Dante's Inferno, a brand-new franchise from EA and developer Visceral Games, has a lot to live up to. On the one hand it's Visceral's follow-up to one of our favourite games of 2008, Dead Space; and on the other it so closely resembles Sony's God of War that comparisons beg to be made. With Kratos' next outing little more than a month away, Dante needs to put up a bloody good fight if he's to stand a chance of making an impact. After battling through the nine circles of Hell, taking on wave after wave of unspeakable horror, the sinning warrior might not have Kratos beaten, but he can definitely hold his own in a brawl.
There's been some controversy over the use of the Divine Comedy as the basis of a video game, but in truth the game is only loosely based on the first part of Dante Alighieri's grand poem. Dante, a warrior of the Third Crusade, witnesses the soul of his beloved Beatrice getting dragged into Hell. He follows in an attempt to free her from the clutches of Lucifer, but to do so must make his way through the vilest locations imaginable: the nine circles of Hell. On the way our hero has to come face to face with the sins of his mortal life and sacrifice or absolve the many Shades (spirits of the dead) trapped in the underworld.
All this is just the set up for a very traditional hack 'n' slash, in which Dante slices up nasty monsters, uses magic attacks, performs massive combos, upgrades his abilities and is generally a badass. In a genre dominated by a few heavyweights, Dante's Inferno is definitely in the Hollywood blockbuster camp currently headed by God of War, and isn't nearly as hardcore as the likes of Ninja Gaiden and Bayonetta. This is a hack 'n' slash that at times positively encourages button mashing, but gets away with it due to the flashy action, impressively grim environments and ghastly enemies.
Dante only has two weapons: the unholy scythe, taken from Death himself; and a holy crucifix, taken from his fallen love Beatrice. This might seem light compared to games of the same ilk, but each offers plenty of attack options and upgrades, meaning you're not going to find yourself wishing for other items to pick up and use. Collected souls serve as the game's currency, allowing you to buy new abilities, combo attacks, upgrades and more, as long as you've reached the required holy and unholy levels.
The scythe is your melee weapon, with heavy and light attacks, as well as numerous special moves activated through certain combos and modifier buttons. On the other hand, and only with a single attack button, is the crucifix, which fires out monster-slaying holy crosses. Punish the enemies and the trapped souls that you encounter, and you'll level up your unholy level, letting you buy the more advanced unholy abilities, whereas absolving them will let you access the better holy upgrades. Depending on how you play you might end up with a fairly even mix of upgrades, but the crucifix becomes so powerful, doubling as an impressive weapon to use from a distance and up close, that spending souls on new scythe attacks seems somewhat useless. Become an expert with the scythe, though, and that view might be reversed.
Of course, this being a trip through Hell, it's not going to be easy to be good. When you're given the choice to absolve or punish, the former requires far more effort, with a time-consuming, boring, button-tapping mini-game testing your holiness to its limit. It's far easier to just press a button and stab the poor soul through the gut and skull, but doing so won't earn you as many souls and won't help you level up your unholy level. Badly placed checkpoints that force you to replay these punish or absolve moments over and over again simply add weight to the case for the easy option. Whether you punish or absolve has no impact on the game's storyline (something that would have made each decision more taxing) but the system does provide a neat way to tailor your combat options.
As much as Dante can get away with some button mashing, he's got all the moves you'd want him to have. Blocking at the right time will let him counter an enemy's attack with a devastating blow of his own (with either the scythe or the crucifix), he's able to dodge attacks using the right analogue stick and magic can be mapped to the four face buttons - activated when pressed in combination with a modifier button and when the mana meter has enough juice. My favourite and most useful is the shield, which also recharges health once upgraded, but the other more offensive options all have their uses.
Perhaps more important, and able to shape the gameplay to your own style, are relics. These can initially be equipped to two slots, and grant you bonuses such as an increased chance of a critical strike on an enemy and a faster filling redemption meter - when activated Dante's moves can be performed at a faster pace. These are also home to my favourite item ever in a video game: the relic that reduces damage caused from excrement attacks. That's right. One of the most disgusting enemies in the game will poop on you in the nastiest way imaginable. Relics will upgrade as you use them, too, so it's not a good idea to constantly switch to a new one unless you feel it will really benefit your play style.
On the whole the combat system is fast, fun and easy to learn. There's depth here, provided by the use of magic and relics, and the countering will take time to master. Most importantly, it looks great. Dante's unholy cross produces the most striking visual effect, filling the surrounding area with a cool light blue glow as enemies go flying. When you're able to pull off stunning moves with relative ease you'll want to do it again and again, and go deeper into the system to learn the more complex moves. Genre snobs might turn their noses up because this isn't punishing on a Ninja Gaiden level, but it's not trying to be.
Given that Visceral had the poem's vision of the nine circles of Hell to play with it should be no surprise that each is quite brilliant in its depiction of vileness. It's hard to see the game as impressive looking, such is the level of depravity on show, including rivers of blood complete with souls forever committing suicide; walls covered with trapped souls, all moaning in an attempt to be set free; and bodies adorning the walkways, each sitting rather uncomfortably on a spike. At times there are flashes of roughness, with scenery being a little too angular, but on the whole the circles of Hell are gloriously depressing to play through.
While the world is excellent, some of the enemy designs leave something to be desired. No doubt they all looked great on paper, but in their somewhat rough in-game forms they appear lacking in detail and look like they're stuck between this generation and the last. The massive bosses don't suffer from this problem, being the game's visual highlights, but general enemies that you face for the majority of the ten hour campaign aren't up to the high standard expected from today's multi-million blockbusters.
If there's a major criticism to be levelled at Dante's Inferno, it's that the puzzles are so basic they need not exist. Not once did I have to think for more than a few seconds, which is a shame as some brain bending would have broken up the relentless combat. And it is relentless. The basic formula is for Dante to enter a new area, walls to emerge and then waves of enemies need to be defeated before the walls are removed and you can move on. At times these waves reach ridiculous levels, but just about stay on the fair side of the difficulty fence. It can get repetitive, but only on a handful of occasions are you forced to fight in the same area for more than a few minutes, with the game generally moving along at a brisk pace.
Towards the end of the game there are also some monotonous and easy arena-based challenges to trawl through, complete with cookie-cutter corridors linking each together. It all builds up to an impressive final encounter with Lucifer, but then the conclusion lets the side down again, with a lame opening for a sequel. Once you're done there's the option to play through the game again using your unlocked abilities, which certainly adds replay value, as does an extra difficult setting. An arena challenge mode isn't quite so exciting, but the promised DLC that will introduce co-op arenas and user-created content should keep gamers playing for some time to come.
Visceral Games has battled against the odds to deliver an excellent hack 'n' slash that action junkies would be wise to take a look at. Based on what we've seen of God of War 3, Dante should be thankful he's got a month in the limelight, but he certainly deserves it. With some impressive combat mechanics, an excellent game world, some of the most disturbing enemies ever seen and tight production values, Dante's Inferno delivers the goods. If you're a PS3 owner, the decision to buy might be tricky given what's on the horizon, but 360 gamers looking for something less gruelling than Bayonetta and Ninja Gaiden 2 now have a great option.