Just a few days ago Dante’s Inferno didn’t have much more to show for itself outside of an expensive marketing campaign. But Reviews Editor Tae K. Kim found EA’s Hell-based brawler a well-structured hack-n-slash with some memorable levels, inventive enemies, and a worthwhile combat engine; it’s just too bad the story doesn’t live up to its potential.

Game design feels like one big round of “follow the leader” sometimes: when a game does something successfully, everyone else tries to put their own spin on it. Grand Theft Auto III had that effect, leading to a bevy of like-minded titles that aped the concepts that made it so great. The God of War franchise has also left its own indelible mark and it’s finally starting to show with titles like Bayonetta and Darksiders following in Kratos’ deity-sized footsteps. Dante’s Inferno is another chip off the old Grecian block but it exists somewhere in the middle of those two aforementioned titles: unlike Bayonetta, which took the formula and gave it a total glam makeover, Dante’s hews closer to the tried and true; yet, unlike Darksiders, which was a little too familiar for its own good, it actively tries to do something different.

Dante’s more or less succeeds on that latter point, at least in terms of the overall game world. The Divine Comedy might seem like an odd choice for source material, given its relatively small mass market appeal — before any of you literature lovers decide to write me angry yet elegantly worded hate mail, I’m only pointing out that it’s not something most gamers will know intimately — but Dante Aligheri’s epic poem gave the developer lots of material to work with and it actually manages to step away from Kratos’ imposing shadow. The nine circles of Hell deserve a lot of the credit for that: they’re impressively constructed and the dev team got a lot of mileage out of the unique setting.

The architecture in the Lust level, for instance, is appropriately composed of phallic structures and pulsating flesh while the Greed level shines with spilled gold, both in coin form and the molten lava in which the avaricious are constantly bathed. Unfortunately, while the environments are well done, the overall atmosphere is incredibly lacking: You are surrounded by woe but it’s all rather vague; you see disembodied souls plastered into the walls and you hear shrieks of agony, but it’s never more than ambient fluff. I expected my experience to be suffused with suffering but it’s almost an afterthought; even without reading the Divine Comedy, I’m sure Aligheri describes the horrors that he witnesses in great detail and the resulting sense of dread and foreboding is curiously absent here. The puzzle design — a definite holdover from God of War, complete with block-moving puzzles and handles you have to rotate — also doesn’t leverage each level’s theme enough; a lot more could have been done with the material but it’s mostly a rehash of the timing- and environmental-based puzzles that you’ve seen before.

While it doesn’t pack the same punch as the scythe, Dante’s cross is still an awesome weapon; fully upgraded, it becomes a terrific offensive option.

But I still enjoyed my time with Dante’s because the combat is expertly handled. The cross, which acts as your projectile weapon, is especially satisfying and after fully upgrading it, it became my default weapon; the scythe is a decent implement but shooting out waves of holy death was far more enjoyable. The minor enemies, while uniformly dull, are also serviceable and the bosses are varied and interesting. The deep skill tree, the collectible relics which buff your abilities, and the overall pacing of the game — it constantly has you moving forward and you never stay in one circle long enough to get tired of it — also conspired to make me enjoy myself and I, for the most part, gave into that temptation. But there were a handful of moments so maddeningly frustrating that I felt as though I was suffering through a divine punishment of my own; poor cameras and ill-placed lakes of lava resulted in many cheap deaths, and you can’t skip cinematics so prepare to rewatch the same clips multiple times. The final boss fight is also ridiculously hard, enough so that I gave up and bumped the difficulty down to the easiest mode just so I could see the ending for purposes of review; when I did that, I literally beat the boss in literally two minutes.

I also found that I was never really awed by the game’s narrative. Rampaging through a realm of eternal suffering should have left a deep impression but it didn’t, mostly because the storytelling is weak; because I’m not familiar with the Divine Comedy, I had to accept the built-in narrative on face value, and it falls flat thanks to some incongruous holes. For instance, while the main character Dante looks memorable — the Holy Crusader motif is surprisingly effective, from the metal crown-of-thorns to the cloth cross he stitches into his chest — he’s basically an empty shell in terms of his personality. For a man who confronts the demons of his own past, Dante demonstrates no real sense of moral complexity or inner torment; he screams with emotional agony a lot but I never really felt the weight of his plight. Also lacking are the encounters with the many lost souls you can either punish or absolve; while the choice itself is meaningful — relegate them to suffering or offer them salvation — the end result is anything but. These encounters exist solely to open up the skill tree, and it felt like yet another wasted opportunity to leverage the rich setting of the game.

The level architecture found in the nine circles of Hell is almost always interesting but it never inspires any real sense of fear or dread.

Because most gamers aren’t familiar with the Divine Comedy, the devs were free to safely take creative liberties but that doesn’t absolve them of the burden of crafting a coherent narrative where your actions actually matter.Dante’s doesn’t do that particularly well and while the combat and level architecture are interesting enough that I stuck with it to the end, I was never fully invested in the story nor did I ever come to truly care about Dante’s quest. Add in the fact that the plot twist revolves around an age-old cliche and you’re left with something that has the scope of an epic tale but carries the emotional weight of an action movie. That I enjoyed it as much as I did says a lot about the high level of expertise expended on the game’s action and set design but the lackluster story means it isn’t nearly as timeless as the poem it was based on.

PROS: Worthwhile combat sequences and excellent level design are the highlights in this devilish tale.

CONS: It doesn’t carry the emotional or moral weight that it should; for a game set in Hell, it’s surprisingly bland.

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