Title: Malebolgia
Platform: Windows, Steam

Reviewed on: Windows
Genre: Action
Players: Single Player

Written by Bad Demoman 28th April 2015

Some games leave a lasting impact on you, and one of those games for me is Dark Souls. It's game that changed my gaming sensibilities. You can't quite go back after playing Dark Souls. Many other games just don't seem quite as challenging without cranking up the difficulty, and even then tankier enemies that deal more damage don't quite compare to Dark Souls' excellence in frustrating yet satisfying difficulty. But after putting a ridiculously large number of hours into Dark Souls across multiple playthroughs, I started craving something new.

Malebolgia is a game currently in Early Access on steam developed by Jochen Mistiaen, and it's very reminiscent of Dark Souls. In fact, that's what drew me to it in the first place. It's attracted a lot of comparison, and at first glance it does seem quite similar. So does it compare with Dark Souls, and perhaps more importantly, should it be compared to Dark Souls at all?

Malebolgia gives very little information to the player on the offset, beyond a short tutorial that tells you the controls. Your weapons consist of a halberd and a torch. Your halberd can be used for a strong, slow attack or a faster, weaker one. Your strong attack can be modified to move forward during the wind up, although I found this a tad inconsistent as to when it happened. I know it has something to do with moving forward at the same time as doing it, but I can't seem to get it every time I want it. This move is not mentioned during the tutorial (As far as I can tell – the tutorial gives you instructions based on your position, so perhaps if you are far away enough from your enemy, it will tell you about this move) so I've not been able to quite work that one out. Your torch can be used for a very fast, short range swipe that will interrupt enemies actions but does very little damage. I didn't find it particularly useful but it does open up opportunities for aggressive, risky playstyles. I preferred a more pensive approach. For this, I ended up using the block, and particularly the dodge. The block works a bit more like a parry than a full on shield block – once activated, it will prevent damage to you for a few frames. Some enemies attacks are unblockable, but there's always an obvious tell for this – whether this is the attack being fire or magic-based, or the enemies eyes flashing. The backdash has no invincibility frames as might be expected from a seasoned Dark Souls player, but it covers a fairly large amount of ground so it's still very useful.

Combat in Malebolgia is a considerably less acrobatic affair than that of Dark Souls. You are also unable to heal during battle, instead healing by lighting candles. This, combined with your lack of shield, makes all your actions riskier and more decisive. This more thoughtful style of fighting is fitting, as rather than ''The Chosen Undead'' or some muscle-bound protagonist, your character is a battle-weary general advancing in age. It would be slightly disconcerting to see him rolling all over the place through his enemies attacks.

The game is heavily inspired by Dante Alighieri's Inferno. Unfortunately I can't claim a great degree of familiarity with Alighieri's works other than an exceedingly basic knowledge, but the setting drew me in nonetheless. I can surmise with my amazing(-ly bad) deduction skills that the mansion the game takes place in seems to be an allegory for Hell itself. Your character awakens in a mansion. He does not recognize any of men – some of whom are less human than others – but they address him with familiarity. Without any real goal given, you're left to pretty much explore the mansion as you see fit. This lack of direction can lead to the problem of not knowing where to go, and since many rooms of the mansion look quite similar your sense of direction can be muddled easily. Thankfully, Mistaien seems to know this as he's recently upgraded the map system and added a bit more flavour to the rooms.  The mansion is suitably eerie, assisted greatly by the unique art style. Even if there weren't horrible creatures roaming the halls of the mansion, it still doesn't seem like a place I'd particularly enjoy roaming. The whole place is dark, and lighting the various candles on the walls that serve to recover health makes little difference to the dark surroundings.

So your sole solace and source of light is the insubstantial glow from your torch. The first time you come across an enemy, you are looking down a long hallway and can't quite make out any details, but you can see a crouched shape with glowing eyes. It's quite intimidating, and I found myself not wanting to approach it at first. Even after mustering my courage and advancing on it, I was cautious and edgy. This is something that Malebolgia achieves particularly well – the atmosphere keeps you on at guard and on a razor's edge the whole way through. But even expecting some terrible horror to strike me at any time, it still caught me out quite often. The scares didn't feel cheap and didn't make me jump out my seat screaming like a YouTuber on facecam, but they did unease me and give me the occasional missed heartbeat. I'm not usually a fan of horror games due to the jumpy aspects, but I thoroughly enjoyed the unsettling spirit of Malebolgia.

Malebolgia fills a very different role from Dark Souls. Its gameplay isn't as fast (not necessarily a bad thing!), but Dark Souls has never really been a game that I considered unsettling or scary. It may not have scratched my Dark Souls itch, but I'm definitely glad that my search for a similar experience has drawn me to this different one. Malebolgia is extremely promising. In spite of its Early Access status, it is perfectly complete and playable from start to finish, with the updates largely consisting of polishing and improving the game. I can heartily recommend this game, whether you're a fan of Dark Souls' combat, creepy atmospheres or even the work of Dante Alighieri (not a recommendation that I get to make particularly often!)


Thoughtful, challenging combat,

Genuinely unsettling without jump scares.


Easy to get lost within the mansion.

Written by,
Bad Demoman

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