NextGen Player Review: Dante's Inferno

By Clinton Ma

The action-adventure genre is a tight-knit little club. It's also a place that increasingly caters to the hardcore niche and is ruled over by some long-established heavyweights. So it takes a special kind of game to come on to the scene, get our attention and become a contender to the genre's crown.

Visceral Studio's Dante's Inferno is not that game.

What it is, however, is a solid execution of everything we know and love about modern button-mashing, action-adventures. Sadly, it's also a reminder of the genre's worst excesses and the net result is a game that does little to rise above those well-worn conventions.

Read on past the jump for the full review...

Dante's Inferno is very loosely based on The Divine Comedy, the epic 14th-century poem written by Dante Alighieri. Video game Dante is not a poet but rather a brawny knight of the Third Crusade who descends through the 9 circles of Hell to rescue the soul of his dead wife, Beatrice. With the poet Virgil as his guide and the Grim Reaper's scythe as his weapon, Dante must not only face the ravenous hordes of the underworld but also his own litany of sins that have brought him to this grim predicament.

If you can put aside the outcry over the crass handling of a piece of classic literature, I think Alighieri's work serves the purposes of this game very well. Sure there are a multitude of video games that send players through hell-like environments or to battle throngs of demonic creatures, but when you get right to down it very few of them actually send you to "Hell-with-capital-H". Furthermore, no self-respecting gamer would want to visit Hell as a helpless, tortured sinner forever impaled on a spike or boiling in a lake of blood. So why not pay a visit to Lucifer as an angry, scythe-wielding knight? The industry is still not mature enough to the point where I so often demand much more from my games than a license to kick unholy ass. This simple fact seems to have been lost amid all the controversy and the frankly bizarre PR stunts pulled by Electronic Arts leading up to the game's release. A more thoughtful interpretation of The Divine Comedy is certainly possible; the sad truth is we as the game-buying public are probably not ready for something quite so radical.

So the version we have now is definitely the easy road, and it's a road well traveled by some very storied franchises such as Ninja Gaiden, God of War and Devil May Cry. Dante's Inferno adheres to the rock-solid formula to a fault: use a combination of light and heavy attacks to eliminate waves after wave of enemies then either jump through a few hoops, solve a simple puzzle or watch a lavish cutscene before fighting the next wave of boogeymen. The cycle is punctuated by dramatic, screen-filling boss battles where pattern recognition and quick reflexes are the order of the day. And before you die of curiosity overload: Yes, there are finishing moves, upgradeable skills and quick-time events. Rejoice!

Some may be very happy to see all these feature boxes checked while others may roll their eyes at yet another example of uninspired game design. Originality may be in short supply here but it's in the execution where Visceral has mostly hit the mark. As Dante, you start the game with some powerful moves and you only get more formidable as your descent into Hell gets deeper. Orbs dropped from fallen foes provide you with experience points that go towards unlocking dozens of skills divided into "Holy" or "Unholy" disciplines. In a nice game play twist, Dante has the option of punishing or absolving his enemies, with the result of each action yielding a bounty of corresponding holy or unholy points.

There are new attack techniques as well as unique magic abilities that can be mapped to the face buttons. In addition to the skill tree you have a finite number of slots in which to equip special relics found along the way. These relics confer a variety of bonuses ranging from the more pedestrian damage-dealing types to some very exotic, specialized functions. Let it be known that most of these skills are useful: Dante's Inferno is not such a button masher that you can simply hammer on the X button and expect to reach the end without any problems. Different skills work better for different situations and it's a testament to the thought put into properly balancing this aspect of the game.

Another highlight of Dante's Inferno is, surprisingly, the story. It's a bit deceiving since the premise is so straight forward. Dante himself comes off as a very one-dimensional meathead at the game's outset. He even becomes increasingly unlikable through the first half of the game but there came a time when my impression of Dante did a 180-degree flip. By learning of Dante's many sins as a mortal I developed a great deal of sympathy for his cause. This was also helped along by some of the slickest cinematics in any current game. The in-game stuff may look clumsy but the combination of the traditional cel-animated flashbacks and the extremely glossy, pre-rendered cutscenes drives home the impact of the story.

Well you saw this coming: Dante's Inferno has some downers. For a game that never bothers to be original or to reach for the stars, you would think it would at least nail the execution of all its standard mechanics. Sadly, the game blunders in a number of areas, beginning with its reliance on puzzles to break up the action. Whether it be the dreaded jumping puzzle or something involving levers, gears or switches, none of it is especially satisfying to complete. Certain areas of the game, like the circle of Greed, are jam-packed with environmental challenges and it's hard to consistently enjoy a game that so actively avoids playing to its own strengths.

When the puzzles cease and you finally come up for air, you're hit with a late-game section (Fraud) that blatantly recycles enemies through a grueling series of battle arenas. The term "play time padding" definitely went through my head a few times as I grimly slogged through this unnecessary evil.

This area also made me realize the overall lack of a sense of accomplishment that pervades the game. The unforgiving difficulty in some spots paired with the poorly designed puzzles combined to create a game that often felt like work more than play. I wondered if I would have felt compelled to even finish Dante's Inferno if not for the opportunity to see the next cutscene or discover the next twisted new corner of Hell to fight through.

Like so many entrants into the action-adventure genre before it, Dante's Inferno is very much a mixed bag. A technically engaging combat system is dragged down by far too many pace-killing puzzles and repetitive enemy designs. The potential of rendering a fantastic game-version of Hell is cut short by a visual aesthetic that wears out its welcome long before the last cut scene rolls. And most curious of all, the game is fairly challenging but it so rarely lends a sense of accomplishment for surmounting its trials. Instead of a joyous fist pump there's only a heavy sigh of relief and a thought of "phew, I hope I never have to do that again".

This may be Hell but somehow I'm not sure the developers wanted to take gamers that far into the abyss.

- Stylish cinematics and evocative art design
- Fun combat system: great combination of melee, ranged, magic & passive abilities
- Two-branch skill tree full of useful, unlockable powers
- Technically rock solid: no crashes or unsightly frame rate drops
- Some educational lip service is paid to the source material

- Repetitive enemy designs
- Unrewarding and frustrating jumping/environmental puzzles
- Time-padding combat challenges
- Story "twist" can be seen coming hours & hours ahead
- Unimaginative "copy cat" mechanics like QTEs, life & mana orbs, etc.
- Weird difficulty spikes

NextGen Player gives Dante's Inferno a...