Visually Stunning, Theologically Insipid, Far From Poetic
US: 9 Feb 2010
This is not Dante’s Inferno, it’s Visceral’s Dante’s Inferno. And the main character is not Dante Alighieri the famed Italian poet. He’s Dante the Crusader, who’s kind of a dick. And this Beatrice isn’t the Beatrice of Italy that Dante Alighieri loved from afar, nor is she the character/spirit guide who appears in The Divine Comedy. This Beatrice is the wife of Crusader Dante, and she has made the dumbest decision known to man: making a bet with Lucifer. I know. It all gets kind of confusing. The point is, this isn’t a theological tale that meditates on God’s plans for man in the afterlife but rather an action game where a dude can steal Death’s scythe and go toe to toe with The Devil in a magic-filled super-brawl. Visceral has taken the setting from Dante’s poem, including many of the monsters and characters, and transformed it into a playground for the other Dante’s adventures. As an interpretation of the poem it’s a muddled, ridiculous mess. As an action game, it’s a decent brawler with some impressive levels and some annoying platforming.
Dante’s Inferno excels above all in its look and design (except for the end, see below). The cut scenes are some of the best-looking that I’ve ever seen, and the various circles of hell are sometimes actually awesome to behold. Visceral doesn’t hold back with the horror, and there’s a lusciously lurid variety of tortured souls and vast, infernal vistas. While the game is great to look at, Dante himself looks (in my opinion) ridiculous with his over-sized scythe and bizarre self-hating couture, but he’s no more ridiculous than many game characters and is usually small enough on screen while whirling around in deadly motion that I only noticed during the cut-scenes. For the visuals alone (and maybe only for the visuals), I recommend giving Dante’s Inferno a look. Along with these great images, there’s a well-presented but rather overblown and uninspired story. It does it’s job of moving the game from level to level. It also did a good job of making me dislike both Dante and Beatrice for making some really dumb decisions and then being very melodramatic about the consequences.
The parts where you kill things are fine too. You’ve got your over-sized, heavy-metal-inspired bone scythe, and of course, you can shoot deadly crosses of white holy energy at people. As you defeat enemies or run across certain famous damned individuals, you have the option to absolve or damn them, which earns you holy or unholy points. The more holy you are, the better you get with the cross. Unholy behavior is good for your scything skills. As of this game, I am now officially over the good/bad dichotomy in games. It always pays to pick one and keep going, and I seldom want to play a game through twice. I chose holy because, well, I thought the God of this game was a jerk for treating people so badly, so I wanted to free as many of his poor victims as possible. That meant that I scarcely used the scythe at all beyond basic hacks and slashes. It also raises questions about the game’s weird theology, wherein a sinner like me somehow gets to contravene God’s judgment just because, well, I’m not sure why.
Then there’s the platforming and the puzzles, which involve a lot of pulling levers and running over somewhere else just in the nick of time. I’m not a personal fan of these kinds of puzzles, but this game does them well and they’re often visually interesting (although Hell has a lot of levers). The main problem is that the game uses a fixed camera perspective throughout, which sometimes proves a major hindrance, especially when precision jumping is required. I found it very hard to judge distances when jumping forward “into” the screen with the camera fixed above and behind my character. On the whole, I didn’t much care for these sequences, but then again, I generally don’t. They’re well done but not so well done as to win a hater over to them (unlike a game like Uncharted 2 for instance).
The game all but falls on its face in the final levels. The very, very end is fine, a fairly typical end-boss fight against, of course, Lucifer himself. There’s a whole confusing plot thing going on in which somehow Dante’s actions might or might not free him from hell, but like the rest of the game’s theology, none of it makes much sense or is well explained. Still it’s on par with the rest of Dante’s Inferno. Immediately preceding this battle, however, are some of the least imaginative sequences that I’ve seen in a modern game. Playing them, all I could think of was that the designers had either run out of ideas or time. Maybe both. Instead of the story-based conflicts of previous levels, Dante finds himself descending through a series of identical, boring (by this game’s otherwise excellent standards) rooms. After reveling in the game’s looks above all else, the low-quality aesthetics would have been bad enough. But no, instead Dante must at each of these levels defeat enemies using certain moves such as air combos or without the benefit of magic. Dialogue boxes pop up to inform you of the strictures without even a nod to the game’s story or setting. And when you fail? Well, I only failed one of them, but a dialogue box popped up and said, “FAIL!!!!!” Really. Multiple exclamations points and everything. It’s not unforgivable, but it is stupid and lazy.
Dante’s Inferno is a lavish production, and you can see where all that money and time went. But beyond the visuals, every other aspect of the game falls squarely in the fair-to-middling range. Except for those last levels, there’s little that’s wrong with the game, but there’s also nothing that left me wanting more. It fails to live up to its lofty, literary inspiration in almost every way except for some astonishing set-pieces. Fans of the poem will see plenty of allusions and references that others won’t, but they won’t necessarily respond to them better than those who have never read a single stanza.