Dante's Inferno Review
There's no question that video games can teach us things, but they mostly teach us things like “how to take cover when someone's shooting at you” or “whenever you hear radio static, the zombies are coming”. Rarely do they take on something as heavy as epic medieval poetry, but Dante's Inferno, EA's new action/adventure title, has guts. (Sometimes literally.) Based loosely on 14th century poet Dante Alighieri's allegory “The Inferno”, the game tells the story of Dante, an ex-soldier in the Crusades. Returning home from war, (in a sequence that's extremely reminiscent of Ridley Scott's Gladiator) Dante realizes his fiancée Beatrice has been killed and worse—her soul kidnapped by Lucifer. Dante, determined to redeem himself, sets out to follow her into Hell.
Ever since Dante's Inferno was shown at E3 last year, people have been comparing it to God of War and certainly, there are similarities. First, the game stars a tough-as-nails hero. Second, the game focuses on dynamic melee combat with a bladed, sometimes chain-like weapon. Third, the setting is larger than life, full of giants and giant-sized structures that make the hero look like an armor-wearing ant. Fourth, the story is based on ideas taken from an ancient belief system with which most gamers at least have a passing pop-culture acquaintance. Finally, the controls and camera strive to be extremely similar. Yep, there's no doubt, Dante's Inferno is somewhat derivative, but still, it offers an interesting take on the Christian mythos, not to mention a considerable amount of fun.
The game can be played on multiple difficulty levels: Classic, Zealot or Hellish start you out, and Infernal is unlocked once you complete the game. It's roughly 50/50 combat to environmental puzzles. Combat's based on basic one-button light and strong attacks, plus upgradeable ground and air combos and magic attacks. You can also block and perform ranged attacks using your girlfriend Beatrice's holy cross and can earn health, mana and souls from every kill. As you progress, you get to choose from two ability trees, using souls as currency to buy either Holy or Unholy upgrades.
In addition to ability upgrades, you can gain Holy or Unholy points by judging famous personages as you encounter them along the way. You'll run into various damned celebrities like Pontius Pilate or the blind prophet Tiresias and if you like, stop to absolve or punish them after learning a little about the sins they've committed. Naturally, punishing souls is easier, and consists mostly of pressing a single button. Absolution's a little more work, ranging from pounding on the circle button to playing an odd little mini rhythm game where you have to “collect sins”. Sins aren't the only things you'll collect, and throughout the game you'll find relics which can be equipped for extra perks like damage resistance, Judas coins which grant soul bonuses, and Beatrice stones which grant you the power to auto-absolve. Ha! Only in America would someone invent “drive-through” absolution.
Anyway, combat is the obvious foundation of any action game but you can't spend the entire time fighting; your fingers might fall off. Most action games break up the button-mashing madness with environmental puzzles, and this one is no different. Of course, nothing kills the pacing of an action game like too many overly-complex brain-teasers and Dante's Inferno wisely keeps things moving by incorporating fairly simple ones. Puzzles here consist of gaining access to new areas by crank-turning and door opening, usually while being relentlessly assaulted by a crowd of enemies. Other sort of puzzle-y elements include the ever-popular crawling along walls, swinging from ropes or jumping across crumbling platforms.
In a conceptual sense, Dante's Inferno is a game about opposites—light and dark, purity and corruption, the Good and the Bad. This is extremely fitting, since the game is also about good and bad in the practical sense. First, the good. The artwork of Dante's Inferno is something to see. The environment art is not only epic in scale, but is in many instances, truly disturbing. It's extremely creepy to crawl on cage-like walls with mobs of the damned writhing and moaning inside them and it's hard to convey how unsettling it is to navigate a place made up entirely of absurdly over-sized vaginas and phallic elements. It's both chilling and cool to cross roiling rivers of blood and major props should go to the art team for including Auguste Rodin's famous 19th century bronze sculpture, “The Gates of Hell”. The character art is also simultaneously fascinating and troubling, especially the scythe-armed babies and the boss of the Lust level who exhibits mouth-like nipples that periodically spit out enemies.
Other aesthetic aspects, like animation and sound are also done well. Aside from the competent mo-cap, the combat animations are powerful and the enemy animations do a good job of differentiating one foe from the other. The lip sync too, is extremely well done. The music is good (if predictable) and the voice acting is flawless. In terms of gameplay, the best thing about Dante's Inferno is the combat, which is full of powerful, fast-moving attacks that flow seamlessly from one move to the next. The game also offers an intriguing spin on morality because not only do you choose to follow either a Holy or Unholy path, you also get to decide the fate of others when you punish or absolve them. This aspect of the game can really give you insight into your own morality, as you determine which sins you personally believe are unforgivable, and which to you are no big deal.
Great environment and enemy art, good combat and strong acting—these represent the up side of Dante's Inferno. The bad side? Yes, there is one and that's due to questionable character art and seemingly novice-level 2D animated cutscenes. The most obvious art issue is the totally unappealing main character. Dante's sewn-on chest cross is off-putting in a Clive Barker Hellraiser kind of way and his goofy, cleft-chinned mug makes it hard to either like or identify with him. Beatrice has issues as well. For one thing, it's fairly contrived that she's naked throughout the first half the game and it's pretty funny that in order to become attractive, she has to get a makeover from Satan. The in-game cutscenes have their own problems too, mainly the jarring transition from 3D game art to graphic, medieval still-frame depiction of events to full-on 2D cel animation. This chaotic mix isn't helped by the fact that by comparison to the rest of the game's art, the cel animation appears ill-drawn and amateurish.
These artistic problems aren't insignificant, but they're dwarfed by the many flaws in the game's mechanics. First, the camera. Most games where the camera's on rails are bound to suffer from various problems and Dante's Inferno suffers from many. The camera does its level best to show you the important stuff, but too often the viewpoint just doesn't cut it. Winged enemies sometimes fly out of frame and you can't see to target them, geometry will sometimes obstruct your view when you're climbing up and down walls, and worst of all, jumps can be a nightmare since you can't tell where you are in space. Related to this is a quirk of the controls that has the right thumbstick activating a dash move. Most action/adventure fans are accustomed to using the right stick to move the camera and it's extremely difficult to overcome the impulse to use it that way. I can't tell you how many times the lack of camera control coupled with the right thumbstick dash setup resulted in Dante plummeting to a totally unnecessary death.
This leads to the next issue—the many places you can fall. Sometimes ledges have collision to prevent you from falling off; sometimes they don't. All too often, you'll steer a little too close to an edge, especially when using Holy attacks (which automatically move you forward) and fall off. Perhaps the thinking was that falling off ledges added to the peril or realism of the environment, but is that fair in a game where the player can't control his point of view? Oh and speaking of fairness, is it fair to force a player to endure the indignity of one-hit deaths? Dante's Infernois absolutely peppered with timed puzzles where if you misjudge one step, you die. In my view, you really should be able to learn from your mistakes during these, take some damage and try again without having to re-do the entire thing. The game's only saving grace in regard to this is that there are many save points and the load times are extremely short. Now that may sound like a paltry benefit, but you're bound to appreciate these save points and short load times because on default difficulty, Dante's Inferno is tough. The first boss kicked my ass a handful of times before I beat him, which felt excessive so early in the game. Several times too during the rest of the game, I had to stop and lower the difficulty upon losing patience with a particularly frustrating boss or area. Hey, super-challenging is all well and good—but that's what Hard settings were made for.
There are a lot of interesting things about Dante's Inferno. While it's similar in structure to God of War, it has its own distinct identity. The game has fun combat, great voice acting and some of the most memorably unsettling artwork anyone's seen outside of a Silent Hill game. Unfortunately, these positive elements are somewhat undermined by a sketchy camera, an unintuitive right thumbstick control, an excess of unnecessary falling deaths, a series of frustrating timed puzzles, and a default difficulty level that's higher than it probably should be. Still, with all its flaws, the game teaches us something about a literary masterpiece that would otherwise go largely unread, while offering us roughly ten hours of fun. The Divine Edition also contains exclusive content in the form of concept art, making-of featurettes and a DLC code good for use come March. Bottom line--if you're an action/adventure fan who's going nuts waiting for God of War 3 to come out, check out Dante's Inferno.