Version tested: Xbox 360
Basing your game on a 14th century poem set in Hell has certain advantages. For starters, you don't have to pay copyright fees or worry about the author of the source material complaining you've bastardised his work. In fact you don't have to worry about anyone complaining as only 27 people in the world have bothered to read the thing, and half of them are lying.
But there are risks too. You can't employ many of the most popular action-adventure staples such as guns, cars, aliens, Nazis, wisecracking sidekicks and love interests with buttocks like two basketballs in a pillowcase. You're limited by the types of enemies you can create and the environments they can inhabit. As is the case with any game set in Hell, you risk ending up with one big lava level.
So what's a developer to do? Why, find another game with no guns, cars or aliens and rip it off, or so it would seem in the case of Dante's Inferno. In fact, this game has so many similarities to a certain other series it's hard to believe it wasn't originally called Dante's Infernof War.
True, you don't play as a muscular bloke in a loincloth who sports a pair of big blades and some swirly red body art. You play as a muscular bloke in chainmail who sports a single big blade and some cross-shaped red body art. You can jump and press other face buttons to perform light and heavy attacks. There are various combos to learn and new ones to unlock as the game progresses, along with magic attacks. Levels mainly involve hacking Hell's minions into little bits but are punctuated with set-pieces, simple puzzles, boss battles and quick-time events.
True, you're not out to avenge the death of your beloved family; you're out to rescue the soul of your beloved Beatrice. She bet the devil that Dante wouldn't betray her while out on one of his Crusades, and lost. So now, as Dante, you must battle through the nine circles of Hell - lust, greed, heresy, Ikea on a bank holiday Monday etc. - in a bid to get her back.
Guiding you on this journey is the poet Virgil, who uses the same technology employed by Princess Leia to appear as a ribbly blue hologram. He provides basic exposition at regular intervals and if you want to know more about what's going on, pressing R1 encourages him to explain further. All of Virgil's lines are suitably grave and sound like they were written in the 14th century. They were, in fact; his dialogue was lifted directly from the titular poem.
Unfortunately the rest of the script wasn't. It's packed with clichés and colloquialisms, and much of the voice acting is so naff that even the decent lines sound rubbish. Take the game's opening scene, in which you must battle none other than Death himself. This is less exciting than it sounds, partly because Death fights with all the speed and power of a sleepy kitten. But also because he spouts things like, "You dare to defy me, mortal?" in an American accent.
As you prepare to stove his head in for the final time he confirms himself as an utter weed by begging, "No, wait - please!" It doesn't feel like you're defeating the terrifying spectre of grim mortality so much as a baddie out of Thundercats.
Bosses do get harder to defeat as the game goes on, but not by much, and their dialogue doesn't improve. A few levels on from the Death episode you end up fighting a giant blue woman. It seems more likely her dialogue was cut and pasted from the Big Book of Videogame Clichés than Dante's epic poem. Highlights include: "You have given up the keys to the kingdom - and for what? The tits of a slave girl!"
Tits abound in Dante's Inferno, and not just in the script. The giant blue woman has giant blue tits, complete with independently animated nipples. At one point the nipples burst open and out comes an army of evil babies with scythes for arms. They crawl across the woman's breasts and she uses a giant blue hand to scoop them up and fling them at Dante. Freud would have not so much had a field day as a four-day music festival with six stages and sponsorship by O2.
Beatrice will use any excuse to get her tits out, such as being killed, being dead or being sad that Dante condemned her by fondling someone else's tits (which we get to see too, obviously). In a couple of instances only one of her breasts is shown, which is presumably meant to make you think you're looking at art rather than an excuse to whack in another tit. To balance things out, there are a few enemies who sport huge thorny penises - but they're actually women, as you can tell by their massive tits.
Before everyone starts calling me a mad old feminist lesbian (which I may become if I have to look at many more huge thorny penises), I'm not saying tits should be banned from videogames. Especially not 18-rated ones like Dante's Inferno. I do understand lots of people like tits (though I wonder how many of them really go from six to midnight when the tits are computer-generated, blue and spurting scythe-wielding babies).
I'm saying their use here feels silly, gratuitous and anomalous. It's as if EA hauled in a 14-year-old boy as a consultant and this was his best idea. The tits are not offensive, they're just daft, and not in keeping with the impression of artistic gravitas the game is attempting to generate.
There's a similar problem with the cut-scenes. These are a mixture of Bayeux tapestry-style animated tableaux and simple 2D cartoons, which are excellent, and traditional CGI scenes, which often aren't. They're full of silly dialogue, naff designs, over-the-top special effects and poor lip-synching. Dante's Inferno keeps trying to be a work of art but then panicking and remembering it's a videogame, and ending up a pretty generic one as a result.
At least many of the environments are impressive, particularly early on. The designers have made excellent use of the fire and brimstone at their disposal. There are some great grotesque details, like the doors you open stabbing the demons attached to them. There are lakes of molten gold and rivers of boiling blood, complete with dozens of drowning souls. There are plenty of sheer drops, towering columns and gaping chasms, all of which help create to the sensation that you are indeed on a vertical descent.
While in a typical action-adventure you mind find yourself climbing walls covered with vines, here you scale boney cages behind which lost souls weep and wail. There's an awful lot of weeping and wailing throughout Dante's Inferno, not to mention regular bouts of dramatic choral howling. The gothic visuals, grisly death animations and harrowing audio effects combine to create an environment which is a pretty horrid and depressing place to be, appropriately.
The problem is you can't really take it all in due to the game's fixed camera. It works well enough from a practical point of view - the angles switch seamlessly and you're never left fighting enemies you can't see. But you can't use the right stick to look around, no matter how spectacular the scene. This is frustrating and makes the game feel dated, particularly if you're used to having such freedoms in games like Uncharted and Assassin's Creed.
The other issue is that as the game progresses, it all starts to look a bit samey. Stabbing demons to open doors is a novelty at first; 19 doors later it's become a time-consuming interruption, and you can't help wishing they'd just put a switch in. All the weeping and wailing gets a bit much and the choral howling begins to repeat itself. Those environmental details begin to crop up too often - once you've rappelled down one wall of suppurating fire-breathing rectums, you've rappelled down them all.
The repetition really kicks in during the last few levels. The penultimate circle is simply a series of arenas in which you must complete a series of boring challenges - defeat all the enemies, defeat all the enemies without using magic, defeat all the enemies except this time there's more of them, and so on. Every arena looks pretty much the same and all the enemies have featured in previous levels. You might think this is training preparation for the epic, hardcore final circle - but without wishing to spoil anything, you might be disappointed.
The combat also starts to feel repetitive as the game goes on, despite the presence of a character progression system. As you defeat enemies you absorb their souls. These can then be used to buy new Holy and Unholy moves via a ninetiestastic talent tree. All of the moves have silly names like Soul Stabber and Abominable Slam, suggesting they've been inspired by the works of Stone Cold Steve Austin rather than Dante Aligheri. All of them can be ignored completely in favour of mashing away at the buttons.
You can earn extra souls by spearing enemies with your scythe, then choosing whether to Absolve them (by hammering one button) or Punish them (by pressing another). During this process any nearby minions of Hell who were in the middle of attacking you will stand back politely, as though waiting their turn for the hummus spoon at a buffet. It only takes an extra second or two but by the time you're several levels and a few hundred enemies in, it seems a lot easier to forget the spear business altogether and just hack everyone up.
Throughout the game you'll come across the souls of historical figures condemned to Hell for horrendous crimes, and once again you can choose to Absolve or Punish them. Just like in real life, being bad is more fun - pick Punish and you get to watch Dante scythe the poor unfortunate in the face. Pick Absolve and you must play a mind-numbing mini-game which involves hitting the various face buttons as icons pass through them. It's like a rubbish rhythm-action game, except there isn't any music. The reward for taking the holier path is extra Souls to buy more moves with, but the mini-game is so dull I'd pay actual pound coins not to play it again.
The few puzzles in the game are no more inspired. They all involve pulling switches and/or pushing crates (sorry, Mr Scriptwriter, but a crate is still a crate even if you call it a "slider"). Some aren't really puzzles at all. In one area, faced with three moving platforms, a pair of switches and two time delays, I spent ages trying to think laterally - only to discover the solution was just to run really fast. The answer to another puzzle, where a switch had descended into the floor, turned out to be killing all the enemies to make it magically reappear.
So yes, you can add Dull Puzzles to the list of things which make Dante's Inferno worth avoiding - a list which already includes Repetitive Level Design, Daft Cut-Scenes and Generally Feeling Like It Was Made About Five Years Ago. Not to mention the fact it is physically impossible for anyone in the world to look at this game for more than 30 seconds without going, "Oh, it's like God of War."
But that fact is this game's saving grace. Let's not forget that the God of War titles are great, and in aping them so closely Dante's Inferno has ended up with some redeeming features. Punching, slicing, chopping and hacking your way through hordes of horned enemies is fundamentally enjoyable. The suitably gory animations make it rewarding, regardless of whether you're button-mashing or bothering to pull off the proper combos.
Also, there are some entertaining set-pieces and great visuals. Plenty of inspiration has been taken from the source material and this vision of Hell is at times truly grisly, atmospheric and harrowing. With that in mind, it's almost possible to ignore how depressing it is that even when you're in the darkest, fieriest bowels of Hell, surrounded by the agonised screaming of a thousand tormented souls, you still have to push a crate to open a door.
But you can't ignore the fact this is a God of War clone at its core, and many of the ideas here feel tired, familiar and dated. Nor can you ignore the fact that God of War III is nearly here. If it's a toss-up between that game and this one, as it probably will be for PS3 fans, you're best off waiting to see how Kratos' next adventure turns out.
All the same, Dante's Inferno is worth considering if you're a diehard hack-and-slasher fan who loves blood, gore, fire, brimstone, layered but simplistic combat systems and tits. This is more than one big lava level and it's not a terrible game. It's just not an original one, and it's arrived a little too late.
6 / 10