Review: Dante’s Inferno

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Dante Alighieri should have been a game designer.

The Inferno section of the 14th-century author’s famed “Divine Comedy” is proof. His depiction of Hell and its punishments featured intricate level design, a stable of potential boss characters and the kind of imagery that could spark an artist’s imagination.

Enter Dante’s Inferno from EA and Visceral Games, who provide six to eight hours of button-mashing fury, a feast for both the eyes and reflexes. But the shadow of the God of War series looms over it, as does a curious design choice near the end that made me practically abandon all hope for a classic finish.

The game takes a lot of liberties with the original “Inferno” material. Instead of the writer Alighieri, you’re in the chain-mailed body of Dante, a knight from the Crusades out to redeem himself for his sins, which include slaughtering innocents and cheating on his woman, Beatrice. In fact, he’s so sorry about it, he sews a cross-shaped tapestry onto his bare torso before going home.

Sadly, Dante comes home to find both his father and Beatrice dead, with Beatrice’s soul reaching out to Dante before she suddenly gets swept into Hell. Dante, repentant hero that he is, journeys into Hell to get her back.

Visceral Games’ very loose interpretation of Hell’s nine circles and the denizens within can be inspiring, disturbing or just plain silly.

There’s the Lust level, which assails you with groans, moans and phallic imagery that could make a lot of people blush — or puke.

You watch a giant, demonized version of a practically butt-naked Cleopatra climb the “carnal tower,” and eventually have to end the confrontation by stopping her from jumping on you and having her way. This was a little too in-your-face for me, and it felt like an unneeded sacrifice of artistic touch for the sake of shock value.

Better eye candy involves the journey to Limbo, with Charon being depicted as a massive living boat as opposed to a simple boatman ferrying souls to the other side. The sin of Gluttony is soaked in goo and mud lakes undulating with the souls of people trapped within them. Greed features pools of molten gold and statues, while Violence is broken down into three parts, including the wildly depressing Wood of the Suicides. This all adds to the game’s atmosphere of horror and disgust, keeping the experience captivating.

The simple combat system is one of many things that conjure up the ghosts of the God of War series. You can essentially mash your way through battle, watching Dante unleash combos using the giant scythe he gets from Death and in a slightly Castlevanian twist, Beatrice’s cross, which sends out cross-shaped waves of holy energy.

I’d be fine if the God of War similarities ended at combat, but they don’t. The game’s use of seamless level transitions, sense of scale and quicktime events echoed the series too loudly for me to believe I was enjoying a truly unique experience. However, the familiarity made the game easy to pick up.

Despite the derivative nature of Dante’s action, I still found plenty of fun wiping out the hordes of Hell and choosing whether or not to absolve or punish lost souls (Pontius Pilate is one of them). The boss confrontations and character design are definite highlights, and to be fair, those unfamiliar with “God of War” could easily get lost in Dante’s battle for redemption.

That is, until you reach the eighth circle of Hell, Fraud. It’s fitting, since this is where the game cheats itself out of any chance of being great.

All of the momentum from the story, fights and exploration of the other circles almost completely dies here, as Fraud is simply broken down into a bunch of similar-looking rooms, each bearing annoying chores such as “Kill all enemies without using magic” or “Stay in the air for eight seconds.”

This is the kind of stuff one should see in optional bonus stages, not a key part of the game, and certainly not that far in the journey. Fraud sucked out a lot of the fun for me, even to the point where I didn’t really have a chance to fully enjoy the final confrontation at the end of Treachery, the ninth circle. It makes me wonder if the design team either ran out of time or ran out of ideas. I know I almost ran out of patience.

With that said, Dante’s Inferno still has a lot to offer from an artistic and action standpoint. The game’s ending signals that there’s more to come. I trust that Paradiso or Purgatorio will be much different.

Dante’s Inferno
EA / Visceral Games
Xbox 360, PS3, PSP (on Feb. 23)
Rated M for Mature