No work of fiction has shaped our idea of what Hell is like more than Dante Alighieri’s collective, epic poem The Divine Comedy. Hell was no longer just a simple lake of fire, it was envisioned as a highly-structured realm with unique topography. It was composed of nine circles dedicated to punishing those who had committed a particular breed of sin, made up of elaborately-detailed torture chambers that inspired awe and fear in equal measure. The shrieks of the damned echo throughout every circle and Satan broods on his eternal damnation in the lowest circle, trapped in ice forever. Then somebody decided this would make a terrific action game.
Based loosely on the The Divine Comedy, Dante is re-imagined as a bloodthirsty crusader who has a brush with Death before besting him and taking his trademark scythe. He returns home to find his wife Beatrice murdered and that her soul is being dragged to Hell for making and subsequently losing a bet with the devil. To make a short story even shorter, Dante damns her to hell because he couldn’t keep it in his pants. He gives chase and slashes his way through the nice circles, along the way conversing with the ghost of Roman poet Virgil who serves as a tour guide and to put some literary context into the game.
The allegorical punch is lost and plot discrepancies abound, but casting that aside you find that the game is quite faithful to the atmosphere and descriptions to the nine circles. There is no mistaking—you are in Dante’s Hell—and you know when you’ve left the violent storms of Lust and have entered the stinking intestines of Gluttony. Besides the title cards, of course. Who knew a fourteenth-century poem could lend itself so well to level structure?
While there are a few artistic licenses taken, for the most part the levels are recreated faithfully. King Minos judges the newly-damned to their fate and Dante battles the guardian of Gluttony: Cerberus. The massive city of Dis comes into view during the halfway point, the camera pulling away to show how grand a sight it is. It’s in these spectacles that Dante’s Inferno truly shines. Watching one unique circle of Hell melt into another. Seeing the gold cogs of Greed and moving swiftly onto the swamplands of Wrath.
It’s clear Visceral Games took a long look at their source material, but it’s also unfortunate that they looked at another wildly-successful action-game series for the basis of Dante’s Inferno. If it wasn’t made painfully clear in every other review, to reiterate: Dante’s Inferno borrows wholesale from God of War. It’s not just overt in the overall structure or the combat. Not even in the amoral protagonist who literally wears his sins on his chest—no, not the action/puzzle/platforming combination either. It’s everything above and how it combines into a thoroughly unoriginal experience.
But if for the sake of argument you were absolutely determined to rip-off a winning formula, you could do a lot worse than God of War. A funny thing happens in Dante’s Inferno, you start to have fun and forget it’s just a riff on another game. Dante has no qualms about tearing demons in half with his scythe or shoveling it down their throats and violently ripping the blade out from their stomach. It’s relatively easy to fight multiple opponents and once more moves are unlocked you can unleash some pretty brutal combos.
Then something else happens: you realize that while Visceral Games has studied God of War and indeed know what makes it fun, there’s a certain off-ness to the game that makes it clear you’re playing a knock-off and not the genuine article. Dante’s dodge is of questionable effectiveness and unlike Kratos, Dante has to see a combo through to the end—he can’t cancel any attacks. Though epic boss-fights were teased, Dante’s Inferno doesn’t deliver in any memorable boss battles and there aren’t nearly enough of them to sustain interest.
Puzzles involve little more than pulling switches or dragging a block from point A to B. The platforming is frustrating because of camera placement, so don’t be surprised if a few missed jumps lead to unnecessary deaths. Every mechanic in the game plays out like a Bizzaro-world version of God of War where everything that worked there wasn’t implemented nearly as well.
The inventive level design gets lost halfway through and things start to look identical. Hell becomes the standard trinity of fire, wailing souls, and brimstone. Not that the enemy design becomes any more inventive either. What are the demonic harlots from Lust doing in Greed? Or the unbaptized babies much later in circles when they’re only supposed to be in Limbo?
Yes, about the unbaptized babies. While Dante’s Inferno has nothing on God of War in the gore department, it does go all-out for shock value and attempts to be controversial. Oh, did I mention that they’re also spawned from a Godzilla-sized Cleopatra’s breasts? In the Gluttony level there’s a fat, disgusting and naked demon with multiple mouths and attacks you by puking and crapping all over the arena. Classy. The shock tactics wear thin and the less said about Lucifer’s hairy third-leg the better.
The one gameplay twist is that there’s a “holy” and “unholy” path you can take when leveling up Dante’s abilities. The unholy option lets you pick out moves for your scythe while choosing holy allows you to power-up your secondary weapon—Beatrice’s holy cross. Two ways to gain holy/unholy points is to absolve or punish enemies and various damned souls Dante comes across. For the enemies this involves a standard quick-time event sequence—either he carves them a new one or shoves the cross into their face until they feel like singing hymns presumably. The damned souls can be punished with the press of a button and Dante performs some improvised lobotomy, while absolving their sins involves a little minigame where he plays soul-pachinko.
The objective in the minigame is to collect as many sins as you can, timing the sins when they pass by the corresponding buttons that represent the cross. As the minigame goes on, the sins become faster and the rhythm becomes more chaotic. The first time is interesting, but after absolving dozens of souls the enjoyment has long since passed and it’s much, much quicker just to punish them instead. It’s all arbitrary, though. The good and evil paths have no effect on the story and the benefits to outfitting your scythe with as many moves as possible far outweigh the cross’ combat prowess. Besides which, isn’t punishing a soul that’s already been condemned to an eternity in Hell incredibly redundant?
Sandwiched awkwardly between the superb Bayonetta and the highly-anticipated God of War III, Dante’s Inferno is a tough sell. It’s a game that doesn’t commit any great—wait for it—sin, but it’s so dead-set on copying a superior game that it’s destined for mediocrity. To be even more blunt, Dante’s Inferno can’t even really hold its own against the original God of War, a game released in 2005 on last-gen hardware. As such, Dante’s Inferno is hereby condemned along with the once-mighty King Minos to the first circle of Hell—Limbo.