Fans of God of War might be sneering at Visceral’s unashamed efforts to haul Kratos from his throne but with a reputable source to borrow from Visceral are in a position of some advantage with this one. Dante’s trip through the already well-documented circles of hell should be absorbing in ways Kratos’ isn’t and act as the foundations for a worthy challenger to the Greek warrior’s position of dominance. With the up and coming third game also the final in the God of War trilogy, the market is opening up for a new IP. So is Dante a worthy contender?
Things begin sharply. Perched alone in a shadowy forest you’re introduced to a gruff hunched Dante. He’s stitching himself back together in a beautifully rendered cinematic and the detail is vivid enough to make you wince. As he unleashes a monumental blast of verbal agony the camera cuts to a location far out enough to confirm Dante’s masculinity as birds flee the grisly outburst – and reemphasise the beautifully rendered part.
It sets Dante’s Inferno off on the right foot but is replaced all too hastily with a garish comic-book style that contradicts the striking visuals and leaves the remaining cut scenes south of noteworthy. The superior full-motion animation does return, later during the finale for some remarkably photorealistic rear nudity.
A few seconds after the potent introduction you’re in control of Dante as he sets about tenderizing an unarmed, and somewhat suicidal, horde of marauding prisoners. In the backdrop warships prowl and pound the smoldering city and only their sporadic missiles interrupt the otherwise fluid and visually satisfying display of violence.
Presses of X and Y alternate between quick and heavy attacks but there’s not much tact to it, especially against the defenseless. You’ll rack up a 100 hit combo without much trouble in the first moments. Dante can grab and sever enemies of a smaller size with a single button, an act of barbarism that would be familiar to Kratos. Unlike Kratos however, Dante has the choice to either punish or absolve his foes.
It’s a fairly throwaway feature; you’re awarded additional souls for whichever you choose. Souls are spent on new attacks and combos and are split into two branches, a vague good and evil affair, but neither offers a significant advantage over the other and the story remains identical regardless of whether you choose to be the harbinger of pain or tiresome goody-two shoes. In fact by alternating between the two you’re left with two sets of weaker attacks, rendering the whole thing meaningless.
Back to the action, even with half the population of Acre dispatched Dante is still caught off guard as a lone prisoner encroaches in a pantomime moment of ‘he’s behind you!’ that culminates in a laughably contrived, but fitting, death.
Afterward there’s a lengthy boss encounter with Death himself. Having played Bayonetta the repeated attack/block cycle isn’t especially gratifying and when Death finally collapses and begs for his er, life, you’re left wondering just how stupid the game could possibly get.
The answer is a lot more. Dante’s predicaments worsen when he arrives home and finds Beatrice’s breasts murdered. Beatrice is dead too, mutilated and strewn in a field. But it’s her breasts Visceral would have you sympathise with. It’s another awkward piece of bait for an audience five years younger than the age certificate allows for.
Of course, Beatrice’s death is the plank and Dante is more than happy to leap from it into a relentless battle of attrition and so you enter hell.
The first three rings boast some imaginative character design and plenty of gory scenery, the bleak atmosphere encapsulated most effectively, as with Dead Space, through the things you can’t see. The howls of the citizens of hell and the foggy environments create a foreboding atmosphere that overshadows the less remarkable combat. Inside the gloomy walls of Purgatory a ship with a gargantuan talking head at its helm waits and the naked and burned victims of hell are hurried onboard ready to be taken to the lower circles. Frustratingly the camera prevents you from appreciating the impressive level of detail that has gone into creating Dante’s hell.
Visceral waste no time in providing the shock tactics; motion capture provides an eerily lifelike introduction to the unbaptised babies and as they giggle and waddle toward Dante with blades fused to their elbows, massacring them feels slightly less justified and weird than in Dead Space.
And there are a few respites between the rhythmic battles. Platforming elements are a convincing argument for never allowing Visceral near a production again. Puzzles are primitive and more often than not a combination of combat and moving an object around a level in between the killing. Notable figures from the past can be found through the levels but rather than tapping into the stories of their sins or allowing for characters of more worth than the otherwise forgettable cast of demons they’re simply soul-piñatas.
As you’d expect from a hack and slash there are plenty of boss fights. During the lust ring you’re attacked by a giant, topless, demon. The babies return, crawling out of her breasts and down onto the arena. Another lusty foe launches what looks like a tongue from her vagina to ensnare you as you button bash a quick time event to escape. The boss fight itself is basic enough; a flick of a few switches is all it takes to send her on her way, so without the normal demons it would probably be over in a matter of seconds. The boss creatures are huge and grotesque but the unimaginative combat doesn’t lend itself to grandeur, the quick time events that herald their eventual death bear none of the dramatic weight or barbarity of the likes of Kratos or even more so, Bayonetta.
The core of Dante’s Inferno, the flagrant plagiarism: the health fountains, combat and quick time events aren’t the problem, if you choose to disregard artistic integrity. After all God of War is brilliant. But it’s the fact that Visceral haven’t built upon the foundations and instead leave you locked in a chain of slow destruction; fighting the same demons, solving the same puzzles and repeating the same platforming sections throughout the course of Dante’s brief trip through hell. Ultimately the constant reliance on tired clichés and the colorless efforts to cause controversy only illustrate how much of a missed opportunity it is.