When I was in high school, one of the coolest homework assignments I ever received was the chance to create my own version of Hell. My English class had just finished poring over the Inferno part of Dante Alighieri's "Divine Comedy," and it was really the first time we'd been asked to envision eternal damnation as anything but a giant canyon full of flames. We got a sense of structure. Dante's Hell had levels, a hierarchy of suffering tied to depictions of punishment that were chilling, creative and disgusting.
That made it awesome.
Naturally, my first thought was, "This should be a game."
Why not? Alighieri provided stages, boss characters and more than enough narrative to serve as the backbone for design. I promised myself that the moment I saw a good-looking movie or game about this subject, I'd be there.
Enter Dante's Inferno, the so-called answer to my prayers. Looking back, there are probably better things a Catholic school kid can pray for than an artistic, interactive rendition of Satan's dwelling. Also, the funny thing about prayers is that sometimes, when you get an answer, it's not always the one you want.
Visceral Games, the EA studio that produced this, deserves a lot of credit for having the stones to build a third-person action title around a 14th century poem. They forged ahead, God of War comparisons be damned — no pun intended — and produced a solid piece of button-abusing fun that's also pretty in its own dark, frightening way. Unfortunately, veteran action-game fans will have a very hard time shaking the massive specter of Kratos that hangs over the gameplay, and the experience also nearly chokes itself to death near the conclusion, castrating whatever chance it would have had to be a real classic. Literary purists might also cringe at the many liberties taken with the original Inferno work.
Instead of an author being led by the hand through the nine circles of Hell (as outlined in Inferno), you play a knight named Dante, a man who did some very terrible things during the Crusades and has sewn a cross-shaped tapestry on his bare torso to atone for them. His wish is to go home to his wife, Beatrice, and live a blessed life. Unfortunately, he comes home to find a big cross buried in the eye of his father and a sword staking Beatrice to the ground. Beatrice's soul appears to Dante, glowing and beautiful, ready to reach out to him until the moment is cut short by her getting yanked into Hell. Dante, brave soul that he is, journeys into Hell to try and get her back.
Dante's not without some kind of help during his quest, and that's established at the start of the game, before he goes home to Beatrice. You open up the combat in the city of Acre, where you get random enemies tossed at you so you can get used to the extremely simple melee combat system. You have buttons for light and heavy attacks, much like Kratos does. For most of the game, that's enough. Dante uses a halberd for most of the Acre battle until he gets stabbed in the back. Death, complete with dark robes and a scythe, arrives to collect Dante's soul, but Dante's not ready to go yet. In the game's first boss battle, Dante fights Death for his soul and actually wins, finishing off Death with a God of War-style Quick Time Event (QTE) sequence. His reward is Death's scythe, which functions as Dante's chief hand-to-hand weapon in Hell.
The other weapon is Beatrice's cross, which shoots out waves of holy light that blast through the creatures of evil. Both the scythe and cross can be upgraded via the collection and spending of the souls Dante collects with every kill — again, much like God of War. When you upgrade, you can invest in holy and unholy powers and attacks. The holy stuff, naturally, feeds into the cross while a little unholy tinkering gives you more devastating attacks with the scythe.
With this combat layout, Dante starts his descent into the circles of Hell, which the game breaks down into Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence, Fraud and Treachery. It's through the representation of these circles where the game attempts to capitalize on its chance to make its mark artistically. For the most part, it succeeds.
Visceral's interpretations of the circles of Hell using the power of the 360 and PS3 alternate between being truly stunning and somewhat disturbing. The depiction of the shores of Acheron, for instance, is amazing. Acheron is the place where you run into Charon, the boatman charged with carrying souls to Limbo. However, instead of being a boatman, the game has turned him into the boat, with a giant head that bellows out warnings, orders or general messages of doom for the seemingly endless lines of souls feeding into him. It's a good first taste of the game's sense of scale, where Dante will sometimes feel extremely small compared to many of the things that Hell offers. It's here where the game also throws some more gameplay nuggets at you, such as wire and wall climbing, or using the scythe's extendable handle to turn it into a grappling hook of sorts to enable Dante to swing to certain areas. This comes in especially handy when Dante has to actually descend from one circle into another.
Other levels of Hell offer their share of visual highlights. One particularly striking level was the circle of Violence, which features the river of boiling blood and the shrieks of the souls trapped within it. It's also got the creepy Wood of the Suicides, with its warped soul trees and other forms of mind-bending flora and fauna.
Then there's the circle of Lust, which crosses the line between edgy, artistic interpretation and poor taste. If the constant moans and groans from the winds of torment don't start to bury themselves into your psyche, the barrage of phallic and organic imagery made to remind some of bodily openings certainly will. There's a carnal tower that rises from the ground that Dante needs to climb, all while being harassed by a clothing-optional, 50-foot version of Cleopatra. The game is rife with some epic boss fights. In addition to Cleopatra (and Mark Antony), you've also got to deal with the three-headed demon Cerberus, King Minos, Dante's own father and, eventually, Lucifer himself.
Throughout this odyssey, the most joy one gets from Dante's Inferno is simply battling through the hordes of Hell that get spilled onto your path. You can mash buttons to your heart's content and watch Dante work his combinations of scythe-fighting and the unleashing of holy light. The game also appeals to your moral compass, as players have a chance to either punish or absolve certain souls they encounter. One of the first souls I found was Pontius Pilate, the Roman official who ordered Jesus Christ to be put on the cross, even though he didn't see what Christ's crime was. If you punish a soul, you end up tearing him or her apart with a vicious attack and getting a lot of points toward unholy upgrades. If you choose to absolve someone, you engage in a mini-game featuring a cross that can catch souls with a well-timed press of the face buttons. Absolution also provides a lot of juice for holy skills.
But one of the things I have a very hard time forgiving is how the experience neuters itself near the end, killing almost all of the momentum built up from the previous hours of play. The culprit is the terrible Fraud level, an egregious buzzkill of a stage that immediately turned this game into a homework assignment.
While the other circles of Hell were rife with varying art styles, creatures, puzzles and boss characters, the Fraud level is broken down into a list of 10 busywork tasks, such as "Get a 100-hit combo" or "Stay in the air for eight seconds." That's right: The stuff one would normally do for bonus material has the power to stop you from facing Lucifer. Your quest can end with chores. The level itself is drab and boring; each task takes place in a room that looks the same but with a few minor adjustments, like new statues indicating which sinners are supposed to be there. Oh, and there's booming narrative from Beatrice, as if you're part of some tour group visiting a very uninspired exhibit. I will never know why the decision was made for the Fraud level to be like this (No time? Run out of ideas? Trying to be ironic?). All I know is that it sapped enough of my enthusiasm for the game to the point where I couldn't fully enjoy the Treachery circle and the ending battle against the Devil. When a game stops you from getting hyped up for a fight against the Prince of Darkness, you've got problems.
Overall, I see Dante's Inferno as a noble effort and interesting spin on a made-for-gaming body of work that falls short of the rarified air enjoyed by other legendary action titles. I kept having flashbacks to the Blades of Chaos and Mount Olympus at times, and few games run out of gas at the end like this one does. The conclusion signals that there's more to come, but I hope that next time, the experience carries through to the end.
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