Review: Dante’s Inferno
April 20, 2010, Author: Brian Gourlay
It appears that epic mythology is very “in” at the moment. God of War 3 has had PS3 owners salivating for a while now while tales of the Greek Gods have also recently been retold in two blockbuster films (both of which were pretty diabolical to be fair). Now with Visceral Games release of Dante’s Inferno it’s the turn of Hell to get the same treatment, except the deep allegorical tales of religious texts are mostly replaced by a Crusader with an almighty axe to grind, or extendible scythe to be more precise.
I’ve had my eye on Dante’s Inferno for a while but a plethora of hold-ups have resulted in me only picking it up now. Aside from all the controversy, the pre-release footage ticked all the right boxes to sate my ever increasing blood-lust which is reaching worryingly high levels at the moment. Seriously I need to either let loose on GTA4 or try to counterbalance it with Viva Piñata. Just because I’m in the mood for a bit of infernal minion punishment doesn’t mean that Dante’s Inferno is instantly going to be added to my must buy list however, so read on to find out just how good it really is.
The Last Crusade(r)
At the risk of coming across as a bit of a Neanderthal, my knowledge of the original source material doesn’t extend any further than what I’ve picked up on Wikipedia as well as a few phrases that have been used in nearly every recent film with religious undertones. Dante could well have had a wisecracking robot sidekick named Leroy and although I probably would have thought it was a bit out of place I wouldn’t have been any the wiser. With that in mind I’ll be sticking solely to the plot-line of the game to mitigate the risk of me looking like an uninformed tit every time I botch a reference to the Divine Comedy.
The story of Dante’s Inferno begins with the Templar Knight Dante with a knife in his back and faced with Death itself, who informs the zealous Christian that his fate is to be banished to Hell for all eternity. It’s not spoiling too much to say that it turns out that Dante, who is actually pretty handy in a scrap with mythological beings, royally batters the Grim Reaper and steals his scythe just to rub it in, but that’s only the prologue to the story. Dante returns home to find his wife Beatrice with a sword in her chest and her soul being dragged into the depths of Hell by Lucifer. Dante’s Inferno follows Dante’s traverse into the Nine Circles of Hell as he does whatever it takes to gain redemption for the sins that have resulted in Beatrice being dragged to the underworld.
Based on the fairly crass advertising campaign that preceded Dante’s Inferno I have to admit to not expecting a great deal in terms of the plot, but Dante’s quest is a surprisingly engaging one. The tapestry that is woven in Dante’s chest fleshes out his background through simple but effective animated cut-scenes. I always looked forward to these parts, not just because of the clever animation but because they always contained revelations regarding Dante’s past sins during the Crusades that I genuinely didn’t see coming. As the story progresses I felt like this is as much a story of Dante trying to redeem himself as it was a rescue mission, while Lucifer plays a fantastic part in constantly reminding Dante of his transgressions and belittling his efforts to achieve absolution.
Knock, knock, knocking on demon’s faces…
Now don’t let the religious themes that are prevalent throughout Dante’s Inferno fool you; this game is all about kicking ass. Dante has two weapons as his disposal: Death’s Scythe which allows for brutal melee attacks and a Templar cross blessed by the spirit of his deceased wife. The scythe performs Unholy attacks while the cross unleashes different kinds of Holy energy, both of which have their own separate levelling up paths and experience gauges. The gauges are filled up separately depending on what moves you use to finish your opponent, although there are times when you can specifically decide whether to Absolve or Punish your opponent, with the latter clearly designed to appeal to those who enjoy a bit of divine retribution. The two sides of Dante’s repertoire are actually fairly balanced and it pays to advance each of his weapons equally, although it seems to be a lot easier to level up your Holy arsenal as the game progresses.
At first the combat is relatively standard stuff with light and heavy attacks being mapped to the Scythe and long range holy attacks possible through the Cross. Dante levels up fairly quickly however, which presents the opportunity to spend experience on the healthy arsenal of combos that can be unlocked. One thing that I feel Dante’s Inferno does particularly well is essentially make proper use of the many combos a mandatory tactic for those who are partial to staying alive. It’s easy to become overwhelmed so a lot of time is spent on the defensive rather than just madly mashing the attack buttons in a flurry of flashing effects and ever increasing hit counters. Quite simply; you’ll be punished for being gung ho, which is hardly a bad thing and it makes the experience of pulling off one of Dante’s many destructive combos all the more satisfying.
While I found the combat to be very well executed, it’s during the boss fights that Dante’s Inferno really hits a sweet spot. Dante always seems utterly fearless and committed to his task despite his hopeless surroundings, which comes across well in the brutality of the boss fights. There’s no running away from the massive beasts while platforms falls away from under your feet here; your only option is to face them and beat the (un)living daylights out of Hellspawn that have the audacity to get in your way. There are a few boss fights that degenerate into a sequence of fairly bog standard dodge, hit, hit, dodge, repeat sequences but the majority of them are straight up epic, and most importantly unpredictable, brawls. The duel against Marc Anthony is especially exciting; I always felt on the back foot having to dodge and block a flurry of incoming attacks before capitalising on the occasional mistake with a massive swing of my scythe. Rather than simply reacting to a sequence of predefined attacks and combos it felt like a genuine fight with all the twists and turns that it entails.
As is the way with most games of this ilk at the moment Quick Time Events play a significant part in the combat, although these sequences integrate into the gameplay pretty well. I usually find the QTE sequences can often break up the flow of the gameplay but they’re mercifully short in Dante’s Inferno and executed in a way that makes than feel like a natural extension of the combat. After being knocked down by an enemy you might need a few quick button presses to avoid a killing blow or alternatively a wiggle of the analog sticks will see Dante literally rip an enemy in half when he’s weak enough. Once these ultra violent animations have played out it’s straight back into the fray and as a result these moves just feel like especially gory combos rather than additional scenes that interrupt the play, most of the time that is. The boss fights are a bit too heavy on the QTE’s and while they work well during the fight, the end of every boss fight often consists of a drawn out button pressing exercise. While they look great I did feel detached from what Dante was doing a lot of the time, while a single mistimed press could result in a catastrophic loss in health or even worse, instant death.
Dante’s Inferno does make the occasional effort to break up the combat with some platforming and puzzle solving segments, but they’re pretty average and downright tortuous respectively. Although the rope swinging, pole sliding sequences provide some fantastic eye candy thanks to the heights you reach during them, they never really provide a real challenge for the player. The puzzles on the other hand come across as an afterthought as though Visceral felt constant combat would eventually see our interest wane, but they just come across as a hindrance and very rarely go beyond the age old pulling crates onto floor panels formula. I can understand why these parts of the game exist since it probably would grate a bit if Dante’s Inferno consisted solely of killing a variety of imaginative demons, but considering the quality of the sections themselves compared to the excellent combat I can’t help but feel like they needn’t have bothered.
A nightmare to remember
I was a bit worried during the first half hour of Dante’s Inferno, as it consisted of fighting through some pretty bland environments that weren’t really making much of an effort to get any of my senses remotely interested. When you make the first steps into Limbo however everything just clicks into place beautifully thanks to the inspired level and character design. Each Circle of Hell visually portrays the sins they represent very well and do what I think it’s becoming harder and harder for games to achieve; genuinely shock the player. Apart from Lust that is, which seems to resort to just flinging phallic imagery at every corner. Although “phallic imagery” is even a touch generous, it’s just rooms full of cocks. The most impressive thing about the different levels are how even the most simple concepts are given an infernal spin. Instead of climbing up vines or ladders, you grab onto the flailing hands of tortured souls that are attempting to free themselves from their prison, while Dante will more often than not find himself climbing and swinging on the rotting, compacted limbs of the poor buggers they used to belong to.
The creative juices must really have been flowing when the characters were being designed. There are a few generic demons that appear across Hell which are a touch on the bland side, but the enemies specific to each Circle all exhibit a level of twisted imagination that the Devil himself would probably struggle to match. There is something altogether unsettling about being attacked by scimitar-handed babies and damned prostitutes who writhe around in ecstasy while trying to rip your head off. Both Dante and the enemies he faces also benefit from some excellent animation that is always smooth and lightning quick in equal measure.
I do have one bugbear about Dante’s Infernos visuals however; considering the game is set in the bowels of Hell, the fire effects are pretty underwhelming. In particular whenever Dante finds himself having to eliminate a group of enemies before moving on a wall of fire will block your path, and it just looks a bit shoddy. It’s not as much of a hindrance as I initially thought it would be as this depiction of Hell is actually quite restrained, but I feel like Dante’s Inferno could have benefited from some more eye catching special effects to match the epic scale of the levels and bosses.
Hell is alive with sound of music
The score of Dante’s Inferno is an interesting one, in that the music itself takes a bit of a back seat to the ambient noises that stifle the atmosphere in the depths of Hell. The constant wails of the damned echo throughout the entirety of Hell, while individual Circles have their own backing tracks, whether it’s the sound of euphoric moans of the Lustful or the maniacal screaming of those guilty of Wrath. The sound effects do a good job of piercing through the background to really make Dante’s attacks feel like they really are of biblical proportions (eek, that pun would make Basil Brush cringe), so that it’s only really when you stop inflicting pain that you’re forced to realise just how much of it is surrounding the environment. The voice acting is also pretty solid across the board, although Dante himself can get a bit unnecessarily shouty pretty much all of the time. I particularly liked the voice acting of the Devil himself, constantly appearing to mock Dante in a manner that never seems to be particularly vindictive or angry, just confident and snide in equal measure. He acts as a perfect foil for the occasionally bombastic Dante, and every scene in which they’re both involved is a complete joy to behold.
Heaven or Hell?
Dante’s Inferno is certainly no game for the faint hearted, and it has been a while since I’ve been able to say that. It pushes a lot of boundaries with the creative decisions made in terms of both the setting and the depiction of the many sins Dante is faced with. I know the argument is that we’re being slowly desensitised to the shocks that games are able to offer but I would advise caution; Dante’s Inferno is pretty damn messed up at times. It is, however, also a very accomplished game that perfects a lot of the best mechanics from a genre that is experiencing a bit of resurgence at the moment. The combat is visceral and exciting and I was surprised to find myself genuinely interested in how the narrative pans out. Granted, the replay value is fairly restricted even with the inclusion of an unlockable difficulty level, but I have to say that Dante’s Inferno is the best fifteen hours in Hell I’m going to have spent in quite some time.