Game: Dante’s Inferno

Genre: Beat ‘em Up

Developer: Visceral Games

Publisher: EA

Platform: PS3, Xbox 360

Score: Beatrice!

The disappointing thing about Dante’s Inferno is that it’s actually kind of good.  As a fan of La Divina Commedia, I felt uneasy about a video game wearing the title “Dante’s Inferno” with quite a bit less shame than would be proper. It seemed proud, boasting. I was disgruntled – “Can’t wait not to play this shit game shitting on classic literature it obviously knows nothing about.” Despite this, I begrudgingly purchased the game after playing a demo at the behest of a trusted game store clerk.  The demo didn’t show a brilliant transmogrification of Dante Alighieri’s classic into a new medium, but it did show a promising game in one of my favorite genres – the humble Beat ‘em Up.

The game is about Dante (no, not that one), a templar returning from Richard the Lionheart’s crusade to find his beloved Beatrice murdered.  This holy warrior isn’t afraid of needles or his feminine side (if the opening cutscene is any indication) and he’s certainly not afraid of braving the depths of hell to save the woman he loves from the shade of Lucifer.  Her soul, of course, was won the only way a devil knows how; a bet. And you, of course, will win her back the only way a Beat ‘em Up main character knows how; by killing everything forever. Adequate plot for the genre; thumbs up.  You end up going on a bloody journey through a surprisingly faithful and detailed adaptation of the book’s nine circles of Hell. For awhile.

The first thing I noticed about Dante’s Inferno was the stellar graphics. For me, provided a game’s graphics aren’t holding the intended visual style back, they are a nonpoint. Style and artistic direction are much more important.  Dante’s Inferno has all three.  The attention to detail displayed in the movie cutscenes is astonishing.  They are surprisingly vibrant despite the grim circumstance and setting.  Flashbacks stand apart from the full-motion cutscene movies by what can only be described as a mixture of anime and stained-glass murals. They are often initiated by zooming into the cross sewn into Dante’s chest and are adequately dour and atmospheric from style to content.  They fit the biblical theme.  The environments themselves use descriptions from The Divine Comedy as loose blueprints. The developers needed to fill in the blueprints with details, though, so Ash Huang stayed up late Googling weird medieval tortures and creeping out his wife.

The character and enemy designs are just as inspired.  Dante himself is simple but identifiable – and has great detail upon closer inspection.  His physique is that of a marble statue, his armor shows etchings and chain links. The color red is used.  Strips of cloth dangle from his body with crosses at the ends.  These add interesting movements when he’s flipping around murdering Hell with Death’s Scythe.  Oh, I didn’t mention that his weapon is Death’s Scythe?  His weapon is Death’s Scythe. How did he get it? He killed Death. It was sweet. Monsters follow a similar philosophy, but the color palette for some of the more basic puds can lack diversity.  The enemies made to exemplify the levels in which they appear, however, are very well done.  My favorites included the Unbaptized Babies and the Lust Sluts. Despite these high points, a lot of potential baddie opportunities are missed.  In the Poem, the souls being tortured in each circle of Hell have poetic punishments for their sins.  I would’ve enjoyed seeing the fortune-tellers with backwards heads fighting like Voldo.  The schismatics being cut in two for eternity and the hypocrites with their flattened bodies draped in gold covered lead cloaks would have made excellent backdrops.  The centaurs are missing from the 7th Circle.  Geryon, Plutus (though Dante’s father did take his place in Greed), the Furies, and the Giants that survey the 9th Circle are also all prospective villains repudiated.

The first half of the game was really quite impressive but after a while I feel the developers just got lazy. Levels get less varied color schemes and they quit designing enemies to reflect each circle and begin to just recycle previous ones. You fight Lust Sluts in the Greed circle, Gluttony demons in the Violence circle, etc. The Malebolge in particular is the greatest offender.  The Divine Comedy describes the Malebolge as ten concentric circles spiraling toward the inner circle of Hell.  It’s supposed to be connected by long causeway bridges like spokes on a wheel.  Dante’s Inferno missed a great opportunity here by instead alternating corridors and circular fighting platforms with old enemies ten times in a row.  Enraging is the fact that each of the ten platforms are all tutorial-like challenges that basically say, “You just proved you could play the game for 10 hours, here’s 2 hours of prove-you-can-play-the-game sidequests.”  Upon beating Dante’s Inferno a ‘time-attack’ mode unlocks.  I don’t see why these 10 challenges couldn’t have unlocked in a similar fashion.  They are disconnected from any plot or association with the Malebolge.  They are monotonous tasks like ‘stay in the air for 8 seconds’ or ‘protect the stupid NPC from exploding zombie waves.’  More upsetting is the fact that the 5th Circle of the Malebolge is supposed to be guarded by 13 specific demons.  Fighting 12 mini-boss demons, and one major boss demon would’ve been visually amazing and, more importantly, damn good gameplay.  A big baddie gauntlet before the game’s climax would’ve been great for pacing too.  This was really the point in Dante’s Inferno where it falls flat on its ass and misses the field goal and loses the Super Bowl. And finds out its adopted.

The developers also miss an incredible opportunity with the end boss.  The imagery of the ultimate traitor trapped in the frozen lake was good but it could’ve been better – the blueprint for it being better was already 100% complete inside the poem they copied all that other stuff from. Why skimp on Satan? I liked the Hell-Mech twist, but was disappointed to not see it with six wings, masticating on Brutus, Cassius, and Judas.

Dante’s Inferno uses fixed camera angles.  The advantage of this is twofold.  The first is how it helps show off their good art from planned vantage points.  The second is that rather than having the right analog stick devoted to the camera, it can instead be used for dodging enemy attacks.  Other games have a bit of a sluggish quality to the dodge feature.  Dante’s Inferno’s dodge control is very fluid.  In fact, that word can be used to describe the combat system overall.  Block, dodge, heavy, light, and ranged attacks all blend seamlessly together.  You can be mashing the square button (light attack) combo and at any point switch into the triangle button (heavy attack) combo instead.  The attacks all look good.  Just as importantly, enemy collision detection with the attacks look good.  Bodies show the force of each hit, collide with each other when thrown or knocked back, and have a believable weight to them.

Dante can use souls as a currency to improve his combos and abilities.  He gathers the souls throughout the game by killing dudes, smashing the occasional object, and looting what can only be described as soul fountains.  The leveling branches in two ways, Holy and Unholy.  They each have seven respective tiers that must be unlocked.  You do this by either punishing or absolving enemies with a QTE fatality.  Choosing to level as Unholy powers up Dante’s scythe, while going Holy strengthens his cross.  Many historical figures that appeared as damned souls in The Divine Comedy also make appearances in the game and may be absolved or punished for additional experience.  These damned souls were rewarding to seek out.  Each has a brief description and I must admit I derived pleasure from judging The Damned.  That one part aside, I can’t say the leveling system will be new to anyone but it fits the game and is well developed.

A scythe and cross aren’t the only implements provided Dante on his quest to kill a conga line of demons that stretches to the moon.  He’s also given a compliment of spells, most of which he receives as story progression rewards.  I admit I didn’t use the spells much.  The first one you get (Righteous Path, a dash attack) is the best and I abused it and neglected all others.

Platforming and environment-based puzzle sequences break up the combat from time to time.  They’re usually well spaced out and never keep you out of the action for long.  My only complaint is that the wall climbing segments feel viscous, especially when forced to climb walls whilst on the back of a giant hairy beast.  Dante crawls along as though submerged in tar and the giants he rides are straight up dinosaur bones.

I’ve long been a proponent of platforming in Beat ‘em Ups.  It provides the opportunity to show off your good art, gives players a chance to rest their callused thumbs, adds a different layer of difficulty, and lends the game to better pacing.  There’s also the bonus of hiding exploration in platforming sequences that adds to the replay value of any game and gives exploration gluttons like myself something to feel good about.  Dante’s Inferno has a good amount of junk to find.  Most of them come in the form of hidden Damned or Relics, which Dante can equip to augment his abilities.  Relics do anything from increasing the amount of souls collected to adding damage to Dante’s dodge.  While we’re on the subject, Dante comes across doors and chests that need to be opened. It makes sense.  Things are hidden behind doors and inside of chests.  Dante’s Inferno, and video games everywhere, I’d like you to lean close for this one: Stop making me smash a button repeatedly to open a chest or a fucking door. I excuse it when it’s a QTE to murder a baddie in a more interesting way.  But a door?  Stop it.  Just stop it.

At one point near the end of the game Dante is burdened with a Sisyphean task.  In the Desert of Burning Sands the developers decide to combine platforming, puzzling, and combat in the most painful of ways.  Dante must push a siege tower up a hill in order to leap from a couple of rocks to a tower to get to the next area.  The tower rolls backwards the moment you stop pushing.  This limits the time you have to complete the jumps.  The problem is gravity isn’t Dante’s only enemy for this segment.  The map is rather narrow and four enemies of two specific types perpetually respawn.  Those two types are, of course, annoyingly suited for such a task; the minotaur most prone to charging and three small undead types that only ever leap attack.  At first I thought that it wasn’t all bad; I could at least farm these guys for souls.  Nope.  The developers thought of that and weren’t giving up one ounce of fun.  They stop giving experience after the first wave.  This section had a dual purpose; to waste my time and punish me for playing the game.  The designers tried to really get the player into Dante’s situation and feel just as tortured as he – and they succeeded; it’s just now I want to waterboard them in real life.

Balancing difficulty and frustration is a challenge for many video games.  Barring the above segment and the final boss who suffered a bit from the “needlessly large health pool = hard” laziness, Dante’s Inferno was good about this. Any frustration caused served to fuel the sweet taste of victory upon achieving success.

The game has some special features if you’re into that.  But most importantly the first part of The Divine Comedy – Inferno can be read from the starting menu.  I hope people unfamiliar with the poem take the time to appreciate it.  If even one Damned soul reads the poem because of this video game it will erase the last shred of incredulity that I talked about at the beginning of the review.

This brings me to a realization; Dante’s Inferno is a good game.  The gameplay is really fun despite a little hiccup at the end in pacing and baddie variance.  The art is pretty stylistic and creative throughout, especially bosses.  The plot is even passable.  In a Beat ‘em Up, as long as I never have to stop to ask myself, “why did I just kill that guy and his extended family?” I’ll stay entertained.  Man with a cleft chin, Death’s scythe, and excessive amounts of bravado kills hell for his woman.  I can’t complain about that.  Any fan of the genre would probably have a good time with this game.  The disappointment comes with its failure to be great.  It needed to maintain the momentum it had from beginning, change its name to ‘Hell Kill,’ and smite every person that calls any Beat ‘em Up with blood and QTEs a God of War rip-off.  As a side note, even God of War is a God of War rip-off nowadays – GoW3 essentially sucked.  Old franchises refusing to die or, god forbid, improve, aside; maybe Visceral Games will get it perfect with the sequel.  The Divine Comedy is three parts, after all, and I am looking forward to killing Robot Angels in Paradise with my bare hands – let’s just hope it’s called Hell Kill II.

This game was reviewed on the PS3.