Games 2/9/10: Dante's Inferno, Darksiders, Chime

Dante’s Inferno
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: PSP
From: Visceral Games/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, sexual content)

It isn’t very original to half-dismiss “Dante’s Inferno” as a “God of War” knockoff, but guess what? “Dante’s Inferno” isn’t very original, either, because guess what? In every way beyond the source material that inspired its storyline, “Inferno” is the “God of War” knockoff to end all “God of War” knockoffs.

It’s good to preface this by stating that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing or even a criticism, because for the most part, “Inferno” pays pretty good tribute to the game that so obviously provided its blueprint. Dante executes his arsenal of moves with the same fluidity as does Kratos, and “Inferno” tosses nine circles’ worth of demons, behemoths and the damned at him without any wear whatsoever on the action, which cruises along at the same rocksteady framerate for which “War” is so well known (and, to Visceral Games’ credit, few “War” imitators get remotely right).

Though some will never see the transformation of the 14,000-line, 14th century Divine Comedy into a high-octane video game as anything short of blasphemous (and though they certainly have an argument), “Inferno” doesn’t trample the poem’s memory as it so easily could.

Visceral whittles Dante’s odyssey down to consumable levels, piecing the nine circles of Hell into objectives and environments designed around their themes. But while the game takes liberties in order to be a game, it stays faithful to the outline. Those who accept “Inferno” for what it is — a gutsy reimagination of a seemingly completely incompatible art form that in no way is meant to replace the original form — the translation is quite an achievement in terms of the balance it strikes between reverence for the original work and an understanding of what it needs to work in this context.

And if you don’t care about any of that, “Inferno” still is a solid action game that, like “War,” borrows from legend to create some visually awesome locales for its fights, platforming challenges and environmental puzzles. Chunks of the game fall prone to fights against the same old enemies, and the last circle absolutely phones it in with a series of challenges entirely too contrived to sustain any sense of narrative immersion. But “Inferno” hits more than it misses, and some of the imagery Visceral brings to life — waterfalls of the damned splashing into lakes of fire, walls made of souls screaming for redemption, rivers of blood — is effectively unnerving.

As if to acknowledge the fact that “God of War III” is barely a month away on the PS3, EA has sweetened the pot on the PS3 side with a forthcoming bonus prequel level that will be free to download in March. The PS3 edition also includes a making-of documentary, soundtrack, digital artbook and digital reprint of the poem.

But “Inferno’s” real downloadable treat (for both consoles) might arrive in April in the form of an online co-op mode that also allows players to create and share their own custom-designed circles of Hell. No telling yet whether it’ll be good or how much it’ll cost, but the teaser video on the disc hints at a pretty robust level designer that, in the right hands, will give the game some inspired additional legs.

—–

Darksiders
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Vigil Games/THQ
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, suggestive themes)

Games imitating games isn’t exactly press-stopping news, but it’s pretty well impossible to ignore the influences — “The Legend of Zelda” here, “God of War” there, a few other surprises in between — at play in “Darksiders.”

It also isn’t a bad thing, most particularly because in borrowing so many little things that make “Zelda” games what they are, “Darksiders” also manages to do one thing — kick players’ tails — they haven’t done in forever. “Zelda” fans who admire the series’ clever dungeon designs but long for the days when the games used to punish players might want to give this a hard look, because it’s pretty clear Vigil Games got tired of waiting and just took matters into its own hands.

“Darksiders'” story — in which War, the first Horseman of the Apocalypse, must redeem himself after accidentally igniting a war on Earth between Heaven and Hell — is darker and bloodier than your typical “Zelda” tale, but the little things that series (and often, only that series) does are nonetheless peppered all over this one.

A fairly robust overworld notwithstanding, the game’s primary action takes place in dungeons — some of which (wait for it) contain an item that (surprise) comes in handy in defeating that dungeon’s boss enemies. One of those items? It’s a boomerang, which War utilizes via a targeting system that’s an unmistakable descendent of “Zelda’s” near-proprietary Z-targeting system. Numerous puzzles utilizing the boomerang (and, among other “surprise” items, bombs that grow in plants) are cleverly designed in “Darksiders,” but “Zelda” pros almost instinctively will have some semblance of how to overcome them.

But while “Darksiders” isn’t short on influences, it also isn’t short on surprises. And while its dungeons are evocative of “Zelda” in numerous spots, they regularly surpass “Zelda’s” offerings in terms of scope. The satisfaction of toppling them comes compounded by the fact that, wholly unlike “Zelda,” the enemies lurking inside are formidable and occasionally brutal.

This is where the “God of War” influence rolls in. If you’ve thrown down as Kratos, a considerable chunk of “Darksiders'” combat — from the camera perspective to the controls to War’s finishing maneuvers to the orbs enemies spew upon perishing — should instantly resonate. “Darksiders” takes some welcome liberties by placing additional emphasis on evasion and counterattacks, and some will certainly appreciate that War’s finishing moves require only a single button press instead of a series of monotonous prompts. The weapons, move sets and terminology also are original, even if their influences are laid pretty bare.

Sincere forms of flattery aside, the sum total gels well… mostly. “Darksiders” occasionally stumbles when influences clash — relying on a targeting system designed for a much easier game can lead to fatal camera problems in tight areas packed with enemies, for instance — and there are occasional encounters that propel the difficulty to an arguably cheap degree.

For some, the biggest problem “Darksiders” will pose is its inability to change difficulty settings midstream. Players of so-so ability may want to swallow some pride and play on Easy, lest they continually succumb to one of these spikes and have no recourse but to start the game over.

—–

Chime
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: Zoë Mode/Valcon Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $5

Even if you don’t like “Chime,” you can feel good about giving it your five dollars, because developer Zoë Mode is donating more than three of those dollars to the OneBigGame initiative, which distributes those donations to the Save the Children Fund and the Starlight Children’s Foundation. Fortunately, players who love puzzle giants “Tetris” and “Lumines” most likely also will love “Chime,” which takes portions of both games, mixes in some Tangrams, and emerges with something serenely unique. The object in “Chime” is to arrange shapes (some straight out of “Tetris,” others inspired by it) into quadrants with the eventual hope of filling every block on the playing grid before time runs out. As in “Lumines,” a virtual beat line slides horizontally across the screen, and portions of the song play in concert with how many squares you clear in any given measure. “Chime’s” excellent five-song soundtrack, along with the fact that players arrange shapes at their pace instead of catch them as they fall from the top of the screen, makes for a experience that’s considerably more tranquil than those from which it draws inspiration. But while “Chime” offers enough mode flexibility to engage just about anyone, those looking to tackle all five levels with 100 percent completion will be shocked to find out just how entertainingly tall an order that turns out to be.