Quick-time fuelled physical abuse punctuates the gameplay, both in the general carnage and the suitably epic boss fights. When I gouge my way through Limbo to confront the huge, grotesque edifice of Minos, the action is divided between freeform slashing and button prompts - very much in the vein of a certain other divinely-themed action slasher you can also play at the Eurogamer Expo. The denouement to this confrontation is a spectacular one, which I won't spoil for you. Suffice to say that it's not for the faint-hearted.
Probably the height of the macabre grotesquery are the scampering, blade-handed unblessed infants. These miserable unfortunates are the souls of children who died before they were baptised, traditionally banished to purgatory in the delightful Old Testament interpretation. The first time you encounter one of these proto-Chuckies he's writhing in a crucible of flame, bracketed by statuary depicting the agony of childbirth with the gaping, swollen bellies of women in labour.
It's quite a disturbing sight, and, of all the horrors I bear witness to, that which seems most likely to agitate the scissors of the censors. These infants soon beset you from all sides - the charred stumps of their tiny arms tipped with curved and rusty sickles which double as extra legs for their scuttling gait. Luckily, essentially being babies, they're pretty easy to dispatch with the six-foot instrument of Death that Dante wields so fluently.
And fluent it is. Combos grow increasingly ludicrous and destructive as they progress, quickly escalating from simple sweeps and stabs to devastating spins and power slams. Whilst initially complex, these patterns are actually easy to pick up - the time-honoured tradition of light and heavy blows gelling fluidly into flurries of metal. Using these effectively for crowd management alongside blocks and the chargeable cross-stuns (during which I fight off a powerful urge to shout "The power of Christ compels you!") is essential to avoid being overrun and overcome, which happens to me rather a lot until I ramp down the difficulty from hard to normal.
Because taking a shoeing from the denizens of Hell is an occupational hazard for our hero, EA has helpfully scattered a few mana and health wells around the shattered environments, which must be latched onto with a bumper and tapped with presses of a face button. Because this takes a few seconds, enemies must be cleared from an area first, heightening the tension when the health bar drains.
As you'd expect from a game which depicts a man's descent to the seat of the very Devil himself, Dante's Inferno rattles the nerves and challenges at every turn. It's not a relaxing experience, rather a strangely invigorating one - the haunting screams of sinners will grit your teeth and run their fingernails down the blackboard of your mind, but this feels appropriately like a real crusade, a heroic fight against almost insurmountable odds. I'm reminded of a quotation from John Steinbeck, talking about his masterful Grapes of Wrath - "I've done my damnedest to rip a reader's nerves to rags, I don't want him satisfied." Except, of course, that a great deal of what you'll be doing in Inferno is really very satisfying indeed.
Dante's Inferno is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on 12th February 2010.
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