Reviewed: February 19, 2009
Released: February 9, 2010
Electronic Arts rarely ventures outside the comfort zone of its existing stable of popular franchises and yearly sports sequels, but from time to time we get some truly unique games like Mirror’s Edge, Dead Space, and this month’s release of the much anticipated and heavily hyped Dante’s Inferno. It’s become commonplace for videogames to tap into movies and other modern pop-culture for their inspiration, but basing a game on a 14th century poem could be a first. Elements of the original story, location, and even characters were liberally borrowed and conformed to fit with this updated, twisted, and sinister action-combat game that will leave you feeling a bit uncomfortable at times. After all, what was the last game that rewarded you for killing babies?
Dante is a soldier in the religious crusades who has been carrying out horrible acts in the name of God. When he falls in battle Dante is prepared to meet his maker, but the Grim Reaper shows up instead to claim his soul and take it to Hell. Refusng his fate, Dante does battle with Death, defeats him and steals his scythe, which becomes the primary weapon for the rest of the game. Returning home, he finds his house destroyed and the love of his life, Beatrice, lying dead on the ground outside. Could things get any worse? You bet. Lucifer shows up and snatches her soul, taunting Dante, who follows them both into the bowels of Hell to repent his sins and win back his true love.
The story is quickly setup in the opening narrative and tutorial levels then slowly fleshed out through the various cutscenes throughout the game where we learn that Dante isn’t so “innocent” after all and is actually the architect of his own fate. If you played the demo then you’ve already played the first 20-30 minutes of the game. The demo ends just before your freefall descent into hell, and that is where the full game really kicks off.
Dante’s Inferno is easily compared to the God of War franchise, both in style of gameplay and in several of the mechanics such as soul collecting, and the ability to purchase character and weapon upgrades. This will certainly be a treat for Xbox 360 owners but PS3 gamers will likely be holding out for God of War III coming in a few weeks. EA must have realized this so the PS3 gets the exclusive Divine Edition of the game at no extra charge. This special edition includes the main game as well as a DLC code for a prequel level coming in March as well as a “Making of the Game” documentary, Wayne Barlowe Digital Artbook, the Full Game Soundtrack, and a Digital Reprint of the Full Poem that inspired the game.
Whether you choose one game over the other is up to you. Personally, there is room for both titles in my library and both offer enough distinct flavor and personality to keep me playing for hours. Dante is certainly a darker more sinister experience. The imagery is downright evil at times and combined with liberal bloodletting, dismemberment, and a surprising amount of male and female nudity, Dante’s Inferno earns its Mature rating and then some.
At the core of the game is a solid combat engine that mixes up magical attacks, scythe attacks, and ranged holy cross attacks. As the game progresses you will earn soul energy that can be used as currency to purchase new abilities and multi-tiered upgrades for the scythe and cross as well as magical powers and personal upgrades such as mana and health bars.
There is also a morality system in place that allows you to act as judge, jury, and executioner in countless situations. If you pull off a grab move you are given the opportunity to Punish or Absolve that enemy, thus rewarding you with either Holy or Unholy points. One of the more interesting elements of the game are the 27 Shades scattered about the levels of Hell. These are famous people from history who plead for their spiritual release. You get a brief history on their deeds before you must pronounce judgment, damning them to Hell or allowing them to ascend to Heaven on a beam of light.
I was surprised at just how caught up I got in trying to judge these people and pronouncing an eternal judgment. You seem to get more points for Absolving them, and doing so triggers a diversionary Sin Collecting mini-game where button symbols stream in from the edges of the screen and you must tap the appropriate button as they pass over the cross in the center. You can find cross upgrades so that later in the game you can auto-absolve and skip this mini-game if you wish, but you'll earn more points if you play it.
Unlike most games that steer you toward an entirely good or an entirely evil path, Dante’s Inferno allows you to ride the fence. Admittedly, if you maintain a perfect balance you will never achieve full mastery of either path, so it’s up to you to determine how you want to play the game. The Holy side powers your Cross weapon, which can become devastating when leveled up, while the Unholy side infuses your scythe with new and more deadly attack combos. You can also earn valuable rewards by seeking out collectibles such as the aforementioned shades, 30 pieces of silver, and various relics. These collectibles become increasingly more elusive, forcing you to explore off the obvious path and providing a nice break from the nonstop combat.
As you near the end of the game you come to the Eighth Circle, Fraud, which is divided into ten combat challenge stages, each representing a certain type of sinner. These stages require you to perform a certain type of attack or achieve some arbitrary goal, and if you do it fast enough you get bonus souls. On the surface, this appears to be an obvious attempt to artificially extend the gameplay length, but I quickly realized just how lazy I had become in all the levels leading up to this point. I hadn’t been mastering the more powerful combos and battle techniques and some of my weapons and abilities weren’t even powered up to adequate levels. Fraud was actually a checklist and a most useful final exam for preparing me for the climactic battle about to take place.
While the gameplay might not be entirely original, I can assure you that you have never experienced a game as sinister and evil looking as Dante’s Inferno. The disturbing visuals of Wayne Barlow spill from the screen and invade your home with depressing and haunting imagery. Each of the nine circles of Hell have their own unique look and the collection of demons and undead creatures are particularly creative. The PS3 version supports 720p and delivers a surprisingly consistent 60fps in all but the most complex of situations. The graphic novel-style cutscenes provide a refreshing stylized look to the narrative that helps take the edge off the demonic scenery of the gameplay.
The Dolby Digital surround mix will encompass you in all the haunting and sickly sounds of the Underworld. Nothing is more unnerving that slaughtering a roomful of evil un-baptized babies and having their combined cries sound like you are invading a nursery. Sound plays a crucial role in locating many of the hidden secrets that are revealed with the lamenting of a Shade or the growl of a demon dog. The voice work is excellent for Dante, Beatrice, the Poet, and of course the numerous boss fights starting with the Grim Reaper all the way to the final battle with Lucifer. And your emotions will certainly fall under the manipulative spell of the fantastic soundtrack that mixes orchestral score with haunting choral pieces.
Dante’s Inferno will take around 8 hours to finish, perhaps a bit more if you are aggressively seeking out all the collectibles and going for all 43 trophies. Some trophies are easily earned by completing levels and defeating bosses while others require mastery of combat if you hope to achieve a 666-hit combo. Others, like mastering the Holy or Unholy paths require multiple replays of the game. The Resurrection mode allows you to carry over your stats and play on a higher difficulty and there is also the timed endurance mode, Gates of Hell.
Dante’s Inferno is one of the few multi-platform games I have played on both systems and frankly; there isn’t a noticeable difference between the two. Perhaps, if you have a controller preference, that might sway your decision. The 360 version supports 1080p but my trained eye couldn’t spot any improvement in quality or framerate. The PS3 version sounded a bit better and with all of the added bonus material of the PS3-exclusive Divine Edition, for the same money, I’d have to tip the scales in favor of the PS3 for this release.
If you are looking for a slightly darker and edgier version of God of War then look no further than Dante’s Inferno. What it lacks in gameplay originality it more than makes up for with style and substance, painting a dark and sinister portrait of a literary classic and creating a gameplay experience that you won’t soon forget.