Now's the time to pray for Dante's Inferno. Well ahead of its February 2010 release, the game sits on the edge of becoming another hack 'n' slash clone of God of War, Lucifer's demonic legions replacing the minions of Hades. Meditation, prayer, a moment of silence – whatever spiritual tool suits you best – may be needed to pull it back from the me-too precipice.
Derivation doesn't have to be all bad, as this shocking interpretation of literary classic The Divine Comedy could conjure something fresh with its heavy tone. As the crusader Dante, you journey to the depths of Hell in hopes of saving his love Beatrice from Satan's clutches.
Inspired by the poem's multi-layered structure of Hell, Dante descends through nine circles imprisoning those damned for committing various mortal sins. Those circles at the very depths of the fiery underworld are reserved for the most malicious sins, while violent crimes are punished at the middle levels. Self-indulgent sins such as lust, sloth, and gluttony are given home at Hell's entrance.
It's here in the first circle symbolising limbo – those who have not committed any sin, but failed to believe in Christ – that the game begins to break from the poem's text in pursuit of bloody action.
The original work describes the first circle as an expanse of grassy fields and a castle; the game instead depicts a dank, brown structure filled with unbaptised babies equipped with scythes for arms. Limbo is meant to be a place where the virtuous nonbeliever is not punished violently, but through the absence of God. In other words, innocent babies slashing at Dante with scythe arms doesn't fit the description.
At least you can slash back. In a controversial ploy, the game has you hacking away at these unbaptised tots with presses of the Square, Triangle and Circle buttons. Light and heavy attacks with Square and Triangle can be strung together into various combos, while Circle executes a special holy attack.
You're also able to block attacks by holding the L shoulder button. Holding down L and R, then tapping the X button evades. We found evading much better than simply blocking, especially when you consider some enemies later in the game possess attacks that can't be blocked.
The action itself isn't particularly astounding – it doesn't flow à la God of War, for instance – though the scenarios do shock. Dante's arrival to Hell comes on the back of the ferryman Charon who Dante proceeds to kill during the trip. Forget that the poem specifically outlines Charon acceding to Dante's demand to be ferried into Hell – ripping off Charon's head in a quick-time action sequence makes for better gameplay.
Following the murderous ferry ride, Dante arrives at the Hall of Kings to face King Minos, who is responsible for judging to which circle damned souls belong. A boss battle ensues that has you hacking away at King Minos's decrepit body until a new quick-time action sequence pops up. Press the proper buttons and the king's head is drawn onto a spiked wheel for the kill.
While the deliberate changes to the poem's vision of Hell can be viewed as offensive, the unassuming gameplay poses more of a problem for Dante's Inferno. We've yet to see anything about the combat system that sets it apart; on the contrary, it feels very much like a button masher carried by the perverse appeal of its mature setting.
There's yet time, though, so do pray that this won't be the case come February.