Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Peek Into Dante’s Inferno

This is the oldest painting of Dante and yes he was saying that. Prerelease impressions of Visceral Games/EA’s Dante’s Inferno have varied greatly.  On one hand, I hear people saying, “Man, it sure is fun to play God of War on an Xbox 360,” and on the other I hear people saying, “Why the hell does the Devil want a pair of sweet-ass tits?”

Having played the demo (previously exclusive to the PS3, now out on Xbox Live), I can sympathize with both sides.

For one thing, Dante’s Inferno is silky smooth.  EA can’t release a presser without saying “60 frames per second” at least thirty times, coming off like some six-year-old who won’t shut up about that goddamn Alvin and the Chipmunks sequel – excuse me, Squeakquel.  At least EA isn’t lying; this game glides.  I don’t know why I’m seeing what I’m seeing (more on that later) but what I’m seeing looks technologically potent.

Such a powerfully competent engine suits the God of War-ripoff combat extremely well.  Like Sony’s last-gen cash cow, Dante’s Inferno asks little of the player in the way of combat prowess.  You’re invited to mash on buttons, perhaps memorize your favorite combo, and have at it.

Okay, so playing Dante’s Inferno can be fun.  But what about the other side of the debate?  The side that declares this a shameless attempt to cash in on hundreds of years of name recognition to help sell a game that is a shameless attempt to copy God of War.  Well, playing the demo left me with a lot of questions.  Mostly in the ballpark of “What the hell just happened?”

Who is this Dante and why do I care?  The demo (and presumably the game) opens with a cutscene that shows Dante, a soldier in the Third Crusade, stitching a red cross tapestry into his chest and, rightfully so, screaming.  He doesn’t wear a shirt.  He just has some magic fabric in his chest.  How is it magic?  Well, the camera zooms in on it and there are cartoons playing on it – cartoons with varying levels of animation (think one part medieval tapestry in motion, one part Animatrix).  It’s some sort of backstory, though I still had to delve into Wikipedia to figure this shit out. 

So Dante and his crusader pals raid the city of Acre.  After slaying a crap-ton of dudes at 60 fps (see above), he gets to the Citadel, only to be stabbed by some shmuck.  Then Death shows up, bony scythe in hand, and tells Dante he’s going to Hell.  Dante’s pissed because apparently the Cardinal (or King Richard, I don’t know) lied to him about the army about their sins being absolved.  Dante, heretofore shown as some random Crusading knight, then decides to murder Death and take his bone scythe

It was at this point I thought, “Virgil’s never showing up*, is he?”

Why is the smoke monster from Lost after a pair of sweet-ass tits?  So Dante kills Death and rides home, presumably to bone his broad.  Much to his chagrin, he arrives to find her dead, sword in her gullet, one breast needlessly exposed.  Her topless spirit starts floating to Heaven, but she doesn’t make it because Lucifer, taking the guise of the smoke monster from Lost, snatches her away.  Again, I had to consult the Wiki on this one.  The new rule in Hell is that if Lucifer can capture a soul destined for Heaven, he can break out of his icy prison.  If that’s the case, why hadn’t he done this already?  I mean, come on!  Babies died all the time in medieval times.  And if he’d just waited until a baptized baby croaked, he’d have been home free.  Why he had to mess with Dante and his well-endowed honey is beyond me.

Why did they try to make the God of War experience clunkier?  As I said before, God of War lacks the complicated combo strings of the Japanese-developed Devil May Cry series and its cousin Bayonetta.  Like God of War, Dante’s Inferno wants the player feeling very powerful all the time, so combos are quick and easy and yield results with flashy visuals.  Thus it’s a mystery to me why Visceral included the momentum-stopping Punish/Absolve mechanic.  Every time you grab a foe, combat effectively grinds to a halt while you choose whether to Punish or Absolve the poor soul (you’re granted bonuses on some kind of Light Side/Dark Side scale accordingly).  Not only is it jarring, it makes no sense.  Why can Dante, some random Crusader, do this? 

Also, remember the annoying God of War treasure chests that required you mash on a button to pop them open?  Dante’s Inferno has those, except the chests are fountains.  I don’t understand why I have to mash on the B button to drink from a magical fountain.  Just put your mouth under it and drink, Dante.

Who let them call this Dante’s InfernoIf Mr. Alighieri had an estate, he’d have shut this shit down tout-suite.  Why does Dante have a magical cross that can shoot glowing white crosses?  Why is there a Rancor in Hell?  How long will it take me to unlock that baby-killer achievement?  The only thing less similar to the Divine Comedy source material is Coney Island’s Dante’s Inferno ride. 

For all it’s bombast, God of War succeeds because Kratos feels like he could have existed in Greek mythology.  Andrew looked at this in detail a while ago.  In a mythos of horny gods and dickish heroes, Kratos fits right in. 

There’s no such analogue for the bizarre world Dante’s Inferno inhabits.  Dante is simply a dude with a magical tapestry sewn to his pecs out to save his girlfriend from the Devil.  I’m not sure that I’ll be able to appreciate it’s competent gameplay come launch time because I’ll be too distracted by all the stupidity encasing it.  I’m more excited to laugh at extensive plot summaries of this game than I’ll ever be to play it.

* – Virgil does show up, actually.  Instead of guiding Dante (It’s A Wonderful Life- or A Christmas Carol-style) through Hell, he grants him the ability to cast a magical ice spell that comes in handy later when Dante’s fighting fire demons.  I wish I were kidding.