- Dante’s Inferno
- CLR [rating:4]
Release Date: February 9, 2010
Platforms: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 (version reviewed)
Developer: Visceral Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: God of War Clone
Even though Electronic Arts has spent enough money on Dante’s Inferno’s marketing campaign to buy and sell all of Greece (too soon?), none of their efforts have managed to shake the typical gamer’s impression that the game may be the most shameless God of War clone ever made. Both games feature warriors from bygone eras with permanent red bodily scarring struggling with anger control issues who are in conflict with oversized interpretations of religious icons taken from classic literature everyone had to read in high school. Both games have essentially the same control schemes, fixed cameras and instant-kill grab attacks that prevent the smaller enemies from feeling like much of a threat. But the biggest similarity, and this is the important part, is that both games are ridiculously good.
Both bullet points of the previous paragraph – derivative but of very high quality – should come as no surprise when one considers that Visceral Games, the developers of Dante’s Inferno, also brought unto the world 2008’s Dead Space, which was atmospheric and exciting despite shamelessly cheating off of Event Horizon’s homework. Dante’s Inferno never successfully shakes off the feeling of déjà vu that results from going all “Single White Female” on the God of War franchise, but the result is less insulting than one might imagine. This is The Magnificent Seven of videogames, shamelessly transporting functional elements of a classic and well-remembered original and adapting them effectively into a new cultural mold.
The culture in question is of course Catholicism, and in particular the vision of Hell described in Dante’s Inferno, the classic text that more people have been forced to read in high school than actually enjoyed. Sadly for all of those English Lit slackers out there, the videogame Dante’s Inferno will not act as a Cliff’s Notes for a hastily written midterm. Instead of telling the tale of Italian writer Dante Alighieri as he journeys towards enlightenment through the Nine Circles of Hell (followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso, the often neglected books in the trilogy), this Dante’s Inferno tells the tale of an entirely different Dante, a soldier in the Third Crusade who abandons the Holy War after a near-death experience shows him an afterlife in Hell for all of the sins he committed in the name of God. He returns home after ritually scarring himself in penance for his wrongs only to find that his wife, Beatrice, has been murdered and that Lucifer himself is in the process of taking her soul to Hell. Dante quickly learns that her damnation is entirely his fault – although the game never fully explains how that works – and follows Lucifer down to Hell. There he faces off against scores of demons and the damned while repeatedly confronting the corruption in his own soul.
Despite the many and accurate accusations of artistic license lobbed at Dante’s Inferno, the developers deserve credit for their adaptation, which effectively uses the world Dante Alighieri created as a well-defined backdrop to tell a different tale altogether in which the protagonists just happen to have similar names. The story they do tell is as compelling as most action games get, with a protagonist who manages to be a great warrior and feel really guilty about it without ever succumbing to any annoying whinery. As we discover throughout the game, Dante is not much of a “hero” and arguably deserves to be damned to Hell for his various sins, but this only makes his path to redemption all the more suspenseful. The fact that Beatrice’s own journey to Hell is never fully justified would ordinarily seem like a serious flaw in the narrative, but in practice it serves to act as the only part of Dante’s suffering that seems unjust. He may deserve to go to Hell for all the Lust, Deception, Murder, and countless other atrocities he convinced himself were in God’s name, but Beatrice doesn’t, and Dante’s epic journey to save her for just that reason is all that is needed to keep him sympathetic and as complicated as a videogame protagonist tends to get.
The controls are, as stated above, pretty much lifted wholesale from God of War, but like God of War they are fully functional and intuitive. Gameplay never feels like a chore, except perhaps for a bit towards the end of the game when Dante has to pass through a seemingly endless number of “Challenge Rooms” in which the only obstacles to overcome are arbitrary; some, like “Survive the Battle for Five Minutes,” or “Defeat All Enemies Without Using Magic,” are reasonable, but others require players to suddenly master gameplay elements that were never necessary before, like using mid-air combos to stay above the ground for 8 seconds, or defeating enormous hordes of enemies using a single combo. Other gameplay nitpicks include rooms filled with deathtraps that could not be predicted until they have already killed Dante at least once, which seems unfair but these rooms almost always have an auto-save point right outside of them, preventing a mere annoyance from escalating into a painful experience.
If anything, the only truly distracting elements of Dante’s Inferno come from the game’s system for leveling up, which allows the player to improve certain aspects of gameplay by “Punishing” the damned, and other aspects of gameplay by “Absolving” them. This system actually works fine, but it raises the very valid question of “Exactly what right does Dante have to absolve anyone, when his own hopelessly corrupted soul is laid bare throughout the entire story?” It’s a plot point that comes up so very often throughout the game that it’s outright disappointing that no attempt is made to explain it, although it is fun to come across sinners like Elektra or Pontius Pilate and ask yourself, on a personal level, whether they actually deserve to be punished for their famous transgressions. It’s like an English Literature discussion group, except the moral questions raised by the narratives must be answered, and those answers actually affect the outcome of the story.
Dante’s Inferno gets no points whatsoever for originality, but it’s such an entertaining, suspenseful and gorgeously designed videogame that it would be a shame for anyone to dismiss it based on poor marketing or the uninspiring downloadable demo. Visceral Games has proven themselves once again to make solid entertainment with striking visual aesthetics, and luckily for all of us seem to be growing a bit as storytellers as well. Maybe someday they’ll give us something we’ve never seen before, but if all of their rip-offs turn out as good as Dante’s Inferno… then I’ll be damned if that’s not kind of heavenly.