Find a way to escape from the deepest circle of Hell.
PC Release: May 6, 2015
By Ian Coppock
Winter nights can be beautiful, but they’re also dark and cold. The hoary chill of a winter evening can exude a forbidding atmosphere (they don’t say the night is dark and full of terrors for no reason). Some game creators recognize the cold of a winter’s night and develop games that capitalize on that feeling. Some of them even add a light bit of horror on top of the wind chill, just in case said chill wasn’t isolating enough. Malebolgia is one of those games, and it also seeks to be the herald of doom.
Malebolgia (not to be confused with last week’s Miasmata) is a third-person horror game created by Belgium-based developer Jochen Mistiaen. The game borrows heavily from Dante’s Inferno and other works, depicting Hell as a frozen wasteland instead of the stereotypical fire-and-brimstone realm of Not-Mordor(TM). Malebolgia also emphasizes themes of sin and crime, carrying that motif in everything from its lonely storyline to its intoxicating atmosphere.
Malebolgia begins when Leopold, an old European nobleman, wakes up in a dark palace. It doesn’t take long for him to realize that the palace is on the shores of an icy lake, which itself is at the very bottom of Hell. Leopold can’t remember how he ended up here, but he resolves to find a way out of the palace and, God willing, a path out of Hell. With nothing but a small torch and his trusty halberd, Leopold sets off into the solemn halls of Palace Malebolgia.
Leopold quickly discovers that he’s not alone; the palace is inhabited by a lively mix of demons and undead souls. The latter have rebelled against the demons for control of the palace, leaving Leopold in the middle of a war for supremacy. Some of these souls Leopold knew in the mortal world, while others have as few compunctions about trying to kill him as the demons do. Perhaps most mysteriously, Leopold keeps catching glimpses of a beautiful young woman whom he swears he’s seen before.
The only way for Leopold to get out of the palace is to fight his way through its creepy denizens. Malebolgia challenges players to take on hordes of hideous creatures and find a way out, even if that means also confronting uncomfortable truths about Leopold’s past. Malebolgia‘s dungeon gameplay closely resembles that of the Legend of Zelda series (ironic, considering that the game’s cel shaded aesthetic looks just like The Wind Waker).
Malebolgia‘s movement controls are fine enough, but the game stumbles out of the starting gate with some tragically clunky combat. As Leopold, players have to judge when an enemy is winding up for an attack and make sure to either dodge or parry when it happens. That sounds okay on paper, but Malebolgia‘s fighting controls are both slow and occasionally unresponsive. Leopold has a similar setup for his own fighting style, making most encounters in Malebolgia a tedious game of chicken.
Additionally, Malebolgia suffers from sparse save points. Some of the boss battles in this game are quite difficult, but the title foregoes putting checkpoints near boss rooms. Instead, players have to fight through crowds of minions or jog down long corridors as penance for having failing their last attempt at a big fight. Fortunately, most bosses can be dealt with once players memorize their attack windups. Tease an attack out of them, bounce out of the way, then launch a devastating counter-attack with the halberd.
Astonishingly for a dungeon-style adventure game, Malebolgia doesn’t provide a map. Players who find a key have to remember which locked doors they might have passed and how to get back to those parts of the palace. Most of the palace’s rooms are laid out in symmetrical patterns, but the basement and a few other locations are much easier to get turned around in. Malebolgia‘s omission of basic navigation tools is… eyebrow-raising, to put it politely. It certainly doesn’t help players who have short memories.
Malebolgia‘s gameplay shortcomings make the game feel shallow, and it’s regrettable that such basic facets of third-person adventuring weren’t implemented in the title. Though the game runs well enough, Malebolgia also features a limited options menu. It opens with the standard Unity resolution and graphical quality options upon starting the game, followed by a few token toggles in-game. Occasionally Malebolgia‘s achievements may not activate, but achievements are a complete waste of time anyway, so… meh.
It’s a shame that Malebolgia doesn’t have better gameplay, because its art direction and atmosphere are on point. The palace is one of the creepiest environments to be featured in a recent third-person horror game and comes complete with ghoulish white walls, dimly lit ballrooms, and hidden basement catacombs. Players will still want to explore this dismal place even without a map. It’s a creepy joint not unlike Beast’s castle in Beauty and the Beast: a lair that juxtaposes towering beauty with unsettling sights. The game’s cel shading also adds a nice touch.
Likewise, Malebolgia‘s music is morbidly beautiful. Leopold is seldom accompanied by music as he explores the palace, but occasionally gets mournful piano melodies as he walks around. Boss fight music gets pretty spooky, with frighteningly high strings and sharp, acidic vocals that heighten the sense of danger. For anything that can be said about Malebolgia‘s gameplay, its artwork, level design, and lighting demonstrate a much keener attention to atmosphere.
The most sophisticated aspect of Malebolgia‘s game design is its narrative. As previously mentioned, Leopold can’t remember how he ended up in Hell but wants desperately to escape the palace and its cold-blooded denizens. He spends most of the game on his own, but occasionally meets up with characters who claim to remember him from times past. The dialogue in these interactions is written to provide just enough of an unsettling implication without going into full spoiler territory. The exchanges make artful use of hints to keep players guessing what’s really going on.
Additionally, Malebolgia‘s story is heavily textured with themes of sin and remorse. Most players can probably infer that Leopold didn’t end up in Hell for no reason, and the tale of his being in the palace is a dark one. Some of the characters that Leopold meets are representative of remorse or punishment, and the story gets additional exposition in the form of the occasional poem-laden cutscene. Suffice it to say that Malebolgia‘s ghostly story is a beautiful, sad piece of writing. It wouldn’t look all that out of place in a 19th-century treatise on Dante’s Inferno.
In essence, Malebolgia is a journey to discover the truth in a hostile, depressing world. It’s a game that runs on a combination of sub-par hack’n’slash gameplay and dramatically higher-par (?) storytelling. The game is a study in extremes, challenging players to uncover a genuinely good story but also admonishing them for it through clunky gameplay. It’s a game that looks beautiful and feels forbidding as only good horror games can, but is also mired in needless frustration.
Like its protagonist, Malebolgia is tragic. It has a decent story and great art direction that gets muddled by poorly implemented gameplay. Players on the lookout for an uncommonly good horror-tragedy might be able to stomach Malebolgia‘s gameplay, but anyone disinterested in narrative or atmosphere should give it a wide miss. Developer Jochen Mistiaen has story and atmosphere down pat in his game design; if he becomes equally proficient at gameplay, his next title could be incredible.
You can buy Malebolgia here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at email@example.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.