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Dante’s Inferno: mere clone, or something much more?

Dante Alighieri’s Inferno tells of one’s journey through Hell. In the poem the abyss is depicted as nine circles of torment located within the Earth, each layer in dedication to a sin: lust, gluttony, greed, wrath and so on.

If videogames were to have similar sinful layers, the game Dante’s Inferno has already been cast into the layer for Frauds. Judged for having been a ‘clone’ of God of War, its punishment: being forgotten. Looking back, was this judgment passed on the 2010 Action title truly justified, or another devil’s trick?

As a concept, “clones” are hard to nail down where to draw the line. When is a game inspired by another, when is it a spiritual successor of an old forgotten title, and when is it really just the same game sporting a different garb? Gamers and their media have passed judgment on titles quickly before, so to find out if Dante’s Inferno is indeed a clone requires a deeper look into the game, both in its development and mechanics.

The First Circle
Structure

Video game company Electronic Arts (EA) had long lived off successful multi-year releases, such as FIFA, NHL and Madden. While profitable, this strategy also sported the ever present risk of franchise-fatigue setting in amongst customers. Aware of this danger, EA announced in 2006 that it would aim to kickstart new intellectual properties. First up was 2008’s Dead Space by EA Redwood Shores, later rebranded as Visceral Games, followed by the future cult hit Mirror’s Edge by EA DICE.

It was in 2010 that Dante’s Inferno – again by Visceral Games – would see the light, seeking to grab a new audience for EA’s future.

Based on Alighieri’s poem from the 1300’s, the game is a tale of redemption as the sinner Dante has his lover Beatrice taken from him by Satan and seeing him journey through Hell to rescue her. As skeletons crawl from the grave to halt his journey, the Unholy Scythe is the player’s first defence.

Stolen from the grim reaper himself, it has a light attack that’s fast and barely staggers and a heavy attack with large knockback, while holding the button down launches foes for aerial juggles. Pressing a shoulder button sees Dante grab and slam foes and attacks can be blocked using a shoulder button or dodged in any of the eight directions. Pressing two buttons at the same time triggers a Rage Mode. There’s even a magic bar reserved for different types of super moves. All this is viewed through a static camera angle …

Dante faces off against two Guardians with his Unholy Scythe in hand.

… described as such the gameplay reads similar to the Greek adventure of Kratos, but as soon as Dante enters a nearby chapel and picks up his Holy Cross, the gameplay starts to diverge from the template.

The Cross acts as a ranged weapon shooting the holy symbol across the screen with significant knockback and little recovery, allowing players that favour it to fight from a distance. From this point onwards, the game will feature an alignment system. Whenever you grab or finish an enemy off, you’ll get the choice to absolve them of their sins or send them to Hell as punishment; Unholy and Holy.

These choices don’t play into a bigger narrative shift, but into a point system. Absolve enough sinners and your Holy stat goes up. This lets you use experience points, gained from killing enemies, to buy more skills from the talent tree while also making the aligned weapon more powerful. With the Unholy Scythe and Holy Cross not really having combined attacks that use both weapons in conjunction, it urges players to stick to one alignment throughout.

The Second Circle
Descent into Hell

As sinners fall to your fury, Dante’s Inferno treks through all nine circles of Hell. With environments using muted colours and grotesque interpretations of each theme, they aim to catch that feeling of desperation. The third layer, Gluttony, is adorned with teeth and inhabited by slithery worms covered with zits. On the flip side, Lust features dark shades of purple with mutilated nipples on every surface paired with horrifying depictions of fetuses; offering an upsetting and daring atmosphere befitting the game.

Screaming souls are constantly begging for salvation through death though they do lose their impact somewhat since each layer is more disturbing than the last. The player becomes desensitized to it all over time, showing that it could have done with some juxtaposition. Greed tries to do this with its motif of molten gold, but falters in using the same screams, mutilations and repeated muted colour tones. Having some layers switch it up in terms of colour pallete or play more with your mind rather than straight up show the horrors could have kept the atmosphere going strong throughout.

Traversing the layer of Gluttony, in search for his loved one.

Still, Dante’s Inferno offers a great stage for the combat to play out in, especially with each layer introducing new enemies befitting their theme. Purgatory sees tanky Guardian Demons, while Lust has lightning fast Succubi that swing their worm-like phalli around. Similarly, enemies made of coins wielding a large golden club roam the layer of Greed, spinning around the combat-zone, begging for a quick parry of the Unholy Scythe.

Most of the described foes almost fully focus on close-quarters combat, lacking ranged attacks of their own. Guardian Demons are tough, but throw holy light their way and they’ll be a waste of time rather than an inspiration to dread.

The game tries to remedy this later on with foes like Heretics; priests that shield other enemies from your magical abilities and Holy Cross. Instead of motivating players to jump between ranged and close quarters combat, it punishes players that dedicated their playthrough to the Holy Path forcing them to use an un-upgraded Scythe to kill them.

Succubi from the circle of Lust, aptly named Temptress, readying their phallus to attack.

It doesn’t stop there either, with later Fire Guardians requiring to be hit numerous times by the Cross before they take damage from the Scythe. The concept peaks with the final boss which has two phases, one being nearly fully immune to Scythe attacks and one nearly fully immune to the Cross – offering a tedium in difficulty. It feels completely against the goal of the Alignment system: picking the Holy or Unholy path.

While the game tries to mix up its combat with puzzles, platforming and some riding segments, the fighting is definitely the star of the show. It is understandable that they want to make more methods of play shine, but the above method of forcing a diverse play style tends to work opposite to what developers want to achieve. While having the choice between Holy and Unholy paths, or a mixture, is a great idea, a game should reward each play style instead of  punishing a player for a choice made.

Some ways it tries to add variety in combat is through environmental hazards like pits, traps and walls of lava, which can be actively turned to your advantage. Another is through the game’s aforementioned upgrade system, which gives access to unique moves and spells that go beyond offering newer, harder hitting moves. Instead it offers abilities like a pull called Sacred Judgment, group launchers, the Divine Armour; all adding layers of depth to the title.

The Divine Armour is especially noteworthy, offering full invincibility lasting fifteen seconds, while also healing you and giving increased damage. While great on paper, probably because they are behind an upgrade-wall, the game and its foes aren’t built around them and thus they are simply a nice bonus.

Dante’s moveset also seems lacking in the sense of choice and options. Grabs are grabs, you cannot throw enemies into each other or re-direct your throw for instance. Despite its best efforts, Dante’s Inferno’s combat rarely has more going on besides pressing a single button to deal damage with intermittent counters and dodges to remain unscathed. At its worst you’ll activate Divine Armour and sling the Holy Cross to victory, negating what would originally be a tough encounter.

Unlike other games that play with mechanics like dismemberment, ring outs or grab setups, Dante’s Inferno is mostly about getting an enemy’s health to zero, and that’s it.

Sadly, the state of high level play in Dante’s Inferno. Note the active Divine Armour for added safety.

A way this could have been remedied is by having Holy and Unholy work more together and by giving some of the unique abilities, like Sacred Judgment or Divine Armour, to the player by default, allowing the designers to build enemies more around these abilities.

Similar complaints can be issued to the title’s presentation. It starts off strong, with early layers constantly presenting new ideas. However from as early as the fourth layer, Greed, the focus on unique enemies and settings per layer is reduced and instead pits previous layer’s enemies together in new combat scenarios. This peaks in the eight layer, Fraud, where you’re simply forced to do ten combat challenges in a row in a dull grey area.

This increased emphasis on combat wouldn’t have been a problem had the combat held its own, but as noted the enemy types all fight the same with only minor variations. With a decreased focus on setting variation, new content and mixed up gameplay, the title quickly loses its appeal in the latter chapters. All the fear and tension is gone, replaced with a feeling of a grind.

A shame, since one mechanic which hasn’t been mentioned yet brings a lot to the table, namely Dante’s Inferno’s Relic System. It consists of little pieces of equipment that give a small passive bonuses. They range from increased Scythe damage, a chance to automatically deflect projectiles, the ability to block unblockable moves, Magic regeneration and even immunity to certain hazards.

Numerous relics can be equipped at once, to give Dante’s Inferno a tad of personalization in combat.

A lot of fun can be found tinkering with Relic setups per fight to make them go as smoothly as possible, especially with bosses. The game seems ignorant to the system’s potential however. Swapping between Relics requires frequent menu usage and leveling them up requires you to have them equipped, forcing you to play favourites instead of promoting experimentation. If the game had played more into this system, the planning around each fight and equipping the right perks for the job could have created a nice little meta for players to tailor Dante to their needs or playstyle.

The Third Circle
Judgment

The verdict passed on Dante’s Inferno was that it was a clone of God of War but that its gameplay felt shallow by comparison, despite offering impactful visuals. This article began with the question of whether this judgment was justified, and why. Because Dante’s Inferno does take a lot from God of War’s template, and for a good reason.

With EA’s strategy to bring new IPs to the table, two games had already come out as noted before: Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge. The former a take on, or a clone of, the successful Resident Evil 4. Mirror’s Edge on the other hand was a completely unique game. In the end, Dead Space was successful, and Mirror’s Edge failed to meet sales expectations despite reaching cult status in the future. In that regard, it makes sense that the third game, Dante’s Inferno, played it safe again by grabbing an existing template and spinning it around.

Being similar also makes it easier for players to get into the game since it is familiar, allowing designers to focus more on what makes it unique. This was the case with many titles from the 90s such as Doom, another game from Hell.

Yet while Dead Space added unique mechanics that made it wholly unique like its tactical dismemberment and its often overlooked enemy types, Dante’s Inferno’s additions sadly don’t seem to add to the template. Instead it removes or simplifies many of God of War’s key gameplay components, like the aforementioned grab system, while its own additions like the alignment system add little. It also brings things over from God of War that it might have been better without, like the static camera, magic system, platforming combat and quick-time-events. As it stands now though, it could have enjoyed marginal success, were it not for one thing that really hit the nail in the coffin: the release date.

A game inspired by another game bridges the gap between titles. People eagerly awaiting a new God of War years on the horizon can quench their thirst with a title as this one. Dead Space played this smart, releasing a year before Resident Evil 5, the sequel to the game it was based on.

Sadly, Dante’s Inferno got its demo on the 10th of december in 2009 and released the 5th of february in 2010. Meanwhile, God of War III, saw its demo release publicly on february 25th 2010 while launching March 16, 2010.

The timing simply wasn’t there. People wanting a new God of War had it within reach, and as a result, Dante’s Inferno saw a meagre 2 million copies sold compared to God of War III’s 7.6 million. While not a failure per se, its gameplay being of lesser quality and its originator and competitor releasing this close to it put its faults in a way bigger spotlight than it needed.

And what of EA’s plan to expand its portfolio? Well, despite the critical success of new titles like Dragon Age, Bulletstorm, Crysis and the aforementioned Dead Space series, EA slowly retreated back to its tried and true formula of yearly releases, looking towards other ways to keep them profitable. While they still offer up a few distinct titles from time to time, like 2019’s Anthem and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, aiming for new creative endeavours has taken a back seat more and more.

And that’s a shame. Because when looked at as a whole, Dante’s Inferno is, for all intents and purposes, a decent Action title with a few unique ideas. It is mostly held back by a lack of combat options and deeper understanding of what elements of its template add and subtract from its quality. It starts strong with unique concepts and visual ideas, only to later devolve into a by-the-numbers Action game with dull environments.

If its gameplay had mixed with its alignment system better, really looked at what made God of War work, recognized the potential of its Relic system, kept up the variation in environments and added a tad more juxtaposition, it would’ve left a far bigger mark on the genre as a whole. Sadly, with EA’s return to its tried and true strategy and 2017’s closure of Visceral Games, it is doubtful that we’ll see Dante’s Inferno get the sequel it needed to elevate itself to new heights. 

鑒 reflection style 鑒

In this short section I reflect on the article from my own viewpoints as a gamer and lover of the genre instead of a critic.

As a game, Dante’s Inferno is a title I’d love to have the artbook of. I own quite a few, including that of Dead Space, and seeing how such a visually striking game came to fruition is always interesting. Playing it, however, is something of a mixed bag for me. While it works on a basic level, it never adds that unique flavour that makes me want to put the disc in after many months, lusting for what only it can offer like so many other titles do for me.

Its monotony sets in fast, especially in the final combat trials, but what really proved this point was the final boss. I didn’t want to lay it on too thick in the critique itself, but it is slowly going down in history for me as one of the worst engagements I’ve had the displeasure of experiencing in the genre. When fought on the highest difficulty, you’re faced with a nearly twenty-five minute engagement against a foe that can teleport off-screen at any time and kill you in one hit. It is an unbalanced nightmare where you’re practically forced to abuse magic-upgrades refilling your magic bar for near infinite Divine Armour. This has resulted in the game also having a skewed challenge run community, with many of the God of War challenge runners only temporarily diving into the title before leaving for other pastures.

Not all is doom and gloom however. I still consider the game to be very visually striking, and its plot interesting. Never before has there been a game that has so vividly captured the concept of Hell, at least for me. While later layers are a tad too similar in shades of brown for me, the way each layer handles concepts and combines them into its foes and layout is fantastic. I especially loved the Gluttony layer, and how it used teeth for its doors. Thematically I was also intrigued by the layer dedicated to those that had taken their own life, it being a withered garden of hanging roses – very poetic. Sadly it fell quite flat on a mechanical level and was quite short, possibly showing that they really were running out of time.

Would I recommend Dante’s Inferno? Sure. It is currently available on the Xbox One X in a slightly buffed form, looking great as most do on the console. It might not offer the most interesting combat, but any fan of the genre will find some fun to be had, if only for one playthrough.

It is a shame that we’ll never see just where the series could have gone. 

斬 postscript notes 斬

  • Stig Asmussen, game-director of God of War III, was very excited about Dante’s Inferno. He noted how much he loved the genre and was always interested in new entries and try them out. Stig went as far as to note: “As far as a threat to Kratos goes, I hope so. We need more great games in this genre”. What his opinion was on the game after playing it is unknown;
  • Apparently, EA isn’t officially abbreviated with a dot in between letters. The more you know;
  • The game’s highest difficulty, Infernal, is a chore. Because of flat number increases lots of fights boil down to long winded engagements, the worst of which is the nearly twenty minute final boss;
  • Despite gaining praise for its story by the gaming media, others were less than pleased over the portrayal of Beatrice. Certain members of the Dante Society of America – an institute promoting the study and appreciation of Dante Alighieri – called out how in the videogame she is changed to a damsel in distress, while in the original work she is an agent of the divine that saves Dante, instead of him aiming to save her;
  • I found that when sifting through the interviews on Dante’s Inferno before its launch, most conversations were about the Christian themes and its Unholy and Holy alignment system. When one questioned what set it apart from titles like Bayonetta and God of War, these elements were mentioned again and again;
  • It’s interesting that, despite Holy being the most powerful option by far, the game does seem to want to push players towards the Unholy alignment, and not just because it is the first weapon players get. It also has the most combos, combining light and heavy attacks, making for more varied combat than Holy which only uses one button. This bias towards Unholy also extends to judgments, where Holy’s executions require a Quick Time Event to pull off and found lost souls can only be absolved through a rhythm minigame. Subsequently, the Unholy path has no Quick Time Events tied to it, and lost souls are absolved instantly. Even the first relic gained is Unholy. A fun little piece of trivia;
  • The entire game’s plot was made into a feature length animation, which launched 5 days after the game’s release. Though it sports minor changes and doesn’t feature the game’s art-style, it is still an interesting film to sift through thanks to its gruesome visuals;
  • Aside from this, a movie is also apparently still in the works, though with how things are going with the IP this might not seem likely. The last news heard about it was in 2016, when director Fede Alvares (Evil Dead, Don’t Breathe, The Girl in the Spider’s Web) mentioned he was still working the script. The script would not be solely based on the game, but also take direct notes from the poem. Whether or not we’ll ever see the film come to life, we’ll have to wait and see; 
  • Due to the game ending on a cliffhanger, a sequel seemed inevitable if sales were strong enough. While 2011 gave some hints as to a sequel, it has since then remained silent. With the aforementioned closure of Visceral Games, the chances of this are slim;
  • One of the game’s types of foes, the unbaptized baby, caused controversy on release. Killing enough would earn players the “bad nanny” achievement. This wasn’t the game’s only controversy: some of its visual aspects such as the depiction of the Lust layer and elements of its marketing campaign also called certain groups to arms;
  • Despite plans for a sequel not coming to fruition, there were packs of Downloadable Content. Some were mere costumes like an outfit that matches the animated film, others were a short 1 hour chapter that adds a little to the story and some additional experience orbs and relics not found in the main game. Generally speaking these were not worth mentioning as they add fairly little to the game or at best are overpriced elements that should’ve been in the base game already;
  • Of note is the final expansion, Trials of St. Lucia. It added a new mode that allowed players to make their own custom challenge maps and share them online where they could be conquered by players either solo, or through online cooperative play. An extremely novel concept not seen often in the genre, so people rightly expected that it would have some faults. Players can sadly not test or do their own challenge maps and a high price point and laggy connections made the experience worse, paired with a small player base. The fact that it purely focused on combat, one of the game’s weaker aspects, didn’t do it any favours. Still, as a mode, we’ve yet to see something similar in the genre and it will be interesting when another game does something like it;


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