Saturday, March 20, 2010

Dante's Inferno (PS3)

Dante's Inferno is easily one of the most over-hyped, under-delivering games I've ever had the misfortune to spend money on. The publicity campaign had a couple clever stunts, and stirred up some controversy for a sexist photo scavenger hunt.

But nothing about the actual game is clever. And nobody who's taken a sex-ed class is going to find it transgressive. It's at best puerile, but spends most of its time hovering somewhere around stupefying. The only positive thing I can say about Dante's Inferno is that its title does not contain either a numeral or a colon.

First off, they had great material and they squandered it. I'm not expecting a slavish retelling of the tail as interactive poetry. When I heard they'd replaced the poet Dante with a crusader knight named Dante, I accepted that as necessary to give the protagonist any pretext for combat skills. I'm not unreasonable.

But the game does abso-fucking-lutely nothing with the story. And they mangle it unnecessarily. In short, Beatrice becomes the bride of the devil through an act of premarital sex and Dante's subsequent betrayal. Meanwhile, Dante gets stabbed in the back, and then beats the grim reaper in single combat with polearms, appropriating the reaper's scythe. (In the real work, Beatrice is in heaven with God. Because she was pure, good, and saved.)

The scythe, by the way, looks terrible. If Death Himself showed up to claim me with this tacky-ass scythe, I'd consider immediate reincarnation so as not to be seen with it. Imagine a 14 year old stoner drew Death's scythe. The handle's a spine, there're lots of skulls all over it. This is not the weapon of an elemental force of nature. It's a biker tattoo.

Anyway, literally nothing substantial is done with the source material other than a series of collectibles consisting of the people named in the real Inferno. Each time you encounter one, he or she spouts about three sentences of his or her story. And then you play a minigame to either condemn or redeem them. The condemnation or redemptions accumulate as points, which then unlock new powers.

The gameplay consists nearly exclusively of fighting the same half-dozen enemies over and over again in new rooms. There are a few half-ass move-the-box puzzles thrown in, but they're so transparent and trivial as to be contemptible. There are bosses scattered through the game. Think Devil May Cry, but with more quick-time events.

I want you to understand this: you just fight things. You just mash on the same damn buttons over and over again. You unlock some new moves and powers, but it's pointless. You'll spam the same ridiculous cross-shaped ranged attack, and you'll mash on the attack buttons.

Actually, lemme pause here to describe this ranged attack. It emanates from a cross that Beatrice gives Dante. And it is literally a man-high, blue, glowing crucifix of force that damages enemies. It flies like a haduken, but it's a goddamn blue wireframe cross. Oh, and it gains multi-shot, so you're firing anywhere between one and 5 crosses at a time--up to probably 30 of them on the screen at a time. How much more fucking literal-minded could the designers be?

But the thing is, the gameplay has nothing at all to do with any inferno, Dante's or the game's. You could swap in a baseball-themed texture package and edit some dialog, and the game would make exactly as much sense. The levels of hell that Dante describes become literally just background textures, walls surrounding boxing rings. And they all look the same anyway, so it matters even less.

The only level with an obviously distinct visual style was Lust. Lots of vaginal doorways and phallic pillars. Scary, naked-breasted demon ladies who shoot toothed tentacles out their vagina. Obviously the entire level-design department devoted their entire development budget to Lust, and then only had enough to make one other texture set.

Had I been working from the same source material, I would have built a game like Psychonauts: you must confront manifestations of each sin. In my game, Lust wouldn't be a corridor full of dicks; it'd be the offer to see some titties, with a trap. You'd escape Lust by managing not to look at the progressively nastier digital pornography presented. Maybe that wouldn't fly with the ESRB, but I can tell you that I wouldn't make Gluttony a shit-brown-tinged corridor full of fat enemies.

At the very least, a Zelda-like themed-temple approach would have been appreciated.

Frankly, Dante's Inferno reminds me of Mario Kart. No, of course, Mario Kart is a cartoon racing game while Dante's Inferno is an action game. But in both games, the gameplay is confined to a single, relatively narrow path. Deviation is simply not allowed by the physics. You'll never reach the mountain in the background, no matter how hard you try.

But, unlike Mario Kart, Dante's Inferno is not any fun. The combat is bland like the sun's surface is warm. And since the combat's the only thing of any substance in the entire game, playing it is a little like eating a big bowl of unflavored gelatin.

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