say that Visceral really nailed the combat in the game - yes, the control scheme is extremely similar to God of War or Bayonetta, but hey, if it isn’t broke - don’t fix it right? The only thing I feel is missing from the combat mechanics is the ability to cancel attacks mid-action. Too often I would lose huge chunks from my health bar because Dante was left vulnerable to attack because he was locked into an animation, even though I could clearly see impending threat.
My first impression of the combat was that it was fun and responsive but ultimately simple and restrictive. However, my opinion soon changed once I realized that Visceral had implemented a leveling up system allowing Dante to purchase new attacks and abilities. Once I got my hands on a few of these new techniques the combat really begins to evolve into something a lot deeper than it initially appeared. Soon I was earning enormous chain combos, as I seamlessly dashed from demon to demon dealing out colossal punishment.
The twist in leveling-up is that there are in fact two separate skill trees available, each one representing holy and unholy techniques respectively. Each tree has its own unique skill sets, so you’ll need to decide early on which path you want to go if you have any hope of unlocking Dante’s most powerful attacks. Holy or Unholy points are earned by either punishing or absolving enemies, this is done when an enemy is near death with a simple tap of the right trigger.
Along the way you come across real life historical personalities who need to be punished or absolved. Doing so grants you a large amount of Holy or Unholy Points, depending on which action you took. Punishing is the quicker option of the two, as Dante just brutally rams his scythe into said person’s face, where Absolving requires you to play a sort of rhythm mini-game to earn your Holy points. More often than not I chose to punish the enemies, not because I’m heartless, but because the mini-game wasn’t very engaging and slowed down the action - ultimately too tedious to perform on a regular basis.
The main reason that the action feels so fast and fluid is because the game runs at a solid 60 frames per second. This is an incredible achievement, when you consider the amount of action that is actually going on in some fights. Unfortunately the huge downside of the game running at this speed is that it lacks the graphical fidelity that we’ve seen in other games in the genre — the gorgeous Bayonetta comes to mind.
While Dante’s Inferno is in no way an ugly game, the textures are low resolution and appear blurry to look at. The character models also suffer as they can be pretty square looking, this is especially apparent during the in-game cut scenes, which is a real shame because the art department have done an amazing job designing the look of the game. But I’ll get to that in a moment.
At the end of every circle Dante will have to go toe to toe with a larger demon. These boss fights are one of the highlights of the game, they tend to be epic battles against absolutely massive enemies. The Lust boss in particular features probably the most inventive and disturbing use of a mammary gland ever to grace a game screen. The fights often utilize quick time events (a staple of games in this genre) in order to make players feel as though they're pulling off crazy maneuvers during a spectacular action sequence - and Dante’s has its fair share of exciting set pieces.
Dante’s Inferno is definitely what some people would call a ‘baby puncher’. For those unaware of the term it basically means that the game is extremely frustrating in places, so frustrating in fact that you may feel the sudden urge to punch an infant. If you are the type of gamer that doesn’t have the patience to retry sections of a game over and over again, then I would probably give this one a pass. Dante’s Inferno has absolutely no qualms whatsoever about suddenly offing you instantly in a variety of unexpected ways for no particular reason.
As I touched upon earlier, the real high point for me in Dante’s Inferno is the art direction. Visceral has done a stellar job of depicting Hell. Right from the moment Dante drops through the Inferno gates I really got the sense that the Underworld really isn’t a very nice place to be. I found myself initially disturbed by my surroundings - the environments were covered in weeping flesh, blood and lava flow down the side of cliff faces, tormented prisoners moan and writhe trapped behind meat-like walls, flames lick up, swarms of giant bats fly past in the background - Hell really does make for a great videogame setting.
The environments aren’t the only well designed assets in the game. The enemies that you encounter are extremely well designed too; each Circle of Hell normally serves up one or two new types of demon for you to fight, appropriately themed around the circle from whence they came. For example in Gluttony you are introduced to lumbering obese women with no clothing, who slowly approach you hoping to expel the contents of her stomach onto you - from any orifice possible. Or, while in the Lust ring, you first encounter topless women who try to seduce you with magic and to pull you in with a fleshy “tentacle”-like arm that emerge from their nether region - saucy.
The sound design in the game is equally impressive, adding layers of atmosphere to the already disturbing environments. When you aren’t in combat you can constantly hear the tortured screams of people in the background. The soundtrack is particularly well produced and consists of epic sounding orchestral pieces, featuring heavy use of a choir that really helps cement the religious theme of the game.
Unfortunately for all the good in the game, there is a fair amount of bad - about two thirds of my way through the Inferno, all the fun I was having with the game quickly transformed into boredom and frustration. It really seemed as though the developer had straight up ran out of ideas.
I found myself becoming tired of everything the game had to offer and just wanted to get to the credit roll. There were no longer any new enemy types to fight; the environments all began to look the same boring shade of brown, everything just became totally uninteresting. The epic boss battles and exciting set pieces that I loved at the beginning just ceased to exist. This is a real shame because if Visceral had just kept the momentum going a little longer, they would have had a real winner on their hands.
One of my biggest gripes with the game is that you have absolutely no control over the camera in the game; it is always positioned exactly where the developers want it to be. The issue with this is that often one of the games larger enemy types would wander into the foreground and completely obstruct the view of the action on screen. The camera can also be blamed for making the platforming sequences really frustrating. All too often Dante would fall to his death because the camera would pan to an awkward angle making it almost near-impossible to judge the distance of the jump required.
Another problem I encountered is that you are constantly required to hammer the B button to access health & mana fountains. You may think this is nit-picking, but when you’ve done this a million times over it really begins to get tiresome. Why Visceral thought this would be good idea is beyond me, it's straight up bad game design; a simple tap of the button would have sufficed and made for a less frustrating experience and far fewer hand cramps.
My finished save on Dante’s Inferno clocked in at around the eight hour mark, which in today’s standards is pretty short, but honestly by the end of the game I was glad it was over. After completing the story you are given the option to replay the game on a harder setting, importing your leveled up Dante to continue his progression, but this is something I didn’t really have any interest in doing. As well as the replay option you also unlock Gates of Hell mode, which challenges you to make it through 50 rooms of enemies within 5 minutes, earning more time as you go. It’s a welcome addition but doesn’t add anything you haven’t already seen.
Dante’s Inferno is a solid release that starts off with tons off promise but unfortunately never really reaches its true potential, soon becoming repetitive and stale. Because of that it’s hard for me to recommend Dante’s Inferno as a full price purchase, unless you are a die-hard fan of the genre. But, as a rental, I definitely think its fine way to kill some free time over a weekend, just so long as you haven’t got any anger management issues.
Dante's Inferno is available now for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.