Ah, Dante's Inferno: the game where EA surprises us all with a sensitive, literate take on the first part of Dante Alighieri's 14th Century Masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, taking us on the poet's imaginary journey through the nine circles of Hell, led by the Roman poet Virgil. Offering fascinating insights into the medieval mind, this rich, scholarly effort, featuring dazzling graphics inspired by Medieval frescos, gives us scope to contemplate the nature of sin and redemption, and captures - in video game form - the poet's musings on science, philosophy, politics and history. Somehow, the company that reduced The Godfather Part II to a cheap GTA clone with added T&A has treated this literary classic with the respect and reverence it deserves. Play, learn and wonder.
Sorry. Only joking. EA's Visceral Games studio - yep the same ones who came up with the brilliant Dead Space - have turned the lengthy, widely unread medieval poem into, well, a cheap God of War clone with added T&A.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. God of War and its sequel were, after all, great games, and we didn't complain when Darksiders came along and swiped huge chunks of style and gameplay from them. Dante's Inferno, admittedly, doesn't take quite the same effort to depart from its source material. This is a pretty straight rip-off with Dante, now recast as a crusader, standing in for Kratos, Death's scythe playing the role of God of War's chain-swinging Blades of Chaos and Hell taking over from mythical Greece.
Like God of War, this is effectively a scrolling brawler punctuated with platforming and puzzle-solving moments, with Dante laying waste to swathes of demons, devils, evil souls, monsters and sinners, earning points for kills which can be spent on new attacks, and collecting items which provide him with new magical powers. If you've played God of War, there's very little here you haven't seen before. Even the Quick Time Event finishing moves have made it over. Press Circle, Triangle and tilt the left-stick up and, wowsers, another demon head removed.
Well, that's the God of War bit, how about that T&A? Well, it's no surprise that hell is a pretty nasty place, full of lost souls getting arguably more than their just deserts and more gore than a boxed-set of torture-porn films. What might surprise you is that much of this stuff involves topless babes (or at least topless female hellspawn). Beatrice, the virginal muse of the poem, is now a blonde prom queen who can barely make it through a single cutscene without her diaphanous gown collapsing to reveal her assets. Dante's enemies include barely-clad succubae with scorpion stings sprouting from a place where you don't normally expect anything to sprout, and a giant-sized Cleopatra who produces demonic infants from her nipples. Amazingly, I'm not making this stuff up.
True, our medieval ancestors had some pretty weird ideas about where bad sorts spent their afterlife, but the designers and artists at Visceral Games have taken things to the extreme. Dante's Inferno takes an almost childish glee in showing exactly how grisly it can be, from the introduction to our hero (sewing a cross into his own chest) to the enemies (unbaptised zombie babies with sickles for arms) to the myriad ways in which our hero can destroy the wicked (heads torn off and bodies wrenched apart a speciality).
You can even decide whether the various famous characters you find on your travels should be punished (a brutal finishing move) or redeemed (a slightly less brutal finishing move), with the only major difference being that one gives you points towards new virtuous special attacks, and one gives you points towards new gruesome special attacks. This isn't sophisticated stuff.
Sometimes it doesn't have to be. When it works, the combination of decent graphics (think God of War with more detailed textures and better lighting), weird scenery, gruesome monsters and a very solid combat system makes playing Dante's Inferno a blast. Fights are well orchestrated and there are some great bits where you get to ride around on a huge beast's back, dispensing justice to Hell's minions with colossal fists and fiery breath.
Encounters with reimagined versions of the poem's Charon, Cleopatra, Minos, Cerberus and even Dante's dead dad make for some enjoyable boss battles, and the action has a nice, mindless pace to it. There's even something lovable about the game's tragically adolescent lust for blood and boobies. You're aware that you're slumming it, but sometimes slumming it is fun.
Unfortunately, the good times run out long before the game reaches its conclusion. After a fantastic opening with some rip-roaring anime-style cutscenes, Hell grows more and more repetitive, the monsters become less interesting, you lose interest in the upgrades, and it's only the thought of what new bizarre monstrosity Visceral's nutjobs will hit you with next that keeps you interested. The visuals have their bad patches, too, and much of the platforming is borderline awful, with rotten camera angles and ridiculous precision jumps from swinging rope to swinging rope that will aggravate you beyond belief. Here's hoping there's a special place in Hell for whichever rotten devil put them in there.
Without these issues, Dante's Inferno would just about cut it as an entertaining game. With them, it's just mostly Okay. If you've never played a God of War this is a respectable facsimile, albeit one that can't match the magnificent scale and imagination of its inspiration.
The problem is that with Bayonetta and Darksiders just behind us and God of War III on its way, there's not much reason to settle for a second-rate replica. You won't hate Dante's Inferno, but you could do so much better….