Is there some game developer's guidebook that I don't know about? If so, I need to find it and tear out the page that says "cloning God of War = best idea ever."
To their credit, Dante's Inferno developer EA Redwood Shores doesn't shy from their original IP essentially being God of War set entirely in Hell. Lead Designer Steve Desilets shrugs off the accusation comparison with the statement that, "You have to be careful when you innovate not to shun convention."
But in honoring convention, I wonder if Dante's Inferno hasn't shunned innovation entirely – not to mention the source material.
What Is It? Dante's Inferno is the first part of a 14th Century Italian epic poem about a Crusader named Dante who is lead through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise by Virgil and later his lady love, Beatrice. This is the game of the first part where Dante and Virgil go through Hell and escape Satan. Players take the role of Dante and Virgil acts as a sort of NPC expository character you find throughout the game to "guide" you through the linear adventure/platformer levels.
What We Saw There was a single demo level for games journalists to try during EA's noisy Spring Break Event. It's the Limbo level, which is the First Circle of Hell in the poem. I watched one journalist play through the entire thing, dying a couple of times before completing it, which took about 20 minutes and then it was my turn.
How Far Along Is It? Pre-alpha — the major elements of the level are there and likely not going to change, but dialog and text were missing in chunks, some animations weren't in place at all and the graphics were jagged enough to cut your eyes.
What Needs Improvement? It's a God of War Clone: It's hard to appreciate a game for itself when its so focused on being some other game. There are obviously going to be some similarities between third-person action-adventure games that feature a section in Hell. Hell's imagining in the minds of Man hasn't really changed much in thousands of years, so when Dante climbs down a wall made up of people with grasping arms, I can't call that a rip-off of the beginning of God of War 2 in all fairness. However, most major elements in the game that I saw like the colours of Mana, Health and Souls are deliberately and directly lifted from God of War. The controls are cribbed, too, only modified to fit Dante's scythe for the combos; and even the simple task of opening a door or accessing a Mana/Health well involve mashing the Circle button in a mini quicktime event — just like God of War. It feels like EA isn't even trying to make a game; they're trying to make a mod that re-skins everything Greek to be Christian (like Dante using a cross to activate the Mana/Health wells).
Visually Exhausting: I get it, we're in Hell — it shouldn't be pretty and each Circle of Hell has to stick to a specific theme so as not to completely shuck the poem. However, it's hard to look at the same grim, gruesome depictions of souls suffering, bodies writhing and big, monstrous monsters doing monstrous things for level after level after level — Nine Circles in all. I spent only 30 minutes in Limbo, but it felt like a lot longer; and even if that's "the point" of the level, it certainly isn't something I appreciate.
Weak Sense of Scale: Part of what worked for God of War was the sense of scale the game got from using various cinematic camera angles during gameplay. As Kratos would climb a wall or round a corner, the camera would sweep to take in a vista or angle upward to make Kratos's foes look epically huge. As of now, this is one thing Dante's Inferno doesn't copy – or at least doesn't copy well. The camera always feels like it's too far back and remains mostly fixed just behind Dante's shoulder blades, which is kind of a boring angle that makes Hell seem like a very claustrophobic place.
Stick To The Source More Often: Limbo was a disappointing level not because it looked like God of War's Hades, but because it didn't look like what Limbo is supposed to look like in the poem. In the poem, un-baptised babies and virtuous pagans go to Limbo, so they're not "punished" for sins with agony or irony or any of that stuff that happens in the other Eight Circles of Hell. In the game, though, Limbo looks like a flame-scorched cavern that the River Styx runs through and the babies develop scythes for hands and enjoy mobbing unsuspecting Crusaders while still sobbing like real babies. Seems EA was in such a rush to rip off God of War that they neglected to work with their source material beyond cramming Virgil in every so often.
Annoying (and Somewhat Pretentious) Death Screens: Whenever you die in Dante's Inferno, you get a loading screen with a random line from the poem on it. That's going to get old real fast.
Quicktime Events: Hate them. Hated them in God of War, hate them now.
What Should Stay The Same? Potential Differences: Limbo didn't have much to show in the way of originality — but we did get glimpses at mechanics that are supposedly more prominent in other levels of the game. One of those mechanics is the tamable creature; at one point early on in Limbo, Dante could kill off demons riding larger demons and then take their reigns himself, which switched up the appearance of combat a little (if not the mechanics). The second of those is the Punish/Absolve mini-game which we didn't get to see anything of except for a placeholder screen. According to Desilets, the game will be about betting souls to save a Shade — someone who's not really in Hell or Heaven yet — which may or may not impact the ending of the game.
It Looks Like Hell: Limbo may not have been true to the source material, but it certainly looked like what you'd imagine Hell to look like.
It's a God of War Clone: If nothing else, this will make purchasing decisions easy for God of War fans — because if it looks like God of War and plays like God of War and you like God of War, then obviously you're going to like this. For my part, the controls weren't complicated and menus and combos felt natural if only because they were familiar, which I count as a win. If you're going to clone a mythology-based action-adventure game, you should a) clone only the most successful one and b) clone it well.
Final Thoughts Nobody said that a cloned game is automatically a bad game; if you do it well and what you're cloning is really awesome, then it follows that the clone should be equally awesome, right? So in that regard there may be hope for Dante's Inferno. However, EA might want to start showing off what's different about Dante's Inferno instead of all of the things that are the same as God of War. That was their big pitch, right — that this is a badass retelling of Dante Alighieri's story? If they don't get around to proving that soon, somebody's going to be rolling in his grave.