I always feel a certain sense of trepidation going back to play Xbox 360 games. It’s the part of my gaming childhood I remember the most and thus I have a lot of fondness for that time. The 360 wasn’t my first console by any stretch, but it was the place I spent several summers sitting in a pool of my own sweat wandering Cyrodil in Oblivion, the infrastructure that housed seemingly endless online Call of Duty and FIFA sessions with pals from school and the console that had a wide array of both indie and AAA games for me to explore. From the crafty animal simulator Viva Pinata to clunky, robotic brawlers like Too Human to the console war firefighter Halo 3, the 360 was a system of many strengths, but also many weaknesses.
Looking back on the 360, I have these rich reminiscences that defined my early teens, all of them slathered in a mucky brown tint. Everything had to be gritty, mature and for the #ALPHAS of the world. Gears of War, RAGE, Resident Evil 5, Grand Theft Auto IV, Call of Duty. The list goes on. There are a lot of 360 games that, while holding up in certain areas, fall apart in some respect due to their adamance at being edgy and “real”. Dante’s Inferno was a game I believed fell into that category, penning it silently in my head as a cheap DMC: Devil May Cry clone, which in itself took the original Devil May Cry series and coated it in the same muddy paste I loathe. I thought Dante’s Inferno was merely another throwaway hack n’ slasher, one that some company commissioned due to the success of both God of War and direly dour aesthetics. It’s totally not, and despite some clear pitfalls, it heartily spits right in the face of my nonsense preconceived notions.
When I decided to play Dante’s Inferno, the first thing I noticed was the “Visceral Games” logo on the cover. I don’t have the same attachment to Visceral that many people do, but I can appreciate they created some important games that arguably revived a genre, but I remained stalwart still in my belief the game was mere cheap button mashing. Inspired by, get this, Dante Alighieri’s Inferno – the first part of his 14th century poem Divine Comedy – of which describes Dante’s descent through the “nine circles of hell”. I haven’t read Inferno, so I can’t say with full confidence whether the game is remotely faithful to the source material, but regardless, the game’s narrative (or rather the subject matter) was what first struck me as something to seemingly break my false belief. Dante’s descent is told through a mishmash of different styles: in-game narration by your poet companion-of-sorts Virgil, standard cutscene storytelling and also rather beautifully animated short sequences. It reminded me of a Japanese game to some degree, a Catherine or Yakuza maybe, games that utilise several different modes of storytelling all with different strengths. I liked all of them here. While the animation seems to be in a league of its own (which with some short research seems to be the product of a separate company who also produced a TV show for the game), Virgil’s narration and the more traditional cutscenes are more that strong enough to stand on their own.
In terms of characters, you don’t meet many. Primarily the game revolves around Dante, specifically him and his own version of hell and how the 9 circles relate to his wrongdoings. It’s a rather introspective story, but on the way you do meet some characters – immediate family and close comrades – and their implementation into the narrative and how they relate to Dante’s sins are pretty solid. Travelling through the circles, you discover our player character is a real piece of work, a lusting murderer tormented by his childhood grief and strife who lashes out in the name of greed and gluttony, all the while lying and betraying to get his way. How he commits his sins are detailed through the cutscenes and animations, and they strike a fantastic balance by being short enough to not hinder the flow of gameplay but never come off as blunt or on-the-nose, they’re fittingly terse. It’s worth noting that because the game centres around sins (of note here the sin of lust) the game scored itself an 18+ age rating and boy does it use that to its advantage, and by that I mean there’s tits and schlongs fucking everywhere. It’s great.
With each circle comes new surroundings and enemies to annihilate, and the flow of both is quite natural and happens at a brisk enough pace. The visuals themselves can become quite same-y however, saturated reds and browns engulf most of the landscape, made more sodden through your brutal crusade against the dead. As a result, despite the game’s deeper digging into hell, it all blends into one somewhat. Thankfully the aforementioned enemies and narrative ensure you feel like you’re making progress, but I do wish the game did more to differentiate hell as a location. I guess the question of whether the game fits into the everlasting catalogue of poo-stained slosh still remains, but I’d say due to the games excessive use of violence, gore and bosoms, it feels distinctly different from other games in the blurry recess of my memory. Granted, I know that sounds contradictory given games like Gears of War are also absurdly gory and violent, but when you play Gears, you feel like a meathead, whereas playing Dante’s Inferno feels like you’re having a laugh alongside the developers at just how brutal it is.
So there are enemies. Whatcha do to ‘em? You slice ‘em, you dice ‘em, you sometimes absolve ‘em, but most of the time you just slice ‘em and dice ‘em into finer pieces. Dante’s Inferno doesn’t do much to stand out from the crowd when it comes to its gameplay, as it’s a pretty standard hack ‘n slash affair spruced up with its heaven and hell motif, however it does that simple gameplay system really well. Fitting into the theme, you have both a holy weapon and a demonic weapon: your glistening divine cross endowed to you by your lost lover and your grossly pliable scythe shaped in the form of a terrifyingly large spine, ripped from the hands of Death himself. Your cross acts as your ranged weapon, dishing out ethereal good vibes in a general direction while your scythe is used for close combat, offering a few different modes of use including light attacks, heavy attacks and grab attacks. It’s all very God of War, and even if you haven’t played a game in that series it’s not hard to imagine how derivative of a system it is. Thankfully, it’s just as, if not more punchy here than any of Cratos’ adventures. Light attacks, while aptly light on damage and impact, chain seamlessly with heavy attacks and modifiers, of which you unlock with “souls”. Heavy attacks crunch. Hard. They slam hell deeper into the earth’s core, and absolutely demolish any demons in sight. Grab attacks allow you to dispose of weaker enemies for easy soul takings while also allowing you to keep yourself and enemies in the air for longer. Cross attacks are a godly blend of both worlds, offering the same speed as a light attack while keeping the pushback and punch of a heavy attack, but some enemies are flat out immune to it. It’s impressive just how fully realised the combat is in Dante’s Inferno, as this is the defining feature of the game. Done poorly it would fall into my “button mashing” definition, and thankfully it escaped that swiftly.
This is, of course, abetted by the varied cast of enemies, ranging from chunky bile-blowing bastards to prodigious war lords of the dead to literal demon babies with razors for arms. Supposedly the latter enemy caused some controversy back in the day, which given how you can tear them limb from limb is somewhat understandable, but I remain thoroughly moved by Visceral’s firmness to the mature rating. Regardless, each enemy feels distinct, and most of them challenging. Some of them are nothing more than fodder to fuel the inner blithe any good hack n’ slash game emanates by letting you wallop some arse with ease, but most enemies need a strategy to be employed for you to come out on top. Some enemies coat themselves in armour and resist your attempts to budge them defiantly, to which you need to respond by staying agile and expose their slow nature. Others don the same armour but instead come at you in swarms rather than as lone tanks, meaning you need to utilise crowd control moves instead, while making sure you time your dodges and blocks well. One enemy gave me some grief in particular and in retrospect, unlike his comrades, I didn’t find him designed very well at all. A warlock-style demon covers his minions with a barrier, making them immune to damage and crowd control, and he himself is a tough bastard to fight who teleports away from even the thought of you attacking him. As a result, you’re left waiting for him to attack just so you can parry and deal a little damage. It slows the pace of the game down quite significantly, and it’s quite a shame because the game does such a good job retaining that pace otherwise. Later in the game, individual enemies make up a vast army and the game does a good job picking battalions to throw at you comprised of a fresh mix of demons, meaning individual strategies for one specific enemy now need to be factored into how that will react to other enemies in play. I’m making the game sound unnecessarily deep, but it’s just to illustrate how much fun I had with the game’s combat and just how diverse it felt throughout.
Less diverse was…everything that wasn’t combat. Platforming sections and light puzzles are sporadically sprinkled into the game’s recipe and it taints it with a foul taste of irritation and blandness. Platforming wise the game proves somewhat competent. Again, it feels like most 360 games, in which 3D movement had largely been nailed, so minor platforming shouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately the game utilises these sections as a bridge between combat sections and they’re just not fun. Most of the time, you’re climbing a wall Uncharted style and holding right. Other times, you’re swinging from ropes like we’re back on the PS1 playing Tomb Raider. The true sin here though is the game’s checkpointing, a dastardly display of evil truly deserving a place in the unseen 10th circle of hell. Oftentimes, the game will put you through a lengthy puzzle section with just one checkpoint: the end. You might find hidden rewards on the way, some of which require you play a tedious, dissonant 40 second long rhythm game to attain and if you die at some point before the end, that reward is lost, you get sent back to the beginning, and I shit myself out of anger yet again. I understand why these portions of the game are here, specifically to break the flow of the game, have you thirsty for more combat. The thing was I never got bored of the combat. I loved it from beginning to finish, and consequently I only felt more frustrated when the game shoves another QTE-riddled puzzle section down my throat.
That leads me onto difficulty, because while some of these sections are mundane wastes of time, others spike in difficulty harshly, a sentiment that also carries into the combat. With a few fights in particular – even ignoring that bastard spellcaster from before – sometimes the game gets that mix of enemies just wrong, throwing too many of one enemy at you or not succinctly explaining to the player how to overcome the challenge. Of course the terrible checkpoint system doesn’t help here either, and because the game loves instant death terrains it really puts into perspective how bad it can get. Overall however, the game starts moderately difficult due to your limited moveset, but once a touch more experienced, the game levels out at a leisurely challenge on the normal difficulty mode. I’m not complaining, as, like I said before, some games really prosper when they just let you tear the enemy a new arsehole, and while that’s definitely the case, Dante’s Inferno never remains too easy that it’s just a slog.
I’m glad Dante’s Inferno caught my eye again after all these years, years where a firmly held, uninformed belief resided inside me, only to be whisked away neatly and briefly in a couple of play sessions. It’s a game you can recommend to anyone that can stomach gore, blasphemy and overt sexuality, and anyone that actively enjoys those themes is sure to get a kick out of it. The only real disappointment is knowing this is the only entry in an otherwise lucrative potential series, with the Divine Comedy existing as three parts. The disappointment hits a little harder when you remember Visceral Games’ is no more and then remember the final text in the game…
“To be continued…”