Friday 12 February 2010

Video Game Review: Dante's Inferno

Truth be told, I've begun this review at least ten times already, in my head and here at the keyboard both. I've adopted a different approach in every instance, each one designed to make it easier for me to discuss Dante's Inferno on its own merits. Of course, no criticism can exist in a vacuum; to compare and contrast one unknown thing with another, more familiar corollary is a vital aspect of any review. And yet, so much of the conversation about the latest effort from the house of Dead Space developers Visceral Games has pivoted on its admittedly rather striking similarities with a certain other video game that I'm loathe to take the same tack.

The sad fact of the matter is as frustrating as it is telling: you simply can't talk about Dante's Inferno without referring to God of War. It is, in nearly every sense, a second-rate clone of that epic PlayStation stalwart. That isn't to say you won't have a hell of a time playing through Dante's Inferno; if you've been known to enjoy a bit of hack-and-slash action in the past, this is a fine game to tide you over until Sony Santa Monica have put the finishing touches on their hugely-anticipated God of War III. Visceral Games have created a technically superb package and presented it with production values only the likes of Activision and their own publishers, EA, could afford. It looks great, sounds excellent and plays exactly as you'd expect - which is very well, all told.

Ultimately, however, Dante's Inferno has appropriated its every aspect from elsewhere. For all that the pre-release hubbub has single-mindedly taken Visceral Games to task for what you might kindly refer to as a reinterpretation of the first book of the 14th century poet's Divine Comedy, this is not a literary game. This is as gamey a game, come to that, as games get; it hardly bears repeating which game it borrows from most often. In terms of moment-to-moment gameplay, it's God of War from head to toe, but there's a touch of the likes of Devil May Cry in the countless collectibles and upgrades scattered about the environments, not to mention the Prince of Persia-esque platforming sequences you'll encounter between the circles of hell Dante traverses in search of his beloved Beatrice - although the developers aren't able to do that aspect of Dante's Inferno justice in quite the same way they emulate the central, combo-driven action of... what was it again?

Despite its pedigree, the narrative of Dante's Inferno is no impetus to push through this game. After an impressive, if somewhat pandering opening FMV, it becomes abundantly clear that any notion of story beyond fight through hell to save your naked ladyfriend is a long distance from the point. What will drive players through the nine levels - variously inspired by such sins as lust, gluttony and greed - is the combat.

You have a light attack, a heavy attack and a ranged attack, and however ho-hum that sounds, it's enough to achieve the perfect hack-and-slash balance: easy for the clueless to pick up and enjoy without sacrificing the depth than more experienced gamers demand - and rightly so. By mixing up your button-presses, you'll be able to achieve great things quickly; there are an array of moves available from the outset, each with a satisfyingly weighty sense of impact behind them, and depending on whether you choose to punish or absolve the damned - before you eat their souls, of course - two parallel paths of more powerful attacks open up that will keep you hungry till the eight solid hours of gameplay are over.

It's far from the equal of Ninja Gaiden or Bayonetta, but the action underpinning Dante's Inferno is absolutely adequate. This isn't a deep game by any stretch; that there's any depth at all to the combat, such as it is, serves to illustrate the single-mindedness of the first release to have issued from the bowels of Visceral Games. Dante's Inferno is a game built with a distinct target market in mind. Let me be doubly clear: within 15 minutes of hitting start for the first time, you'll have slaughtered a hundred dudes for no apparent reason, died, killed Death, stolen his scythe, and watched your beloved Beatrice die with her lovingly rendered breasts conveniently exposed. A generous smattering of mammaries do not, however, detract overly much from the torrents of blood and the endless, explicit violence that are the true currencies of Dante's Inferno. Do you like cutting dudes in half? This is the video game for you. Have you ever dreamed of slaughtering a hundred unbaptised babies with your superpowered cross of +10 holiness? If yes, look no further!

Failing that, there remains reason enough for those of us who've outgrown our adolescence to look more closely at Dante's Inferno. It's incredibly pandering, yes - insulting, even; your sensibilities don't have to be particularly delicate for Dante's Inferno to offend them. It will be an incredibly easy game for critics to dismiss, but there's more to it than titillating torture porn. Well, not more to it, exactly, but what there is of it is excellent. And what there is, is good, hard, fast action.

Dante's Inferno amounts to a fun diversion for a few evenings, but the frustrating fact is that it could easily have been something greater, something significantly more memorable than the blur of boobies and butchery that Visceral Games have given us. There are rare occasions that remind you of the awe-inspiring sights seen in, yes, the God of War games: when you cross the bridge to approach Dis and the fixed perspective suddenly, uncharacteristically, pulls slowly - ever so slowly - out and back to reveal the sheer mass of the horrendously undulating city of the damned laid out before you... and you're breathless.

More common, however, are moments such as Dante's crossing of the Styx Marsh that could and should evoke a similarly powerful feeling, but come off limp and impatient because the developers don't have the confidence in either their vision or their target market to let such sights stand on their own terms. Instead, they say, here, have some winged monstrosities to shoot with your holy cross in case you've gotten bored of not hammering on the win button in the past ten seconds.

That said, Dante's Inferno is a perfectly tolerable way to spend 8 hours of your life. If it serves no greater purpose, it'll get you good and psyched for God of War III. It's a crying shame that there's not much more to it than an excellent combat mechanic - Dead Space demonstrated that these are developers capable of so much more - but for what it is, it's really a bit of alright. For what it's not, it should perhaps be confined to the eighth circle of Dante's inherited vision of hell: that reserved especially for fraudsters.

But don't listen to me and my pithy conclusion. I had fun - if you've enjoyed something of this game's ilk in the past, the chances are you will too.

1 comment:

  1. Dante's Inferno is basically the video game equivalent of that game where you tell someone if their hand is larger than their face, it means they're retarded, and then when they try to do it, you smash them in the face.

    It's fun to watch. It's not so great when it happens to you. It's great when you can actually pull it off.