There are a few reasons why Dante's Inferno isn't a great game, but plenty of reasons it's a good one. By Visceral Games and distributed by EA, this decent, unpretentious hack n' slash adventure isn't going to set 2010's big names trembling, but it still has the potential to be a hit among fans of the genre. Comparisons to the God of War series aside - there is little sense in labouring the point of so many international previews - Dante's Inferno should deliver satisfaction to those who sit down to play with an appetite for action and who won't shy away from invisible walls or unbaptised, scythe-armed babies.
Dante Alighirei is a knight of the Third Crusade, assassinated as he makes an assault on a fortress. This extremely short lead up to Dante's tussle with Death is preceded by an exquisitely detailed cut scene, which shows Dante sewing a tapestry into his own flesh (this tapestry shows images from Dante's past, which you see in parts as the story progresses). When the assassin sinks a knife into Dante's back, the Grim Reaper appears to seal Dante's deal. But being a plucky brute - worlds apart from the quivering wreck depicted in the Divine Comedy on which this game is based - Dante refuses to give up his grip on life. He fights Death in an intense battle (cue combat tutorial) eventually relieving him of his mighty, bone handled scythe.
Dante returns home to the love of his life, Beatrice. He arrives there to find his father stabbed through the eye with a silver cross, and his woman lying dead on the grass outside his house. As Beatrice's soul escapes, Lucifer appears and tells Dante that he's going to be taking her to Hell. Oh - Lucifer needs to marry a soul destined for Heaven so he can make his way skyward and usurp God (of course). Dante has just recently found out that the horrific sins he committed during the Crusades are going to haunt he and his loved ones for eternity, meaning that the bishop that told him all would be forgiven was a lying mongrel. This little kernel of truth to deal with also, Dante's next act is to chase Lucifer into Hell. Love'll make you do some crazy sh*t.
This is the story in brief. There's plenty of detail we're glossing over here for the sake of space, some more heavily anchored in the source text than others. The cinematics - mentioned above - really are an excellent part of the game. They come both in a highly entertaining comic book style, as well as super-realistic CG, to move the story along. Although there's no arguing that they couldn't look and feel more different from the game itself, the little breaks are well worth it. As each cut scene is unlocked, it appears in the menu so you can re-watch and enjoy at your leisure.
Dante must journey through Limbo before he can work his way down through each of the nine circles of Hell - Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence, Fraud and Trechery. Each circle poses its own unique challenges and some truly awesome bosses. To get from point A to point B, what are you gonna do? Battle and run. Battle and run. The game is heavily combat-based, with the spaces in between all but filler. Invisible walls abound, so that when you face your first hoard of underworld minions and have them vanquished, you have few options for moving forward. And the theme continues throughout the game. This linear structure is excellent from the perspective of making it impossible to get lost, but it means there is no incentive - and often no options - to explore. It's like walking around Palmerston North.
Dante has two weapons: Death's scythe, and a blessed cross which enables him to perform ranged attacks. Each time you kill an enemy, you take possession of their soul. Souls act as a kind of currency in the game, and allow you to upgrade Dante's attacks in the Upgrade screen. There are also two ability trees - Holy and Unholy - each attached to the cross and scythe respectively. As well as simply slicing your enemies to bits or blasting them into oblivion with magic, you can also impale the lower-level minions on your scythe and choose to Absolve or Punish them. Depending on your choice and the level of the enemy, you will be attributed a certain number of points to your Holy or Unholy level. Enemies that can't be impaled will usually be open to punishment or absolution after you have beaten them down enough. At each Holy or Unholy level reached, new attacks will become available which you can purchase for collected souls. I rather liked the way these trees are set up, showing clear lines of upgrade from one attack to another, and what prerequisites there are for buying each additional attack. This allows you to choose to keep beefing up the same type of attack, if you're finding it especially useful.
Your Holy and Unholy levels also allow you to use various Relics, taken from bosses, or otherwise uncovered as you progress through the game. A bit of a trap for young players is heavily stacking either your Holy or Unholy level, while neglecting the other. This could be because you like ranged attacks better than using your scythe, or because you rather enjoy ripping enemies in half as you Punish them, but whatever the cause, it's a dangerous place to get to. The Relics almost act as a regulator, forcing you to spread your points around if you wish to be able to use the full range, because each one requires a different level to equip. The Relics perform a range of functions, from increasing the amount of damage Dante deals, to allowing him to stun enemies for a moment if he blocks their attack.
The game controls fairly well, whether you're running, swinging, sliding, attacking or evading, but some of the camera work is very difficult to get used to. Depending on Dante's orientation, the camera might zoom in too close or move too far away, making it difficult to judge jumps or ensure you're looking the right away when facing an enemy. The combat is button bashing in the truest sense of the word: while the developers have taken pains to ensure there is plenty of variety in the attacks, when beset by such hoards of enemies, they don't often do much good. You're better off just swinging your scythe around in unpolished arcs or impaling as many as you can (the rest of the hoard won't attack if you're busy Punishing or Absolving). During boss battles, finishing moves are usually all about timing - just follow the screen's auto-cue and hit the right button at the right time.
Hell is superbly realised, even if the graphics themselves aren't anything to write home about. The decent graphics score here is really about environment, atmosphere, and - I'll say it again - those cut scenes. The walls of Gluttony glisten fatly, and the bosses are epic as well as epically disgusting. The scary babies that spurt from Cleopatra's nipples are a lowlight (or highlight, depending on how you roll) and the healthy gout of blood and pus/milk that follows them amps up the gore. Walls of screaming damned, disembodied eyes and mouths, the tortured skies and general inclemency of everywhere you go means that it's possible to feel like you and Dante are they only ironic gleam of light in the entire place.
You may have heard about the religious controversy the game has caused, but Dante's Inferno was never going to get made without a little bit of broo-ha-ha. This might even be a good thing, because without it Dante's Inferno may have flared up and then passed by. On the whole, the game has enough extras to keep it from being too dull - puzzle levels for example - but apart from some of the boss battles the combat as a whole is a little underwhelming and a bit same-same, even on the higher (punishing) difficulty levels.
While set in such a wonderfully frightening version of Hell, the game itself isn't scary - just gross. Adolescents who manage to get their hands on a copy of the game (NZGamer.com is a strong believer in the judgement of the censor's office, but we're also realistic) will be pleased with the intermittent boobage, but this feels as gratuitous as some of the violence. It's as if Dante's Inferno was made to a simple formula: blood plus boobs equals...
Well, I'm not sure what it will equal for you. That's something gamers will each have to discover themselves.