Malebolgia treads where few games have: a game more than justt inspired by Dark Souls, but holistically interested in the entire body and structure of From Software's masterpiece. Most developers are happy to proclaim their love for Dark Souls and desire to examine and incorporate certain systems from it into their own product, but few have the gull to lift the entire design of the game. Malebolgia, previously a Early Access game by Jochen Mistiaen, attempts to do that, but on a smaller, more focused scale with a simplified combat system and a character-driven story to support it which is inspired by poet Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy.
But there's a reason why no one tries to copy the entirety of Dark Souls' being; mainly because it is too complex, sophisticated, nuanced, and large to accomplish effectively. And indeed, Malebolgia fails almost completely in its goals. At every turn, Malebolgia is riddled with issues which cripple its design and the story it wants to tell. There is something promising about the castle of Malebolgia and its more horror-driven direction, but it lacks the production to realize its ambitions.
You control a named character in Malebolgia with his own backstory in Leopold, lord of palace of Malebolgia who has been away from his land for a long time. Old, beaten down and on the verge of irrelevancy, Leopold awakens in the castle to find his court and queen have become cold, twisted versions of themselves in addition to his palace becoming infested by a demon scourge. Leopold delves into the depths of what was once his home and kingdom, seeking a way to escape the blizzard and demon horde that have invaded Malebolgia. And on the way, discover the truth of what has prompted this hell to descend upon him and his family.
Having a set main character with an established history is pretty far removed from the more ambiguous and esoteric nature of storytelling in From Software's Souls games. It's a strong first step in establishing its unique identity, but almost immediately falls as its aspirations towards Dark Souls squander it. The characters in the world you talk to and the tone of the story is still in that mysterious, convoluted style of the Souls games which made it hard throughout Malebolgia to connect with any of the characters or the more character-driven narrative because of how cold and lifeless the whole story and cast feel.
This works for Dark Souls because its more player/plot driven and tells most of its story through details in the environment and items, so that cold and distant atmosphere makes sense. Dark Souls isn't interested in making you fall in love with its characters, but rather its entire world and mythos. All Malebolgia has are its characters to drive its story, and this specific style of writing just doesn't work out for it. By the end of Malebolgia, after the final revelation is revealed, I honestly felt more confused and disinterested than anything else. Which is a shame because if you dive deeper into some of Malebolgia themes, there is some interesting things at work in the story, but it never fully realized.
And unfortunately, the gameplay systems fare far worse in their executions and desire to emulate Dark Souls. The combat is slow and deliberate, with animation wind-ups which makes you consider your every action before you even make it. But whereas Dark Souls' combat felt nuanced and calculated, Malebolgia feels stiff and shallow. You only have a single weapon throughout the entire game, and you only have two attack types to use -- a light and heavy move. Combined with a simple block and a dodge, you have very few options in the tight corridor fights in the palace of Malebolgia. And more often than not, you'll get stuck and destroyed in the corner as the dodge move can only move you backwards, not sideways.
With how clumsy and imprecise the combat feels, I often felt like I was trying to game and sidestep the system. It made me feel like I was breaking the game when I was hitting enemies through pillars, or running around with my weapon stowed away until my foe blew a big attack, and I never had fun doing it. But the alternative was engaging with the game on its own terms, and that felt even worse as I tried to chain together awkward and ineffective combos.
There are a decent amount of boss fights in the game which, in theory, are designed to test your combat abilities that you've learned fighting the more numerous, standard foes on your way to these more epic encounters. But in actuality, most of the boss fights are fairly simple and straight forward, and Malebolgia only knows to make them more difficult toward the end of the game by throwing multiples of them at you at once. Not only that, but frequently you'll re-encounter bosses you defeated earlier but just in a higher number, which is silly as it seems like Malebolgia is testing my patience more than my skill. It's borderline insulting that Malebolgia wants to test what I've already mastered before instead of introducing anything new.
The palace of Malebolgia is perhaps the most promising aspect of the game's actual execution. Malebolgia is actually a large, layered world that has a grim atmosphere constantly present. And with the sound of the blizzard outside pounding at the walls, I found it actually quite satisfying to explore Castle Malebolgia. But like every other aspect this game, it didn't take long to find fault with the demon invested estate.
Malebolgia has a stripped-down simple look that is obviously utilized because of the smaller production scope of the project which honestly doesn't look too terrible. But once you start discovering how big the castle is, you then begin to notice how similar everything look. Rooms are repeated throughout the entire play space, and with a borderline useless map at you disposal it's easy to get frustratingly lost in Malebolgia. This is an issue where the art style actually gets in the way of the experience of playing the game, which I have rarely encountered before. Running around in circles while trying to figure out the terrible map is one of the most frustrating experiences that I've had with a game this year.
On the other side of its production values, in the case of the audio design there isn't very much to talk about. Malebolgia employs a more atmospheric and ambient score which left very little of an impression on me. There are some cool instances throughout the game which sound, voices and music will drift through the walls to you, guiding you better than the map in the game every could. I wish that there were more instances of the game trying to tell its story though sensory details to bring its world to life, but these moments are few and far between.
Some of great games that have ever been developed have been obviously influenced by best games of the time, but also some of the worst have also been created based upon this same trajectory. Malebolgia has a lot of promise, but nearly all of that is squandered thanks to lacking execution and weak design. A lot of this can most likely be blamed upon the limited production of this small, independent product, but this is not a valid excuse. Malebolgia is a Dark Souls clone that rarely gets anything right, and even when it does whether it be its atmosphere or story, it frequently finds some way to undermine even these aspects of its being.
TWO OUT OF FIVE
(A bad game with an abundance of flaws which outweigh its positive aspects)