This is probably the longest critique you'll ever read, about this particular game. Critiquing a game that is amazing or terrible is easy. Critique of a game that just misses its marks is a lot harder, because a lot more reasoning is required. So bear with me, if this feels long.
Dante's Inferno is developed by Visceral Games, the guys behind Dead Space (my podcast's 2008 game of the year - MoeFo Ep 18). It's loosely based on the epic poem of the same name. I've read the poem, and this is honestly the best way they could have made an exciting game on the premise (other than as a Myst spin-off). Most of the game is pretty good in my books. But there is some major lack of gameplay variety and some frustrations that stop it from being an amazing game.
Dead Space was a very memorable gaming experience. However, it didn't have the most involving storyline or character development. There weren't many storytelling moments compared to the great gaming moments like escaping from a Brute chase while moving over bunk beds with your Telekinesis gun. Dante's Inferno, on the other hand, is a highly memorable storytelling experience, while shorting out on the gameplay twists. Topsy-turvy!
First, I need to talk about the combat. Then I'll get to the stuff I was not in love with.
The guys over at Visceral Games can pat themselves on the back for delivering a great combat engine. I started the game on the 'Hellish' difficulty (I love playing on the hardest difficulty in games). It was more reminiscent of my Ninja Gaiden twitch-heavy experience of countering, dodge-rolling, and twitch maneuvers, all while at 60 frames per second.
That might be blasphemy comparing a Western action game to the greatest 3D action game in recent time, but the game gives me the same cathartic exercise. You're already comfortable with the controls, so now you just need to master them. With actually smart enemy AI, any hack-and-slash junkies should feel right at home with the slick tactile feedback, hit detection, and fluidity.
The Unholy and Holy skill trees really add much-needed customisation, so I went out to be a Tank by beefing up on my Cross, and getting all the powerful moves first. The RPG elements expand more with the 'Relics' that gave me Too Human reminders, where you can equip these items during play to buff up certain abilities like increasing your counter window, or having unblockable cross attacks. Magic also plays a meaningful part, compared to other hack-and-slash games where they're there just as smart-bombs. The Magic attacks are as fast and responsive as your normal moves, so there's no problem switching back-and-forth. 'Sins of the Father' has you juggling demons into the air with a certain character's Golden Cross, leaving them helpless to a barrage of air mayhem. 'Suicide Fruit' is the most amusing, because the demons are left in a confused state, and can be used on even the Arch Demon. It would be hilarious if there was a suicide animation for them!
With the enemy AI actually having brains (unlike most hack-and-slash games), it makes each combat arena more of a puzzle for which moves you should dish out. Put the game to "Hellish" difficulty, and give your thumbs a work-out. A great element that needs to be in every game is, variable difficulty at any point of the game. If you're playing on 'Hellish', and are having problems, turn it down to 'Zealot' and enjoy. This kind of flexibility needs to be in every future action game, it just makes so much sense for player accessibility. To reiterate, the combat and RPG elements made this game so much more satisfying than it should be. I can't wait for the combat editor and multiplayer co-op to come in the form of Trials of St. Lucia in April. Which is why I'm disappointed in some design choices.
While Dead Space was able to rise over its "Resident Evil 4 in space" moniker in many ways, this game can't, over its "God of War in Hell" nickname. There just isn't enough gameplay variety, and it borrows the worst parts from its influences. Once you finish off a new enemy, more of them then come and you just keep on killing everyone in a small arena fenced off just like Devil May Cry.
I can't compare this to God of War since I've played that franchise for the most of a couple of hours (didn't have a PS2), but I can recognise the aesthetic similarities. Everything I hate about the God of War and Devil May Cry games is here. Annoying Quick-Time Events where if you miss killing off the boss, you have to keep on doing that QTE instead of being able to mash away at its health bar. You have to mash a button to get health/magic orbs from fountains (thankfully, there is a Relic to negate that). There are filler box puzzles and platforming just like God of War to sort-of justify these games being of the action-adventure genre.
Platforming and other tough puzzles where you're under combat are what bring this game down to the Circle of Frustration. There is inconsistency in your invisible walls. Sometimes,in the circle of combat, you don't have a problem being pushed around. Sometimes, you can be pushed right off the piece of land with a demon's dash for a quick, cheap death. The platforming is made clunky when you have a fixed camera providing you with a slightly too cinematic camera angle, forcing you to guess the jump. I died more times with these kinds of cheap deaths compared to the combat. That shouldn't happen with a combat-heavy action game. Platforming and puzzles are "palette cleansers" for a reason. I know Hell is supposed to be challenging, but when you're dying because of impromptu God of War button prompts during swinging, you know there isn't as much polish here as there should be.
There is a lot of repetition in the combat scenarios. There is a great amount of enemy variety, but the imagination behind the memorable scenarios from Dead Space or other high-class Japanese action games just isn't here. For some reason, you'll see Lust whores in a Greed level to make up for the enemy variety of each stage, but it just comes off as weird. It's clear Visceral Games put more effort into creating the combat engine and the storytelling, than the variety. I wasn't as flabbergasted with the out-of-nowhere Fraud levels of 10 arenas. But I definitely won't defend it. This is easily the worst level because of the lack of imaginative backdrops,
This is in stark contrast to Batman: Arkham Asylum (my personal GoTY from 2009), where they created a totally fresh combat engine yet had enough variety in scenarios for the campaign. Throwing more enemies at me isn't as fun as making each scenario memorable and thrilling.
Now, onto the stuff I admired.
Dante's Inferno, the poem, is no more than just a tourist's view of Hell, with political propaganda that's kind of fascinating as a history lesson. Dante faints all the time, and there is no overarching plot. Dante's Inferno, the game, is about a Crusader soldier, also named Dante, who has to save Beatrice from Lucifer's grubby hands through 9 Circles of Hell.
The story starts out as Dante and other soldiers who are babysitting P.O.W.s from Saladin's side as ransom for some unknown Holy Relic. Inexplicably to my shock, Dante's very first actions are to slaughter these innocent civilians, and the player killing off the rest. An assassin does get the upper hand on you, stabbing you in the back, and Death awaits. You are going to eternal damnation. Dante won't take this lightly, feeling righteous that he should go to Heaven since the Bishop assured him salvation for the holy war. You fight Death, and defeat him, acquiring his all-powerful Scythe. After this war, you want to go back home and be in the warm embraces of your lover, Beatrice. But no such luck, as everyone's been murdered. Wait, what is this? Beatrice's ghost?
"I told him you would come for me." A shadow monster encircles Beatrice's angelic presence. "I have to go with him, my love. I gave my word…"
What follows is an inspired trek through Hell to get Beatrice back, but also to figure out what went wrong. It's almost like a psychological thriller, complete with plot twists and flashbacks to your Crusader time and your whole previous life span. Questions arise about characters, motivations, and mysteries. How did Dante betray Beatríce? Why is Beatrice going to Hell, if she was so pure? Who is Francesco? How does Dante deserve to be in Hell? Why did he kill those innocent civilians? The story really allows you get into Dante's mindset with in-game storytelling, gorgeous cinematics, and animated flashbacks triggered by zooming into his chest-cross painting tattoo.
Dante's Inferno is a story of personal redemption. All the characters you come into contact with, are part of Dante's past. It's especially evident in Gluttony where I was able to completely click with Dante's character and put myself into his shoes. You soon realise this is Dante's personal Hell, and how each level is based around his history. It's a cleverly handled plot to showcase each level not just for gorgeously twisted eye-candy but also for meaningful exposition into Dante's actions. When I told the story to my room-mate, he was really impressed that a game can have such a deep plot, which also might surprise hardcore gamers out there who only know the game from its marketing and the reviews.
Presentation and production values are top-notch. The backgrounds are jaw-dropping. Each of the levels starts out with you being able to see the end-boss from the very start, which I thought was a very commendable storytelling touch to your objective.
Virgil, your guide, is willing to tell you everything (actual quotes from the poem) about your surroundings – talk to him long enough, and you acquire the Relics. Each circle boasts their own enemies, colour palette, architecture, damned, and techniques to punish the sinners.
Anger starts off (3min44s of the above video) with the sky raining with meteors and you travelling down besides a waterfall pouring down the mouth of a huge man statue. In Violence, people are in boiling blood, but there are also the Abominable Sands and Wood of the Suicides. Greed's the coolest, seeing people writhing in gold lava right below you, and you can join them! Heresy has sinners in flaming tombs, so you never get to see them. Gluttony is god-damn cool too, with lots of "visceral" imagery. Gluttony also has an incredibly memorable puzzle, with a totally different art direction of blue cools and the image of Beatrice fading in and out in the shadows. The puzzle itself might remind players of the excellent Portal, and is a great brain-tease in its own right. Fraud is the only total misfire, and was evident of the developers being lazy.
You get these "beast rider" moments that are empowering, and should've been the only type of"palette cleanser", instead of shoving in bad platforming and pointless puzzles. One beast-riding moment is in Greed, that has you backtracking through the level, which makes you appreciate how great the level design is. It has a great ebb and flow, because throughout Greed, there's more emphasis on puzzles puzzles and combat against spinning conjointed twins. It then rewards you at the end with this beast-riding segment where there's less stress on your tired-by-now thumbs. In Anger, after a hugely relevant plot arc, you're on out for vengeance and take control of Phlegyas.
As Phlegyas you can wreck the shit out of Hell with blowing fire to drop towers and level everything in your path. This single moment of Phlegyas rampage is not only one of the best moments in the game, but it's also a great storytelling reward for when Dante is in the dumps.
The peripheral experience is a total sensory overload, overwhelming you with how twisted this version of Hell is. This is the most amount of work I've ever seen being put into periphery of a game. You really get a sense you're in Hell, and not just a game version of it.
You get to meet famous figures as the Damned, where you can choose to punish or absolve them for bonus souls. These characters spew out their whole history, if you just stand idle next to them. Some of their tales are eye-opening, like a virgin (pictured above) who let in a city raid attack on Rome, just for gold. Or the prominent Ciacco who wants to tell how he stuffed himself in life in Gluttony.
There is no loading in the game, when you go from one Circle to another. This progressive nature deserves credit, especially out to the amazing level designers (Michael Chang, God of War). Hundreds of souls and sinners can be seen in the distance, or on spikes right next to you in eternal torture.
All of the bosses are memorable and a lot of fun to play. My favourite being Greed's, who is someone Dante wasn't very close to in his real life. This lumbering monster drops swords that form a radius of damage, while the arena you're in is surrounded by golden lava, meaning you have to be on your tippy-toes for this. The bosses are smart, and will punish you for button-mashing. I was expecting Lucifer himself to be a disappointment, but it wasn't, and works as a great set-piece battle with multiple stages.
Wood of the Suicides is the only place with a gameplay twist, and it's sad that the game doesn't have more twists like this. Here, you're warned from the get-go that Dante won't be able to handle this. But Dante just fought through all those previous circles of Hell without breaking a sweat! You're surrounded by trees that are made of humans, who gave up on the human soul, and therefore their bodies are as hollow as these trees. There are these plants from the ceiling spitting out areas of dark magic on the ground, and all you hear from this black abyss are screams. If you come close to them, Dante suddenly pulls out his Cross and starts to stab himself with it! You have to press a button repeatedly to stop Dante from basically, going on the verge of suicide, but you also have to move away from these spots of black abyss. It's a simple moment, but wholly memorable, because it's in stark contrast to the rest of the gameplay. It ends with you a very emotional insight about someone very close to Dante, and it kind of left me almost in tears.
I didn't know they'd be able to write a compelling narrative for a crusader soldier, loosely adapted from the poem. The writers (Jonathan Knight) did great work on putting an actual plot to the poem's descriptions. All of the characters' histories were fascinating, especially Dante's mom and dad. The voice-acting is of the highest caliber, even down to the Damned, where they spew out their whole history if you stand idle. Dante (Graham McTavish) and Lucifer (John Vickery) are clearly the best voice-acting couple of this year, mirroring Batman (Kevin Conroy) and the Joker (Mark Hammill) from last year's Batman.
The dialogue has some memorable lines, like when Lucifer goes on his monologues, about being the fallen angel and his distaste for humans. Or when King Minos (Judge of the Dead) in Limbo, sniff's Dante's sins, he tells Minos to "sniff again…".
The ending was totally satisfying for me. When you descend down into Lucifer's lair on the River Cocytus, I had my jaw open at the scale of this boss. I was expecting disappointment, but was pleasantly surprised with this classically multi-stage boss with different elements incorporated into it. The ending leaves it open for a sequel with the lines "I did not die, and I did not live…". I am really excited for whatever comes next.
The music also deserves praise. The score by Garry Schyman is completely chilling and fits with Hell. Contrary to most orchestrated videogame scores, there is still theme music and noteworthy tracks for each Circle. If you're into videogame music, you can't miss this. The memorable pieces of foreboding horns, screeching violins and damning drums won't leave your mind long after the game is done.
To finally conclude and congratulate you for reading this far, I'll summarise in a few sentences. If you're willing to get past repetitive gameplay for a great journey through Hell, you'll find a lot to love. Visceral Games deserves praise for staying true to the visuals of the source material, while not treading over its respectability. If you're in for a dark and disturbing action-thriller, don't let the comparisons to God of War let you miss out on a memorable, if flawed, experience. I'm already half-way on my 2nd playthrough to finish unlocking the branches of the skill trees, and will always remember the great moments from each Circle of Hell. Give it a definite rental.