When Visceral Games, the creators of Dead Space, announced that they were making a game based on the epic poem Inferno the skepticism meter automatically went into high alert. Literature is a particular medium that does not translate well to an entertainment based around player control and action over commentary. Still, given the amount of shock that hit me when Dead Space turned out to be a fairly good game I had hopes for Dante’s Inferno that it could wow me at least some what.
To break it down as simply as I can, Dante’s Inferno is a third-person, combo-driven action game where your objective is to walk into a room filled with bad guys and beat them all senseless until they stop appearing and you can progress. You assume the role of Dante, a crusader who fights of Death himself to return to his loved one only to find her brutally murdered and her soul stolen away by Lucifer himself. You must throw yourself into the depths of Hell in order to free her and preserve her innocence. Enemies relinquish souls when vanquished and those souls act as currency for the game with which you may purchase new attacks and defensive powers. The game throws in a moral choice element, allowing you to punish or absolve your enemies and gain experience in either holy or unholy powers, which vary slightly and allow you to purchase different types of upgrades depending on how much experience you gain on either side.
My final moments in the game lead me to a particular revelation about the good and bad elements of the game, of which I found in about equal measure, and how they ironically aligned with seven of the sins that would lead to an eternity spent in this forsaken place.
With the sin that shares the name with the section of the game that I did not enjoy, Lust is a demonstration of what is wrong with the concept of the game as a whole. Dante’s Inferno does itself no favours as to the level of maturity in the title by taking the most basest elements of each circle of Hell and pushing the envelope in terms of the content therein. Each circle introduces a new type of enemy, and Lust proceeds to introduce you to belly-dancer inspired enemies that moan not unlike the soundtrack to a cheap pornography and proceed to attack you with tentacles they shoot out of their lower lady-parts. That and they are topless, which I guess is a standard thing for the nether regions of the Earth. It escalates from there all the way to the boss, who takes up a large portion of the screen with her upper lady-parts and subsequently can summon demon children a la Limbo from her mammary glands. It was weird and almost embarrassing to play.
One of the more eye-rolling components of the game for me was seeing these enemies pop up continuously throughout the rest of the game, as well. It felt like there was only a small amount of enemies, and seeing these ones pop up in circles where they clearly did not belong did not help the continuity of the experience.
One of the elements a game takes in over abundance is consistency in the visuals. This isn’t always a bad thing, but in this particular case it feels like the game has suffered for the sake of making everything happen very smoothly. If there is a gluttonous aspect to this game it is certainly in the framerate, which runs steady at the detriment of the amount of enemies that you can face at any given time, the amount of things that can happen on the screen and both feel like the pull away from the epic overtones of the entire experience. Where its peers are mired in over-sized boss fights that play out like battles against titans (sometimes literally), the game feels hampered by its desire to soak in as much frames as it can. This also results in a lack of good, up close and personal framed shots of take downs as the detail feels startlingly not there. You are in a Hell devoid of much at all, besides the flailing of arms, the same lifeless looking corpses and the moaning of the damned.
Another element the game takes too much of is being controversial for the sake of it, diverting from the faithfulness to the poem down to the lowest common denominator of breasts, vaginas and penises for the sake of it. While I understand that Lust is supposed to represent a life of longing and directionless wandering due to the constant pull of sexual pleasure, it certainly does not mean that the entirety of the circle should be spent watching topless women dance about and shove demonic lady-parts at you. That combined with the fact that unbaptized babies, who occupy Limbo along with virtuous pagans, are bulbous-headed monsters with scythes for hands that cry violently as they attack you. Limbo is supposed to be the most pleasant part of Hell, if one can think of such a thing, and seeing humans reduced to mindless, violent lackeys based on what sins they have committed above (of which the least interesting is Violence, apparently) feels cheap.
The first experience I had with the game was the PlayStation Network getting a work out as the game signed me on to the EA Servers and checked the Store for any available downloadable content. The game has and is going to have more things for you to buy, and it makes sure you know it quickly. It was fairly distracting and a bit odd being able to sign in to the Store and buy in game currency for actual money. Also utilizing developer videos included in the game and large visual cues on the main screen to promote downloadable content for later in the year comes off as a bit distracting.
Visually the game has a tendency to approach bright lights and grandeur with too much vigour. Everything must be lit up and fiery, and while many of the circles of Hell seem to carry along a terrifying familiarity with the themes and approach of the original poem, others simply are grandiose at a detriment. Greed is especially this way, as the more modest description in Alighieri’s poem of men thrusting bags of gold at one another is replaced by another fiery pit where molten gold takes the place of fire or pitch. Where many elements of the level design can feel inspired, it makes the entire package almost seem cheapened in its basest interpretation of what greed embodies.
While the polish on the game is fairly evident from the amount of detail in the world design, there are portions of the game that feel like they could have used a few more eyes and a bit more work. This is evident for me in the checkpoints, which are often misplaced and infrequent to a point where a simple misstep can see you performing a laundry list of menial tasks in order to return to the point at which you faltered. There is no autosaving of skills once you have purchased them, meaning if you happen to assign a skill based on acquiring a certain number of souls and then return to the game only to fall down a pit you must not only traverse that environment again but reassign all the skills. It feels sloppy, and meant that I would often forget that I didn’t have abilities assigned until I was already in the heat of battle. This is exacerbated by the seemingly random decision of what cliffs you can jump off and what you can not, as some environments will allow you to simply walk off and die instantly, while others coddle you and ensure this doesn’t happen. It feels disjointed, and there is never really an identifiable visual cue as to when you may end up falling to your doom.
There is a point in the game where you can be attacked by enemies for an infinite amount of time. This can be exploited, as well, providing you a large cache of holy or unholy powers, and based on the point of the game it occurs in the enemies are fairly easy and it feels like a tacked on element of play. This is outside the Malebolge challenges, which also provide a similar opportunity, but it is moments like this in the game that break the continuity and the standards that the rest of the experience has laid out that when you defeat X number of enemies they stop coming. It feels untested and almost rushed in in some places.
Without trying to stretch the metaphor I have going here too far, it does feel like the game had some sort of anamosity towards me. It spent very little time teaching me things, and to be fair it didn’t feel like I needed a lot of strategy to make it to the end of the game on Zealot save for a few minor stumbles. The points where the game really digs in its heels and refuses to let you coast is the Boss Fights, which feel unnecessarily difficult and reliant on your ability to simply spam a specific attack and dodge incessantly. My first experience with this was Lust and I was worried that all bosses would be plagued with the game “unmovable object” syndrome followed by unblock-able attacks. My worries were well founded, as this trend continues right to the end when you face off against you-know-who and his dangling man-parts who effectively deals a shed load of horrific attacks that you can not avoid without considerable difficulty, and who never wavers even if you are throwing just about everything you have at him.
The translation of the poem as to the depiction of the Devil aside, it’s this torturous break of difficulty that makes the game less fun. Not that I do not enjoy a challenge, it just felt like less of a challenge than a chore, and combined with the fact that most of the main enemies have similarly unblock-able attacks it makes the game a bit of a crap shoot as to whether or not you can keep your combos going. And, on that note, there are challenges shaped around the game mechanics at each of the Malebolges of the eighth circle that range from dead easy to evil. One of note is keeping up a combo through your assault on a small group, where two of the enemies you face have the ability to begin an attack that you can not stop and they are not susceptible to damage during that time. Meaning any combo you had going is now shot and you have to complete the challenge over again. This is not optional. You can not skip this. You die. You die and then you start over until you die again and start over and die again.
One of the greatest sins of the game is the desire it seems to have to borrow from what every other game with a similar play style has. Most of them come off as rather cosmetic, but the way in which you interact with objects seems heavily borrowed and turned up a notch unnecessarily. The health/mana/soul fountains that are relatively prevalent in the game require you to go up to them and hit a button repeatedly, similar to how most other games in the genre handle the mechanic minus the repetition. That combined with the moral choices, leveling up, upgrade system and hidden collectibles, it feels like a mish-mash of ideas that almost come as a detriment to the combat in the game.
Evident from the developer videos and the fact that every scene removed from the gameplay oozes with machismo, it seems as if the story of the game takes itself far too seriously for what it initially seems to be. The concept of “pushing the envelop” seems to have taken a precedence over subtlety when it comes to how the characters, levels, enemies and story is portrayed and it feels sometimes like it simply the developer is demonstrating that they can do it. While it is not uncommon for a creator to take pride in what they’ve done, and for that to show through, there are a lot of missteps taken because of it which are somewhat corrected through a series of well designed aspects within the game itself. It does feel as if it ended up getting the better of them, though, with even the aforementioned Devil’s privates being so prominently on display (something they discussed at length during one of the videos included on the disc) unnecessarily to show of the edgy-style of the game.
There are a lot of great elements that can be shown off in the game, and oddly enough it comes through in the middle of the game where most games lose their steam only to try and reclaim it at the end. Dante’s personal struggles with his sins are a poignant interpretation of the elements of the poem, but when the game loses its subtlety and gives the characters so much gusto that it takes away all empathy, it diminishes the work that was put into to those smaller pieces.
Dante’s Inferno was developed by Visceral Games and published by Electronic Arts. It is available for the Xbox 360 and the PS3 (version played). Game completed in roughly 8 hours with the Holy path maxed out. Countless babies with scythes for hands witnessed with a terrible cringe.