It’s rare for video games to look to the literary world for direct inspiration, and you can guarantee there were plenty of eyebrows raised with the announcement of Visceral Games’ brutal action title, Dante’s Inferno. One man’s journey through the Nine Circles of Hell, as depicted in Dante Alighieri’s epic literary masterpiece The Divine Comedy, doesn’t exactly lend itself to the hack and slash genre. But if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. The Divine Comedy’s vivid imagery of Hell and all the horrific creatures within is the quintessential depiction of the Inferno, and a fantastic starting point for any game venturing into Lucifer’s playground. It might not be faithful to the source material but seeing Dante Alighieri’s terrifying vision come to life gives Dante’s Inferno a unique visual style. Now it’s just a case of whether substance can overcome style.
The story certainly strays wide of any substance, though it’s admirable enough to keep you interested throughout. Told via three distinct methods – CGI, in-game and animated cutscenes – Dante’s Inferno tells the story of Dante and his journey through Hell to rescue Beatrice, the love of his life. She made a dumbfounded wager with the Devil that if Dante remained faithful to her he would return home from the Third Crusade unharmed. Of course, it’s never a good idea to deal with the Devil and Dante eventually succumbs to temptation, unknowingly condemning Beatrice to the underworld for all eternity. It’s certainly an interesting premise, and while the small cast of characters are fairly bland, the use of CGI and animation to tell the story is impressive and serviceable enough to complement the gameplay and provide a good enough reason for venturing through the Nine Circles of Hell.
“Sure, it’s derivative, but that doesn’t stop it being fun”Of course it’s within those Circles that the bulk of the action takes place. Dante’s Inferno is, to put it lightly, a God of War copycat. From the use of light and heavy attacks, the fixed camera angles; the way you open doors, health and magic viles; the crate and lever puzzles and the QTEs to finish off enemies. The list could go on and on but I think you get the point. Sure, it’s derivative, but that doesn’t stop it being fun. Armed with Death’s own scythe and a Holy Cross, Dante’s certainly equipped to deal with any of Hell’s deadly minions. Combat starts out fairly basic with the scythe used for light and heavy combo attacks, and the Holy Cross as a useful ranged weapon, but eventually you’ll kill enough enemies to earn souls and upgrade both pieces of equipment to add an element of depth and variety to proceedings.
It’s here that Dante’s Inferno adopts some originality with holy and unholy upgrade trees. Whenever you grab an enemy for a brutal finishing move you can decide to either punish or absolve them, earning unholy or holy souls. These souls will open up more and more powerful abilities for you to buy for the scythe (unholy) and Holy Cross (holy) so choosing whether to punish or absolve an enemy carries a degree of strategy depending on what area you want to improve upon. As you reach the higher levels you’ll be able to purchase and utilise a variety of devastating moves for your two weapons and magic attacks, so there’s a lot of freedom to the combat allowing you to pick and choose which moves suit you. Combine this with different augmentations that give bonuses to particular areas and Dante’s Inferno has a case for stating its own identity.
It’s still very much derived from the God of War franchise with familiar and unoriginal combat; however, combining all of the light and heavy attacks with the Holy Cross and magic is wholly satisfying and stops combat from ever seeping into repetition. Plus, Dante’s Inferno has a unique setting and character designs going for it as well. Your descent into Hell will be a frightening one as you pass through each of the Nine Circles: limbo, lust, gluttony, greed, anger, heresy, violence, fraud and treachery. It’d be easy to fill each Circle with rivers of lava and molten rock, but Dante’s Inferno goes for a much more gruesome look, spectacularly earning its mature rating. Death is all around, whether it’s the terrified screams of lost souls falling from above, or even the architecture itself; often moulded from the limbs and vital organs of the deceased. Everything about it signifies our worst nightmares, and as you venture deeper and deeper the environments will begin to represent each stage of the Nine Circles. Lust is full of phallic shaped towers and other such imagery, while gluttony sees you travel through the fleshy innards of a giant creature, eventually appearing out of its mouth. Even the enemy designs follow a similar pattern, with the controversial unbaptised babies waiting in limbo and bulbous, vile creatures eating anything that moves in gluttony. They’re fantastically grotesque and a joy to rip apart with your scythe.
“Death is all around, whether it’s the terrified screams of lost souls falling from above, or even the architecture itself; often moulded from the limbs and vital organs of the deceased”Sadly these brilliant designs don’t far outstretch the first three Circles. While everything at the beginning of the game is new and exciting, enemies are eventually rehashed in each subsequent Circle. The only new enemy types you have to look forward to are mages and a couple of the other enemies re-branded, and it doesn’t make much sense that creatures seemingly specific to gluttony will appear in violence later on. It’s a shame because the few enemies you are introduced to are great, but you end up fighting them throughout the majority of Dante’s Inferno‘s seven hour playtime. Even the level design carries a similar fate. There are a few standout moments past the first three Circles, but that initial grandiose scale is lost as you’re shuffled from room to room, forced to fight respawning enemies till the exit door opens. The only thing in-between these rooms are simple crate and lever puzzles and some light platforming. The sense of exploration and awe from your first few hours in Hell eventually fade away as the level design turns to tedium, culminating in fraud (the 8th Circle) where you’re forced into ten identical challenge rooms before you can face off against the last boss. They’re monotonous, frustrating and disrupt any excitement that could have been built before the grand finale; ultimately reeking of lazy level design.
Dante’s Inferno starts off big, consistently introducing new enemy types and grand environments, but by the end of the game that initial excitement turns to repetition as you fight through wave after wave of the same enemy type in increasingly familiar territory. The core gameplay is enjoyable enough to keep it interesting and fun throughout, with myriad upgrades and a unique punish and absorb mechanic to sink your teeth into, so it’s a shame the rest of the game couldn’t keep the momentum going. It might not be original but if you’ve never owned a Sony system before, Dante’s Inferno is an enjoyable alternative to Kratos’ Greek adventures, though the rest of us may want to wait until March.