Abandon all hype, ye who enter here.
As strange as it sounds, when I first heard that a medieval religious and political allegory about a middle-aged Italian poet would be the source material for a mindless hack-and-slash action game, I was excited. Dante Alighieri’s 14,000-plus line poem Divine Comedy is full of brilliant creatures, people, and locations all ripe for the virtual plucking.
[image1]So what’s most surprising about Dante’s Inferno is just how little of its plot comes from Dante. Instead, most of the story actually comes from bastardized versions of Virgil’s poetry—his account of Aeneas’ journey to the underworld to visit his father, as well as his version of the story of Orpheus’ trip to the underworld to rescue Eurydice. There are also oblique references to the story of Hades’ abduction of Persephone and some thinly veiled allusions to the United States’ current military presence in the Middle East. But rather than coming off as literate and topical, the combination of these references is so jumbled that it plays out like the literary equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.
Dante’s Inferno begins with our hero facing off against the Grim Reaper in the Holy Land (never mind that the robed, scythe-wielding skeleton is an invention of a much later plague-stricken Europe), and after returning home to Italy, he finds that his beloved Beatrice has been carried off to Hell. Because he’s a sucker for a pretty face, Dante goes tumbling after.
Even if Dante’s Inferno isn’t all that faithful to its literary sources, it’s incredibly faithful to its video game one. From top to bottom, Dante’s Inferno takes idea after idea from God of War. Admittedly, God of War wasn’t itself the most original game when it was first released, having borrowed liberally from games like the updated Rygar; but Dante’s Inferno pushes “influence” to the absolute limit. Camera angles, musical score, combat mechanics, character animations, quick time events, level design, magical abilities, and so on all come directly from Sony Santa Monica’s successful action series.
[image2]The benefit of this similarity is that everything about Dante’s Inferno is instantly familiar. From the beginning, you’ll know exactly how to fight like a pro; however, the unwelcome side-effect is that any shortcomings have been made that much more visible by comparison. Imagine if someone managed to move your toilet an inch to the right without telling you. You’re so familiar with the location of that bowl that you can find it in a drunken stupor. Move it, and, well, let’s just say someone would have a busy cleaning day.
Most glaringly absent is a versatile combo system. You have a weak and strong attack, as well as various magical abilities, but only a small handful of possible combinations. You have only one weapon, but you do find and earn a sizeable arsenal of relics that grant you perks like improved attack power and magic potency. The counter system adds some variety, but it’s less effective than most of your other attacks, so there’s little reason to use it against most enemies.
Also missing is any sense of progression. As you travel deeper and deeper into Hell, you move through each of the nine circles which embody a particular sin. Each area has a slightly different dominant color—e.g. gold for Greed—but every area just looks like yet another dark cave. Levels are linear, without any of the clever structural loops of the God of War series. From the very beginning to the very end, it never feels like you’re anywhere but in yet another rocky, cavernous area full of screaming voices.
[image3]Another major annoyance is the save system. You can only save at designated statues, and there are only two or three per level. There is an auto-save that will save your progress more frequently, but once you quit, you lose that progress. I experienced a handful of glitches that forced me to reload my game, but since there’s no option to restart from the previous checkpoint, I had to reload to the last save statue. There’s no conceivable reason that you shouldn’t be able to load from your previous checkpoint.
For all of these shortcomings, Dante’s Inferno is a competent game. Combat is tight, and enemies are varied enough to keep the fighting itself engaging. If not for the invited comparisons to God of War, its combat mechanics wouldn’t seem so lacking. The handful of sections where you fight and climb while riding a large demon are promising, and the separate good and evil skill trees are admirable—if not completely distinct.
If you can accept that Beatrice—a 14th-century ideal of Italian beauty—is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman with pale skin, then you’ll probably be fine with the other liberties Visceral has taken with its source material. Harder to overlook is that it’s sandwiched right in the middle of action game standouts Bayonetta and the forthcoming God of War III, leaving Dante’s Inferno caught between a rock and an exceptionally hard place. It deserves kudos for being so brazen in its derivativeness, but like the heroes of old, its hubris may ultimately condemn it to hell.