Dante's Inferno Review
“Derivative” is a term that’s perhaps used too often in reviews. I would argue that a good 90% or more of modern day video games are derivative of something that came before. Rare is the truly original title, and rarer still is the truly original title that’s any fun to play. When it comes to Dante’s Inferno, what you’ll hear again and again is that it’s derivative of God of War – so derivative, in fact, that some would claim it isn’t too far from being a pure, unabashed clone. In reality, Dante’s Inferno is nothing more than a pale imitation of God of War; developer Visceral Games cribbed the basic blueprint, but they also removed key elements like a deep combo system and an interesting narrative, and managed to remove a good deal of the fun to boot.
Aside from its status as a clone, the other controversial element surrounding Dante’s Inferno is its subject matter. The 14th century poem of the same name is one of those pieces of literature that everyone has heard about but nobody has actually read. This works in the game’s favor, however, as most players won’t realize how “judiciously” the subject matter is treated. Many of the characters and locations are pulled from the poem, but I certainly don’t remember Dante as a scythe-wielding death machine. The liberties taken with the subject matter don’t mean a whole lot anyhow – one of the most beloved franchises of all time centers around a plumber battling turtles and walking mushrooms, after all.
Visceral did use many of the historic figures mentioned in the poem, including details about the transgressions that led them into the abyss. The problem is that I never felt an investment in any of them, Dante included. I certainly never cared about saving Dante’s wife Beatrice (the crux of his quest), and received the most enjoyment out of the flowery language and tone of the the spirit/poet that acts as Dante’s guide.
Overall, the presentation is one area where the developers mostly got it right. The depiction of hell is sufficiently haunting, with creepy otherworldly sound design, crisp graphics and a smooth frame-rate that never chugs. The level design for the first half or so of the game is strong as well. The early circles have a distinct look and feel with a nice selection of truly epic boss battles. The game starts to lose steam in this area about halfway through. There are times when I press myself to motor through games when I can sense the end is near, and in a way that’s what the back half of Dante’s Inferno feels like. The devs either ran out of time or decided they just wanted to get through the game, and the quality of the experience really suffers as a result.
Dante’s Inferno comes equipped with a mature rating, and there are times in the game where I felt they wanted to hit players over the head with adult elements. The boobs and blood flow at a non-stop pace, and some of the enemy design is way, way over the top. I could have done without the disgustingly fat demons with a bad case of the stomach flu, and when babies with blades for arms started issuing forth from a giant demon’s nipples, I almost turned the game off forever. I appreciate mature subject matter, and I enjoy the prodigious use of the F bomb, but Visceral crosses the line from cool to ridiculous far too often.
Because they stole the game play from one of the most entertaining action titles in the last decade, you would hope that Dante’s Inferno would provide a similarly deep and satisfying combat style. While I found the controls lively and responsive, the depth of the combo system wasn’t up to snuff. In God of War, different combinations of heavy and light attacks could produce very different results; here I found myself mashing the square button repeatedly through 90% of the game. While Dante’s Inferno features two distinct specialization trees with a multitude of moves and special attacks available, many of the unlockable moves are either very situational or enhancements to existing attacks.
Another issue with the combat system is the exploitable power of certain attacks. If you grab an enemy, you can choose to punish or absolve them, and during this action you are immune to basically everything. On top of that, punishing or absolving an enemy kills said bad guy immediately. Obviously the bigger, badder enemies are immune to this grab, but if I was ever in a tough spot I could often grab a lesser minion to give myself some breathing room. Dante also has a projectile cross attack that he can fire at enemies on the ground and airborne. Later battles in the game throw a LOT of enemies at you, but at times spamming the cross attack made it all too easy to survive, especially if you spend the souls (the currency of Dante’s Inferno) to improve the speed and power of the cross.
The issues I have with the combat system are minor in comparison to the roiling sea of hatred I have for the multitude of cheap ways you can die in Dante’s Inferno. It’s like the developers realized the combat was a little too easy – and rather than make the enemies tougher or improve the combat system, they elected to include a variety of “insta-death” situations. If you fall into any kind of liquid, you die. If you get knocked off the edge of a platform, you die. Many puzzles involve gouts of flame or spiked walls and such that kill instantly. I lost track of how many times I rolled my eyes at yet another minor mistake that led to my demise. While I’m not one to throw controllers, I found myself right on the edge of doing just that more than once.
The most damning criticism I can level at Dante’s Inferno (please excuse the pun) is that I completely lost interest in the game in the last half. The early level design and exhilarating boss battles kept me going in the early circles, but past gluttony I can’t recall a single interesting stage. And while there were some great boss fights early on, only the final battle with the devil himself stayed with me (though this may only be because of the oh-so-distracting floppiness of a certain part of Lucifer’s anatomy). When I finish a game like this, I’m usually more than ready to fire it up again for another play through, especially in a game with divergent specialization paths. But in Dante’s Inferno, once Satan was put back in his place and the credits rolled, I was eager to shelve the game rather than revisit it.
Hell is a potentially great setting for a game (especially with the already existing 9 circles to make designing levels easy), the graphics and sound design are solid, and the combat system, though somewhat shallow, does its job well. Perhaps the development team felt rushed to get it out the door well before God of War III, or maybe they themselves just ran out of steam at some point. Regardless of the reasons, Dante’s Inferno is nothing more than a very forgettable God of War clone with over-the-top mature elements, inconsistent level design, and an overall sense of emptiness. You’d think that carving up Satan himself would be quite satisfying, but by the time you reach that point you may be tempted to just let the bad guy win.