Dante’s Inferno (Demo Review)

A cold day in Hell, Fife

So I’m starting off a new segment here.  As I’m too poor to afford new games, I’ve decided to start reviewing demos instead.  I’m not going to use some arbitrary percentage, star, or ‘points out of 10’ system; nor am I going to be systematic about every aspect of the game (graphics, sound, gameplay, blah, blah, blah).   Instead I’m going to simply discuss what I like and dislike about the games, and how effective I think the demo is at selling the game.

I was going to do Bayonetta, but that game is so out there, I wouldn’t know where to begin.  So first up is Dante’s Inferno, the demo of which was released over Christmas for the Xbox, and about a month ago for the PS3.  Anyway, I played the demo last night, and I’m not sure if I should commend or slap EA for this one.

I mean, it’s such a blatant God of War clone that it’s not even funny — not only is the controller layout near identical, but most of  Dante’s moves and combos are exactly the same as Kratos’ (e.g. holding Y launches enemies in the air, before Dante springs up, allowing you to attack or throw them 2-3 times).  Health and magic items are located and activated in exactly the same way (you have to mash a button), as are doors; and bigger enemies are even taken down with the same button sequence minigame (uh, sorry… Quicktime Event™ ).  Combined with similar level design, camera movements, and the same blasé approach to nudity (of course women in the 14th century had no regard for modesty or practical clothing, just as the ancient Greeks did …or didn’t), and you’d be fooled for thinking that EA had licensed the engine and half of David Jaffe’s design team.  In retrospect, it would have been quicker to write about the differences.

On the other hand, God of War was awesome; and as this is virtually a carbon copy, I can’t really complain about a game that, for all intents and purposes, has solid gameplay.  Furthermore, when you consider that God of War is a Playstation only franchise, Xbox owners have even less reason to complain.  The key selling point, however, is the scenario, which is cool  — or at least, I imagine it is — the demo doesn’t quite get you into Hell, just the front door.

Abandon all hope…

And this is perhaps my main gripe with the demo — it looks and plays like God of War, but the opening levels noticeably lack the same ‘wow’ factor.  To be fair, God of War started off slowly too, battling various minions on a ship wasn’t exactly edge of your seat stuff… until the Hydra appear.  From that point onwards, God of War becomes the epic, hugely original, action packed title everyone says it is.  Now, I’ve only read Wikipedia’s outline of the Divine Comedy (showing my age here), but I had pretty high expectations with regard to what the team’s rendition of Dante’s Inferno might be like.  Unfortunately none of that stuff is actually featured in the demo.  In fact, it’s not very clear if the demo is actually set in Hell or not.  Half way through level 1, Dante gets stabbed in the back, encounters Death, kills him, and then proceeds on his merry way.

Maybe I’m showing my ignorance of the topic, but honestly, I don’t remember that part in the poem, but then again I haven’t studied the original.  My take was that Dante was a poet and scholar, who travels to Hell alongside Virgil to seek redemption for his sins.  Whereas in the game he seems to be some kind of badass crusader with a cross carved out of his own flesh — sort of like a cross between Kratos and Bibleman (I’m not kidding: one of Dante’s powers is to blast magic crosses at his enemies, and you can even choose to either ‘absolve’ enemies of their sins… or rip them in two).   Most gamers probably wont give it a second thought, but it seems like we’re already deviating from the source material; and, given the Church of England’s (probably justified) reaction to  Resistance: Fall of Man,  I can’t wait to see what they make of this.  Personally I’m not overtly religious, so I’m not offended by their treatment of the material; but the way the game has been presented and marketed leads me to question the publisher’s sincerity towards the poem and what it represents.

Above: Two, somewhat contrasting, illustrations of Dante Alighieri.

The verdict

Overall, would I buy it?  Despite all my criticisms I probably would, if it gets favourable reviews.  The actual gameplay itself seems pretty solid, and the scenario has huge potential (let’s face it, the best level in God of War was Hades).

The real problem for me is an overall lack of originality — and this is the key difference between this game and God of War.  While both games took inspiration from other sources; God of War based itself on broader myths and stories that everyone is familiar with, but adapted them into it’s own game universe.   Whereas Dante’s Inferno seems to be a case of: take the gameplay mechanics of God of War, and the scenario from the Divine Comedy, mix it up, bring it to the boil, and you have an instant hit.  Maybe that’s an overly harsh thing to say, as it does look like a good game; and, for better or worse, it does seem like they’ve drastically deviated from the poem in places.  However, I just wonder if the full game will bring any real surprises for seasoned God of War players.

I’m not purposely trying to bash EA here, but they seem to be stuck in Limbo.  In the last year or two they’ve been repenting for their past sins, and releasing some really exciting and original IP (Mirror’s Edge was particularly impressive, and Brutal Legend seemed like a brave release for them, even if it got mixed reviews).  But this one, despite looking impressive, for the most part seems like a safe bet for them. Given that Bayonetta is blowing the genre out of the water, in terms of innovation, creativity, originality, and pure j-pop weirdness; can EA really afford to be publishing such a blatant ‘me-too’ title?  The game comes out in February, so you can judge for yourselves.

Small Update (10th Feb 2010)

NPR.org have posted quite a good story about the game and the response it’s getting from scholars.  See the further reading below for the article and podcast.  For a more detailed overview of the Dante’s poem, I strongly recommend the In Our Time episodes listed below.

Also, I finally got Bayonetta (which treads similar ground, but is arguably more original, and more controversial, seeing as the enemies you fight are angels from Paradiso, not the Inferno) so maybe I’ll write about that at some point in the near future.

Further Reading / Listening

Dante Alighieri

Divine Comedy

Inferno (Dante)

In our time  – Dante’s Inferno – to Hell and back

In our time – Hell – its representation through the ages

NPR.org – Dante’s ‘Inferno’ Makes A Hell Of A Video Game