It won’t call you names, but Dante’s Inferno will offend. Whether intentional on Visceral Games’ part or not – and in truth it’ll be a combination of the two – you’ll not enjoy every minute in Lucifer’s lair. The abhorrence begins with Limbo, the lair of unbaptized babies. When the first infant emerged crying from the hollowed-out womb of a female effigy (which is lying underneath the gaze of a fiery devil) we questioned whether we wanted to keep playing. As it waddled forward on wobbly legs our only option was to take a scythe to it. It’s easily the most disturbing moment we’ve ever witnessed on a console and one that’ll understandably upset a lot of people.
Dante’s also offends with its numbing repetition. Nothing epitomises Hell quite like the invisible barrier. The laziest of all gaming mechanics, it’s capable of marring almost any experience when used without limitations. Not that the opacity matters. Flame barriers, bone barriers, magic barriers: visible or not, ultimately they’re all as bad as each other.
Dante’s Inferno’s crammed with them. Step onto a circular platform or enter a long hallway and you just know you’re about to be attacked. Obstacles are strung across the one exit (Dante’s is as linear as a rope), freaks are pushed through the floor and you’ll be forced to clear house before moving along to the next battle. Occasionally Visceral throws in the odd brainteaser – never more than a basic lever puzzle – but for the most part Dante’s Inferno’s predictability is unmatched.
Then there’s Dante himself: a vile protagonist of astonishing proportions. Dante is fighting through Hell to save his murdered lover Beatrice and return her to Heaven. He’s so foul, though, that his overarching tale of redemption is ineffectual blubber. The man is unquestionably deserving of his trip through Hell, and while we’re supposed to root for his success and Beatrice’s salvation it becomes increasingly difficult to enjoy the skin you’re forced to wear.
The fourth, and perhaps the worst offence of all, becomes apparent only towards the end: the missed opportunities. Having set its marker with the truly horrendous unbaptised baby scene, Visceral Games bottles it. There are still nasty visions later on, but nothing that comes close to the first hour. The Woods of Suicide – a level deep down in Violence – could have been the most creative of all the areas. We predicted rows of hanged people and sobbing souls forever forced to slice their wrists like Sisyphus was forced to roll his rock (yes, this is how your brain works when playing this game). Indeed, your guide Virgil warns you not to enter because it’s too much to handle.
Inside though it’s little more than a few gnarled and admittedly quite peeved faces impressed upon the trees. Your first steps into the eternally agonising portals of Hell, massively disappointing gates aside, are memorable for the endless falling bodies and for tortured spirit after tortured spirit clawing at Dante from within the walls. A few hours into the adventure, however, the formula is never re-stirred.
The journey through the underworld is a whistlestop tour of all the epic poem’s major sights with plenty of dull filler in between. You’re whisked through the nine circles at such a pace that the major areas of Hell act as little more than footnotes punctuating lengthy nothingness. For every boss fight there are a dozen identical rope-swings and cliffs to rappel down. The sensation that you’re not exploring Hell so much as its maintenance tunnels is inescapable. This problem is sometimes compounded by a dodgy camera resulting in unwanted dunks in molten gold soup.
Maddeningly there are often glimpses of interesting goings-on in the distance or at the corner of the screen, but because the camera’s locked to rails the best sights seem hidden from you. The City of Dis’ introduction is a phenomenal blend of art direction and calmness that’s never repeated, and a set-piece which suggests the game will stop dragging its feet and gather some momentum. But when you enter through the city’s gates you’re forced to suffer the most boring rendition of Gears of War 2’s closing Brumak ride. Yes, Dante’s Inferno has its unfair share of dragging animalistic ‘vehicle’ sections. And with the camera locked to the turd-brown road in front, despite the endless expanse of magnificent red flame and lava just above the eye-line, you don’t even get the chance to appreciate the view.
When you finally do come across an area of note, the game rarely delivers. The Wheel of Fortune turns out to be nothing more than a plain slab of stone on top of which you fight a boss. Similarly disappointing is Geyron’s back, which just turns out to be a plain elevator (with, you’ve guessed it, respawning enemies on top).
These problems are only amplified by the moments where the inspiration shines through. Gluttony is a conceptual triumph, built entirely out of giant tongue bridges, mouth gates and digestive organs. Charon’s Ferry is another exceptional moment: the normal ferryman and his boat traded for a hulking beast. Characters, too, often show sparks of creative genius. Human faces are problematic, but most enemy types are as twisted as a tornado. It wouldn’t make a difference to the game’s final score, but we’d love to pore over the concept art design documents.
Above: Yup, you can dress as Isaaac from Dead Space
It would be easy to get bogged down in the swampy mire that is Dante’s Inferno’s wealth of problems for quite a few more pages, yet it’s worth celebrating what Visceral Games’ latest gorefest does right: copying God of War. Dante’s Inferno isn’t just a 3D action game with uncanny similarities to God of War. It’s a clone, to the point where we’re stunned Sony’s lawyers haven’t been called in for a chat. Instead of Greek gods and crumbling ruins we’ve got sinners and circles of Hell, but the colour of the coating is irrelevant when the cake underneath is the same.
Of course, our fairytale doesn’t quite end there. While Dante’s poem is the perfect set-up for the title (iconic location, memorable beasties, nine clear-cut levels and a fight with Lucifer to round it all off – the game practically designed itself) the execution sits far closer to the ‘good’ marker than it does the ‘great’.
Enemy archetypes can be split into three major categories: grunts, heavies and bosses. The first is the fodder. Unbaptized babies, zombie-esque warriors… they’ll nip and scratch but Dante can dispose of them with ease. The heavies take a little more punishment (actually, a lot more later on), and include a couple of scrotum-wrenchingly tough foes you’ll be happy to see the entrails of.
Monsters from both categories, however, permeate through all of Hell’s nine circles without explanation. Babies appear in almost every level. Harlots also traverse Lust’s barriers and appear elsewhere for no discernible reason other than Visceral not designing enough bespoke enemies for each environment. Don’t ask us why there are more bloated blood-balloons in Heresy than there are in Gluttony as we simply do not know. Laziness would be our suggestion.
Happily Dante’s fighting mechanics fare better than the continuity. His upgrade tree revolves around two weapons: the holy cross and the unholy scythe. You can either punish or absolve enemies to earn experience in the relevant alignment, opening up extra moves and abilities. Souls are also harvested from monsters, but this currency is universal and isn’t assigned to either of Dante’s weapons. In the course of a single play-through it’s possible to max out one path and most of the second, which proves to be useful given later enemies’ invincibility to certain magic. Attributes can then be further boosted by equipping relics snatched from demons (these relics also level up, but only gain EXP if equipped so you’ll need to choose wisely).
As well as the standard beasties there are 27 crying historical figures dotted around the underworld who need to be dealt with one way or the other. For some reason Visceral has seen fit to use this idea as a vessel for a rolling commentary on the struggle for righteousness. It usually only takes a single button press and a flick of the analogue sticks to punish a sinner, but effort is required to free somebody from the shackles of their sins. If you choose to help any of the 27 damned you’ll be transported to a sin-catching button-matching minigame frighteningly similar to Dance Dance Revolution. The idea is a colossal misfire. The 40-second game is simply a rhythm action title on mute, and unsurprisingly it’s a chore to complete.
Otherwise combat works exactly as you’d expect, with last-minute blocks triggering counters and ridiculous combo opportunities opening up for the most dexterous fingers. Dante dodges attacks with a flick of the right stick, an input that even interrupts attacking animations if need be. Hardly an upheaval, but it’s the single feature where Dante’s gets one over on God of War. Every now and then you’ll find a small area with an obscured camera angle or two, but for the most part everything works neatly without ever excelling. Often the temptation to spam the long-ranged cross attacks is too great to pass up, not to mention too effective to ignore. If difficulty is the problem, however, the options screen comes to the rescue: toughness can be raised and lowered on the fly.
The unfortunate launch date hasn’t helped Dante’s cause. One month after Bayonetta’s weapon-juggling combopalooza, the stunted list of Dante’s skills makes for grim reading, and while the games aren’t directly comparable anybody who comes to this after Platinum Games’ masterpiece will feel short-changed. They’re very different spectacles though, and during those few moments of brilliance when Visceral’s vision shines through you’ll happily choose to forgive Dante’s Inferno’s less imaginative portions. God of War is a mighty tough act to emulate and Inferno clearly isn’t in the same league, but though this copycat is flawed it’s a guilty pleasure for those who can’t wait for the real thing.
Feb 3, 2010