Gameplanet is by no means an ivory tower occupied by tweed-coated academics, prone to choking on their figs and prosciutto upon learning of the debasement of a prized cultural heirloom, but it must be said that we picked up Dante’s Inferno with some trepidation.
After all, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy is a poem of particular significance to Western literary history. It has been admired and disdained – but always treated with a certain kind of respect – for more than seven hundred years.
And it could probably go without saying that the idea of any review is to put aside any preconceived notions of what a game might be like and instead focus on what it delivers. But Visceral Games’ modern adaptation of Dante’s epic poem has had a marketing budget large enough to start rebuilding Port-au-Prince. Unfortunately, the inescapable campaigns that followed have ranged from the ludicrous to the cringe-worthy, from hiring “religious protesters” in a botched publicity stunt to promoting the “molestation” of “booth babes.”
So then, trepidation.
And let’s get right down to brass tacks here: Visceral have treated the source material with all the delicacy of a Biggest Loser dropout descending on the International House of Pancakes.
Where the original was in many ways the inward self-flagellations of a possibly suicidal Italian poet and a manifesto speaking out against the vanities and frivolities of a Florentine society edging toward the Renaissance, now Dante’s Inferno is an action-packed tale of one badass’ quest to defy the divine order for the sake of a woman who has her top off so much, she appears to have mistaken Hell for Cancun.
Dante has also received a Hollywood makeover. Where the protagonist of yesteryear was a bookish scholar, today Dante is a Crusader, short on musing, long on muscle, and sinning in the Holy Land under the misguided illusion pre-emptive absolution.
But after defying (a wimpy) Death and pilfering his magical scythe, Dante is soon to discover that his betrothed has been murdered and that his dalliances abroad have doomed her to an eternity in Hell. Now Dante must descend into the underworld and do battle with Lucifer for the soul of his Beatrice.
To save his beloved, Dante must traverse Hell’s nine circles, beginning with Limbo. Limbo is reserved for those who have committed no sin but were born before they could accept the “true faith”. Here reside the noble souls of antiquity – the Roman poet and Dante’s guide, Virgil, among them.
Interestingly, Visceral’s ruthless adherence to the original’s inhabitants of Limbo almost plays out like a cruel critique of dogmatic Christianity in the cold light of 2010. Here is Dante’s Inferno is at its finest: Given that Limbo’s inhabitants aren’t evil, the circle is an especially unforgiving fate, and mincing unbaptised babies for the better part of five minutes is highly uncomfortable. For a fleeting moment, the game plays the player, cleverly toying with their better sensibilities.
But beyond Limbo’s lofty heights, good and evil is much more clearly demarcated. What follows are the circles of Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence and Malebolge, the circle of replicated assets (and Fraud). Finally is Lucifer’s own domain, Treachery.
Each is delineated by its own unique art direction, a genuine achievement on Visceral’s behalf. They’ve largely avoided “lake of fire” clichés and explored the character of each sin. Each circle also transitions smoothly into the next, from the slimy bogs and seeping maws of Gluttony to the molten gold and grinding cogs of Greed.
Even so, many assets are recycled far too often: Dante finds himself sliding down gargantuan spinal columns and climbing the caged walls of trapped souls with weary repetitiveness. Fraud features the same small level layout nine times over, each culminating in an achievement-esque arena encounter.
Unfortunately, players aren’t free to view the game as they would like. Instead of being able to control the camera – as we have for nearly half a decade in such action titles – the angle is fixed behind Dante. By and large it works as intended and in many ways is a helpful guide as it focuses on where to go next, but the occasional corner or drop is obscured. Dante remains centre screen throughout and occasionally players will find themselves trying to track down ranged foes beyond the frame. More than once, the fixed camera results in a death.
Happily, Dante’s Inferno has an extremely forgiving checkpoint system. Each small puzzle and each combat sequence generates an autosave, failure results in the loss of almost no progress.
This is especially handy given the incredible volume of quick-time events strewn throughout the game. Much of the game’s trailer-worthy action sequences are played out by pressing a random succession of buttons within a small window of time.
Quick-time events are also built into the combat and experience models. Combat is very much a genre-standard affair. Dante is provided with light, heavy and ranged attacks, each bound to a button and successions of each result in combinations. Additionally, Dante is provided with magic, but from whence, nobody cares to explain – perhaps it’s simply by virtue of being in a supernatural environment. Whatever the case, all of the above, in combination with a block and retaliate function, together compose the sum of our hero’s ability to Throw Down. It’s easy to learn, easier to master.
As Dante dispatches Hell’s minions he gathers souls, the game’s experience points. Dante has two skill trees in which he can invest these soul points, Holy and Unholy. Throughout the game, Dante encounters famous damned souls, the likes of Pontius Pilate, Attila the Hun and Electra. At each, he hears their story and must then choose whether to punish or absolve them. Punishing will unlock more levels of the Unholy tree, absolving, the Holy tree.
There’s an imbalance between the two. Punishing is a straightforward process: Dante applies Death’s scythe directly to the forehead and is done with it. Absolving sins loads a brief minigame.
A cross is displayed on the screen and red balls of sin move toward the centre at various speeds. Clicking on them at the right time as they converge with the centre grants Dante extra points which are converted into additional souls. The game is a trying distraction from the main action, but also necessary should players wish to unlock the top tier talents. With no such equivalent in the Unholy tree, some players will be skewed toward the Holy tree in spite of designs to the contrary.
Dante can also choose to absolve or punish Hell’s garden variety denizens, by grabbing them, selecting their fate and executing a quick-time event. The difficulty is both singling out foes worth the effort before Dante’s dervish of area destruction consumes them, and summoning the willingness to repeatedly perform such actions many hundreds of times over.
It’s not that Dante’s Inferno underperforms in any of the tasks it has set out to achieve. The game is easy to learn and follow, and often proves itself to be highly entertaining in its own mindlessly violent fashion. The difficulty is that it offers players nothing they haven’t seen before, or, in many instances, things that they’ve seen done better elsewhere.
Without innovative gameplay, Dante’s Inferno is left to make its impact on the strength of its narrative and its setting. It’s an adaptation that traps itself between very loose homage to its classical source material and its own steer towards (gratuitous) tits-out-for-the-boys mass appeal. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to separate it from the herd.