Inspired by the detailed and disturbing images found in the pages of an epic poem, Dante's Inferno literally invites you to go to Hell. Fighting through an upside-down layer cake of sin and carnage with an assortment of customizable combat moves makes for interesting imagery and bloody battles, but seemingly-malicious design decisions and tedious gameplay take what is otherwise a decent action game to a dark place that's more about suffering than fun.
On Earth, Dante Alighieri was a 14th century Italian poet who penned a masterpiece of world literature known as the Divine Comedy. In videogames, he's a sin-soaked knight of the Crusades hacking his way through the nine circles of Hell to rescue his lady love who's been kidnapped by a taunting, perverted Lucifer.
In spite of its literary pedigree, Dante's Inferno presents a simple, action-driven plot. That's fortunate, since trying to find meaning in the game's sloppy treatment of heavy themes like suffering and redemption will only leave you with an impression of blind carelessness and profound stupidity. Of course, while the game doesn't really have any kind of coherent message, it includes plenty of gratuitous nudity and manages to set itself up for a sequel.
Dante's Inferno attempts an epic tour of hell, descending through nine levels built on themes such as lust, gluttony, greed, and violence. Comparisons to God of War are unavoidable, but unlike the highly polished and tightly controlled exploits of Kratos, Dante experiences a brutal slog that mimics the look and feel of Sony's successful series but seems to prioritize hindering player progress rather than propelling it forward.
Your tour of hell will run from 10 to 12 hours, but regardless of how much you enjoy the game's combat, you'll most certainly feel that a lot of that time is wasted. Punishing puzzle sections will continually assault you with enemies as you go about your task, and you'll rarely pass through an area without killing waves of enemies that spawn from the ground just when you think you're clear to move on.
The game clearly pads out its length at the expense of your enjoyment, exemplified by a grueling 10-part challenge mode in the penultimate level that's both lazy and out of place.
Most insultingly, the game robs you of even the smallest accomplishments you've made the moment you die. If you've upgraded a move or picked up any items, you'll have to go through the motions again and again until you pass the sequence. Cheap deaths can be annoying, but feeling like the game is wasting your time is a sheer insult.
The constant combat in Dante's Inferno is largely patterned on successful action games, but there are original elements that can make killing off the Devil's minions a pleasurable duty. An ability tree gives you substantial room to expand your offensive options, and the implementation of the holy cross as a secondary weapon that never runs out of juice makes it easy and fun to integrate into combos. Finally, relics that can slightly alter the way you play are hidden throughout the game, giving you some incentive to take your time and search out hidden paths.
You'll face many different combinations of enemies that require varied techniques to vanquish, including counter attacks that duly reward timing and finesse. Battles can be engaging, but lack some of the grace and refinement exhibited by games like God of War or Bayonetta. Dante's dodge is effective but clumsy, for example. The constantly-shifting range of your scythe and a feeling of uncontrollable momentum to power attacks also detract from the smooth-flowing style of combat the game tries to achieve.
The biggest gameplay failing is accentuated during the boss battles: a reliance on poorly-implemented quick-time events. Poor onscreen placement, directions meant for your analog sticks that are difficult to read, and generally bad response ensures that you'll have to relive at least a few of these sequences several times over.
The mechanic of punishing or absolving enemies and special characters to raise your unholy and holy power levels ensures overtime work for your fingers, and for the ultimate in useless button mashing, you'll need to spam a button to regain energy and open doors. Sure, other games have done the same, but it's unfortunate that the sins of the fathers have been passed down to the bastard child.
While the story is typical videogame fluff, Dante's Inferno does directly benefit from the grotesque and disturbing imagery Aligheri laid down in his imagining of Hell. When you first see the deadly, disfigured privates of the lust demon, or encounter a gluttonous demon with multiple mouths that attacks you with vomit and feces, you'll know that the artists who worked on the game haven't held back when it comes to delivering the horrific.
You'll find more so-called mature content in this game any other mainstream release in years, with the ghostly boobs of Beatrice haunting many CG scenes, and plenty of nudity and blood depicted in accomplished animated cutscenes in which Dante faces his sinful past.
Visual effects and movement in the background work together with a gloomy but forceful soundtrack to ensure that every environment feels as if it's alive and in pain. The game never slows down, and small touches like the ascending musical tones of your cross reflect the care and effort that went into the aesthetic design.
Dante's Inferno does possess virtues that are worth appreciating, but this troubled action game has plenty of sins to confess. As you struggle through the hell that's laid out before you, you'll find your progress hindered by frustration and needless repetition rather than legitimate challenge. While it goes through many of the same motions perfected by the best games in its genre, Dante's Inferno never reaches their lofty heights.
Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360.