It's not often that gamers get transported back into the Middle Ages, but Visceral Games' latest work, Dante's Inferno, allows them to just that. It's a game that's loosely based on the work of an Italian poet, Dante Aligheri, but unlike reality, in Dante's Inferno he isn't a poet. Instead, he's a veteran knight from the Third Crusade and unlike most people he's voluntarily looking to enter the depths of Hell.
After Dante went away on the Third Crusade, his lover, Beatrice, made a pact with the Devil. She wagered her soul on Dante's fidelity and in return, she was promised that Dante would return from the Third Crusade unharmed so that they could be reunited and consummate their love. However, unfortunately for Beatrice, things didn't turn out how she planned and Dante gave into his urges. This consequently damned Beatrice's soul into Hell and so Dante, realising that he is the one who should be punished, goes into the depths of Hell to try and free her from the clutches of Lucifer.
The story is very well told, and as Dante ventures deeper into the circles of Hell, players see it unfold before their eyes in three different fashions: in-game cutscenes, pre-rendered cutscenes and the perhaps more interesting animated cartoons. The pre-rendered cutscenes look absolutely gorgeous, while the animated cartoons offer a glimpse into Dante's sordid past. However, there are very few surprises along the way, and it's more about highlighting Dante's new perspective on life than a story which challenges the mind with dark and deep consequences.
The majority of Dante's actions within the game are based around combat, although he does engaged in a few other activities along the way. Combat essentially boils down to three buttons, none of which can really be used in combination with each other. There is a normal attack, a heavy attack and a "holy" attack, which sees Dante use the cross as a ranged weapon. However, while there is dodging, blocking, counters and magic - combat essentially boils down to picking a button of choice and hammering it down until enemies are dead. The majority of enemies actually get stunned quite easily by Dante's attacks, especially the Holy attack, so evasion and blocked aren't really much of an issue most of the time.
To slightly compliment this, Dante can collect souls, and he can also gain Unholy or Holy levels. These are generally attained by choosing to punish or absolve certain enemies, or souls that are found throughout the game. Attaining a new level allows Dante to upgrade himself slightly with the purchase of a few new moves, or an increased health bar. However, the increases to bars are slight and the moves just add a few new options - nothing, aside from slightly improving magic, really makes Dante as a whole more powerful. It's pretty disappointing really as even with the addition of Redemption Mode, which just makes Dante move quicker, there is very little depth. That doesn't mean the combat isn't fun though, and even though it boils down to pressing one button repeatedly, it's oddly gratifying and addictive.
The same can't really be said for Dante's other activities in the game, but in some instances this is just due to some poor game design. There are various puzzles scattered throughout, but they're either too easy, or just plain weird. More often than not, Dante has to move a block somewhere, but sometimes it's not overly obvious where. There are also platforming elements, such as swinging around and climbing and these don't feel overly natural either. Sometimes players will just have to experiment with trial and error, as for example, despite travelling down two lifts just fine, the third one will just collapse without any warning, and players are then expected to know that they have to jump into a small hole without any indication that they'd need to.
It just makes some of the game feel laboured and lazy and it's a shame that the game's high points weren't maintained throughout. Some of the levels are actually quite enjoyable, and each circle certainly has its own personality. However, as the game nears its end, it degrades into a slug-fest with challenges, instead of leading into a rewarding climax. The epic scenery and huge characters are swapped out for an arena with a few hordes of enemies that keeps going, and going, and going. It's a shame, a real shame as although the combat is fun, it's not that fun.
As players traverse through the different circles, they will be greeted with some lovely art design, but also some rather bland art design. Monsters are actually done quite well, and the demon babies are rather creepy. However, there aren't actually that many different types of enemy, as they're often just slight deviations of previous forms. Some of the connecting scenery, which is used to take Dante from one powerful situation to another, is also pretty boring and it just breathes inconsistency. The sound design is really good though and when this is coupled with the cutscenes, it becomes quite powerful.
After completing the game, players are encouraged to try it again on a harder difficulty because of the ability to create a new game plus. This basically means that they can continue to use their levelled up Dante and can continue to progress his development further. The Gates of Hell Arena also unlocks, which is a mode that pits players against 50 waves of enemies, while also battling against the clock. Souls and levelling points gained in this mode can also be transferred to the new game plus, so there's at least some incentive to play it, even if it does get quite monotonous.
Dante's Inferno is ultimately a game that struggles with consistency. It uses cutscenes fantastically well, creating a great avenue for story-telling and it also has some surprisingly fun combat. However, all this is marred at times by some really bland and bad game design and it's a real shame because it stops Dante's Inferno from really breaking the mould in any way.