Thursday, 11 February 2010 21:04

Dante's Inferno (xBox 360, 2010)

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Overview


Damn, looks like he's in the hell of heartburn... While he didn't participate in the Crusades himself, Dante Alighieri the poet was a member of the Guelph cavalry, in the years before he penned the three parts of one of the greatest pieces of literature in the history of the world, the Divine Comedy. This epic consisted of three parts, the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. They described a journey taken by Dante, guided by the Roman poet Virgil, and later his unrequited love Beatrice, as he became lost and misled at the midpoint of his life. He descended through hell, Virgil teaching him about each of the nine rings and some of the inhabitants within, then ascended through purgatory's nine levels and eventually into paradise's nine levels. The poems were unusual in that while they did tell a story, story telling was not their primary purpose. Instead, they served much more as a sort of roadmap to the journey, crafting through word and prose a vision that to this day defines hell, and to a lesser extent purgatory and heaven. That roadmap is the one that Visceral Games decided to illuminate with their own interpretation of Dante's Inferno.

Fields USA Info Image
Title Dante's Inferno
Dates 2010-02-09
Company Visceral Games
Publisher Electronic Arts
Genre Horror, Third-Person, Action, Occult
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Review


Open wide... Dante Alighieri – the one in the game, mind you - like so many others, flocked to Richard the Lionheart's banner as it was raised to lead the Third Crusade. Betrothed to his childhood love Beatrice, he none the less decided to join the crusade to retake the holy land. Before he left, though, Beatrice decided to give herself to him outside of wedlock, and as part of that shared promise presented him with her cross to remind him of her while he was away. The game itself opens in the City of Acre, Dante fighting off a large force of men attempting to overrun a prison area while heavy bombardment from ballista and catapults rains down from boats in the harbor. One of these boats crashes into the area Dante is fighting in, and he is able to escape by climbing across the deck to another part of the city. Unfortunately, as he runs into a small open courtyard, a man runs up, and proceeds to stab him in the back. The specter of Death rises before him…

Ok, am I really kidding anybody here? Basically, Dante's Inferno follows the same roadmap penned by the poet, only with a version of Dante that's a bit stouter of heart than his poetic inspiration. Dante the poet fainted at several points in the journey, carried through by Virgil. Dante the crusader slices and dices his way through Hell with the scythe he took FROM Death and the power of Beatrice's cross. The basic plot is that time-worn, tried-and-true, simple standard: The big bad – that would be Lucifer in this case – has taken the princess – that would be Beatrice's spirit here – and the hero – we can loosely apply the term to Dante – needs to rescue her from her fate. I said, BASIC PLOT, folks. I'll come back to this one.

One-winged an... Err, Demon. As you make your way through Hell, you have the option of either punishing or absolving your enemies, as well as certain lost souls, with these two weapons, making them more powerful and unlocking more attacks and abilities as you do. For example, raising the cross to the third level unlocks an increase to your health and mana meters, while doing the same for the scythe allows you to equip an additional relic. Once an ability is unlocked, you purchase it with the souls you've collected by defeating opponents. There's a total of seven levels for the 'holy' and 'unholy' paths, and only enough experience to max out one in a complete game. Fortunately, once you finish you have the option of restarting a fresh game with all the abilities and relics you found in the previous.

And let's talk about the weapons a bit, shall we? As I said, in Dante's Inferno, you wield two weapons, Death's Scythe, and Beatrice's Cross. The scythe is your 'unholy' weapon, and works as your melee range weapon, but that range isn't as limited as you might think. As you string together combos of light and fierce attacks, the scythe will change shape, stretching out and extending your range. Some of the more powerful attacks you can earn as you level the scythe up include very large, 360 degree sweeping strikes, and long-range, heavy piercing attacks effective for punching through enemy defenses. Grabbing enemies that have been worn down allows you to punish them brutally, decapitating large demons, or jamming the scythe down their throats and ripping them in half.

Beatrice's Cross, on the other hand, represents the 'holy' journey, and is used as a ranged weapon. It blasts cross-shaped attacks of holy light outward, destroying some enemies outright and often stunning the bigger bruisers to open them up for melee combat. As you power it up, the blasts become more powerful, and you can charge it for single, huge strikes that can decimate even some of the most powerful monsters, as well as suck enemies in closer and stun them, launching them into the air. Grabbing a worn down opponent, you can absolve them, releasing their spirit from Hell with bursts of holy light.

Choking to Death. And whatever you do, the combat is blisteringly fluid. Visceral went to great lengths to ensure that the combat runs at 60 frames per second, and for the most part, they were successful. I found the combat controls were on the whole responsive and easy to use, allowing you to switch smoothly from cross-based action to scything through packs. Blocking was a little bit laggy, but honestly, I attribute that more to the truth that I tend toward a too-aggressive style that focuses on dodging attacks rather than blocking them. Most importantly here, I didn't find any of the sluggish response that I found in Darksiders when I played through that. Reaction times are crisp, and unlike War, most of your attacks don't leave you open for counter attack because they flow together excellently.

Speaking of war, Dante the crusader has certainly seen his share of it, and that really provides the driving force behind his quest to save Beatrice. See, the thing about the original poem is that while it did, in the course of its telling, relay a story, that story was at best tertiary to the real thrust of the prose, which was to describe Hell – and later Purgatory and Heaven – in absolutely minute detail. I've seen a lot of people complaining that Dante's Inferno doesn't stay true to the source material, and honestly, they're both absolutely right, and absolutely wrong. Visceral has created their own story, yes, taking from what the poem provided and fleshing it out with much, MUCH stronger roles and characters than are present in the original. In the original poem, for instance, Lucifer himself is nothing but a mindless, slavering, chewing beast, unable to comprehend that he's freezing himself into Lake Cocytus by eternally beating his wings. Lucifer of the game, however, is an active part of the story, stealing Beatrice away and actively taunting Dante throughout his journey, aware of his own imprisonment.

As Dante descends through Hell, we learn more and more about his own past through the use of animated cut scenes that emanate from the crimson cross he's sewn to his own chest. The cross is a tapestry depicting scenes from his own life – scenes that depict Dante's own sins and crimes. We quickly discover that our holy warrior 'hero' is somewhat less than a virtuous man. Believing he – along with all other knights that had joined the Crusade – had been prematurely absolved of their sins, he had few issues with participating in some truly unpleasant acts, something he finally begins to admit to himself around the fourth circle. As I said earlier, the basic plot is simple – the hero needs to save the girl from the big bad. As with many things, though, the basic plot is hardly the whole story. Dante turns out to be a startlingly complex character as the game progresses, with some surprises that you'll see coming, and some surprises that you most certainly won't. The story on the whole, in truth, is unexpectedly deep, and it is in that truth that I consider Dante's Inferno to have done a fair bit of justice to the source material, even though it didn't follow it to the letter – or even to the paragraph.

Personally, I prefer my succubae with their hair down. Ah, but of course, there's a character here that I've (intentionally) ignored up until this point, and I can hardly call this review complete without talking about it some. After all, what would Dante's Inferno be… without Hell. You see, no matter how well Visceral did or didn't do with the story – and they did do a good job, I thought – it's all worth precisely nothing if they screw up Hell. In the poem, Hell itself was a living, breathing, slavering entity filled with malevolence and spite… and damn, Visceral outdid itself this time around. I shouldn't be entirely surprised, I suppose. They've proven before, with Dead Space, that they know how to create atmosphere and setting, but they REALLY went out of their way for Dante's Inferno. Each of the nine circles is in its own way unique, and they really did a great job of communicating that.

Take Gluttony, for instance, which looks a lot like you're walking through a digestive tract, with jets of flame that look like opening and closing heart valves, and diseased, rubbery, vile looking flesh serving as the ground you walk upon. It really reminded me a lot of one of my least favorite zones in EverQuest, the Plane of Disease. -Shudder- Greed is a world of machinery and molten gold, and the City of Dis glows a terrible crimson all about by the burning tombs. There's a healthy helping of squick EVERYWHERE that just layers in the atmosphere. In one room, you have to ascend by pulling a lever, racing over and climbing into a cubby hole as an elevator scrapes down along the walls, decapitating the souls that extrude through little gaps in the wall – only to regenerate as the elevator rises again, ready for the next lever pull. You can almost smell the vile stench of the River Styx as you travel through Anger.

Between each level is a descent section, the border in which you must scale from one circle to the next by traversing ropes of muscle and sinew, and pillars of tormented souls. These served incredibly well to break up the levels while not breaking up the action as a cut scene might have; you really got the sense of making the descent. Dante has to shimmy down ropes, then run along the wall while hanging on so he can make a jump to the next, avoid traps and deal with enemies that sometimes attack while you're clinging to a sheer cliff face.

Guh, now, where's Grummus... And ah, the tormented souls! Just a quick reminder, folks, this is, indeed, Hell, and there's a whole lot of screaming going on. Constantly. Endlessly. Eternally. It gnaws at you. Gets in your head. Actually, I kinda snickered at it because it tickled, but that's just me. In some sections, you move about by climbing on the walls, just on the other side of which you can see writing, tortured, sobbing souls, who talk to you as you move about. Their commentary keeps with the theme of the circle, too – the souls of Lust bemoan their lost love and pleasures, citizens of Anger and Violence threaten you and demand you release them.

All of this is made possible thanks to some truly stellar graphics work, mind you. Now, I'm not going to sit here and claim that they're the best graphics ever, though they are good. No, where Dante's Inferno really shines is in consistency. The set pieces' design is consistently solid, morbid and detailed, with little touches that really make all the difference. You look at Death's Scythe, and it really looks like the sort of weapon that Death would wield, built of some creature's spine with a wickedly curving blade. You travel through hell, and you see puzzle rooms with hints as to what tortures they hold, like the elevator puzzle above. The deeper you go, the darker it gets, until practically the only light you have is the light of Beatrice's cross at your hip, and the flames of enemies that are themselves on fire. These little touches that individually don't seem like much, but taken as part of the whole result in a carefully crafted world and atmosphere that crushes down around you as you fight your way through the woeful realm.

The voice acting was pretty good throughout, with great performances being turned in by Graham McTavish, filling the role of Dante, and Virgil's voice actor, Bart McCarthy. John Vickery did a suitably slimy, oily performance as Lucifer as well. I do wish that they'd have gotten the same voice actor for Dante's father as they got in the animated tie-in… Mark Hamill, heh. Ah well, JB Blanc did a solid job there too, so no real complaints. The sound effects crew deserves a mention here, something I don't often do, for the really good atmospheric and combat effects. Hitting things with the scythe feels like they got hit by some real weight thanks to some excellent choice in sound, blasting something with a charged up cross really SOUNDS like the unleashing of pure holy power in the middle of Hell.

Consider this plastic surgery...Most of the actual soundtrack of Dante's Inferno features fairly soft, decidedly dark harmonics and wind instruments, with a good sized helping of creepy Latin here and there. For some scenes you get a sudden burst of chorus voice that really helps to punctuate the situation.

Ok, now for a little bit of punishment and condemnation of my own. Despite the truth that, in my opinion, Dante's Inferno did a damned good job of respecting the source material while being its own story, it did have some problems. The first and foremost of these is that it is a short, short game. My first play through, I completed in a mere six hours and ten minutes. That's it. The second was even worse, starting as I did with a nearly fully powered cross, clocking in at just over three and a half hours. There's a good bit of replay value in this one – and a lot of DLC coming our way – so to be honest, I'm not as angry as I could be, but this really is much too short for a game that cost me sixty out the door. Dante's Inferno could easily have been twice that length and still felt a bit short, especially with the source material they had.

Next up, while they did an awesome job of realizing Hell, in some places I thought that they maybe didn't go far enough. Going back to that elevator room puzzle, I honestly felt that there weren't really enough situations like that, where the action of solving the puzzles resulted in Dante inadvertently – or, depending on how you were playing him, knowingly – taking part in the tortured soul's ongoing punishment. Every single puzzle should have had similar adverse effects. It would have added even more to the atmosphere, and helped to define that razor's edge Dante was already walking even a bit more.

There were some balance issues too, I thought. I really enjoyed the two-weapon system, but about the time I got the Cross to level 4, I picked up a couple relics that also improved my damage with it… and that's about the time when I realized just how ridiculously powerful the cross had become. With the exception of one enemy that has the power to make all enemies immune to the Cross while it lives, it's entirely possible to just spam the basic B-B-B-B combo and utterly destroy anything and everything in your path. It gets even worse when you get to Holy level 6, at which point you can buy the ability to gain health every time an enemy dies via absolution or being finished off by the cross.

This is why they say you should neither a lender nor borrower be. And of course, how can I review Dante's Inferno without openly nodding to the simple truth that it ripped a fair amount of its combat system straight out of God of War? The game itself admits this, and to be brutally honest, that didn't bother me in the least. If I were to ignore every game that was derivative in some way, shape, or form to another, I'd never play another video game again. More annoying to my mind was the absolve the special spirit mini-game, which consisted of catching 'sins' as they dropped down to the four points of your cross in a suspiciously Guitar Hero-ish manner. Fortunately, relatively early on you can unlock the ability to skip that mini-game if you like, though to be fair you do get some good bonus souls on an absolve if you get good at it.

Before I close out this review, I suppose in due diligence I'm going to have to take a look at a couple of the less… palpable things that you deal with as you work your way through Hell. For those of you that haven't heard about this particular tempest in teapot, you kill babies in Dante's Inferno. Horrible, speedy, vicious little babies with big-ass razor blades for arms that like to swarm you if you don't deal with them in a hurry, but babies none the less. According to Virgil, these are the children that weren't baptized before they were killed, and they appeared in the original epic as well… just without the attached ginsu knives. And of course, this blowing into a major controversy the moment it got out, Visceral decided, for shits and giggles, to add an achievement based around taking out twenty of them.

Welcome to the streets of downtown Hell. So, in other words, what I'm saying here is that you might have to do something atrocious, repugnant and unpleasant… IN HELL. Wow. Call me shocked there. It's a freaking GAME!! Anyone that plays this game and then goes out and starts slicing unbaptized kiddies with a freaking scythe WASN'T ALL THAT STABLE IN THE FIRST PLACE! For the rest of us blessed with sanity and at least a measure of common sense, we can be morally repulsed by it if we have to, and just get on with our lives, secure in the knowledge that THIS SHIT ISN'T REAL. This is the same bullshit crap I saw people whining about over Modern Combat 2's airport massacre. Press the button, deal with the little blade-babies, and move on, at worst it's going to mean an extra day or two in Purgatory for you.

In the same vein, it might surprise you to learn that the second circle of Hell, Lust, is rife with open vaginas, phalluses and bare breasts. It MIGHT surprise you, but it really shouldn't because it's THE FREAKING CIRCLE OF LUST!!! I will admit, honestly, that Visceral might have gone a tad bit overboard, but you know what? I don't mind. I really don't. At least they had the balls to go overboard and make sure the stage lived up to the sin. And while we're on the subject of bared breasts, the next person that points to me out that Beatrice spends a rather disproportionate amount of time with her tits hanging out gets buried head-first in a fire ant hill. They're breasts. Every single person that's ever lived has seen them at least once in their life. The game is rated Mature for a reason, can we please, please, pretend like we're adults instead of hormonal pre-pubescent boys with their first Penthouse magazine?

Overall


So, let's get this one right out of the way folks, I am a sick, twisted bastard at times, and at times find good humor and great fun at depictions of other people suffering in new and amusing ways that may or may not be ironically linked to their deeds in life. It's one reason why I'm a big fan of series like Pet Shop of Horrors and The Outer Zone, and used to laugh myself half to death at Carlin's capitol punishment bit. I'm not saying that I'm the sort that would want to cause that pain and suffering, mind you. Well, ok, a few specific circumstances and people aside, anyway. All I'm saying here is that I'm well aware that my own particular brand of kool-aide is a decidedly acquired taste, and the eternal fiery torment of others is something that bemuses me, because I'm sure that I'm well on my way to eventually joining them and feel the need to be able to laugh at it. Hey, if that's where I'm going to end up, might as well enjoy it, right? At least you know the parties there are gonna be hot.

What you can't see is the kitten he lets ride on his crown. With that said, yes, I derived a good deal of pleasure from playing through Dante's Inferno, for one simple reason. I wanted to see what they did with the story, and I was interested to see how they designed Hell… but I bought the game because I wanted a knock-down, drag-out, over-the-top, non-stop slaughter fest. And that's certainly what you get. The forces of Hell are big, strong, and unrelenting, and on the harder difficulty levels can take a shitload of punishment. You're walking through pure, unrelenting evil, fetid and repulsive and vile, and things sure as… Well, HELL aren't going to get any better. Visceral did a great job in creating Hell, and they wrote up a pretty damn good story to go with it, with characters that were considerably more complex than I'd been expecting from the cookie-cutter discards I'd seen in the promo material.

Who would I recommend this game for? That's a hard question, to be honest. This is not a game for the squeamish, nor for those that lack the ability to suspend their moral outrage, and absolutely not for children. Fans of God of War will find a familiar combat mechanic, with the spice of the various cross moves and the various magic Dante picks up along the way to provide something new. Those that like a good, solid fight should enjoy Dante's Inferno as well, and there's just enough puzzles to keep it from being non-stop button mashing, yet not enough to turn it into Legend of Zelda or Metroid. However, I would strongly advise that most would probably want to rent Dante's Inferno before purchasing it. There's themes and gameplay here that is likely to be quite impalpable for many, and though I myself enjoyed the game, I recognize my tastes as being somewhat outside the norm in this case. It IS a good fighter, it IS a good story, and it IS a great setting… but I think a lot of people won't enjoy Dante's Inferno if they try to take it too literally, or go into it expecting it to be true to the source material.

Additional Info

  • Writing: Groovy (+5)
  • Pacing: Groovy (+5)
  • Graphics: Groovy (+5)
  • Controls: Groovy (+5)
  • Voice Acting: Groovy (+5)
  • Soundtrack: Groovy (+5)
  • Replay Value: Groovy (+5)

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