Mini-Review: Dante's Inferno
December 09, 2011
This article was originally published at Kombo.com on March 10, 2010.
Electronic Arts turned a lot of baffled heads when the company announced a video game inspired by / based on the classic Divine Comedy epic poem, but the end result is actually better than it has any right to be. Turning Dante's Inferno into a big dumb action game in the God of War mold for the Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360 makes for an interesting exercise, as protagonist Dante must descend into the circles of Hell after his beloved Beatrice is slain and her soul taken into the underworld by the devil himself who intends to make her his unholy bride and Queen of Hell. The ensuing adventure goes deeper than you'd expect, as the player is actually drawn into the action and becomes part of Dante's trials. Comparisons to Sony's God of War and its progtagonist Kratos are inevitable, as the two games have plenty in common. Both games star a morally gray hero who has done unspeakable horrors in the name of religion, who were one day pushed too far, and who now vow revenge against powers greater than each. Both games play largely the same with similar camera perspectives, control schemes, and skill tweaks. Both games even have a combat power-up system through which slain enemies become a form of currency used to buy upgrades. While there are many glaring similarities, Dante's Inferno has a unique twist that sets it apart from Kratos's saga when it comes to thematic presentation and the playing of tricks on the player beyond mere gameplay mechanics.
The game opens on Earth as Dante fights on the orders of the Church in the closing days of the crusades. Slaughtering dozens of innocents and heathens, he is told by the bishop that all of his sins will be absolved for doing the Lord's work (never mind that during the course of the war, the crusaders steal, rape, pillage, and commit unspeakable acts all their own). Instead his reward is to be knifed in the back by a heathen, summoning the specter of Death to take him away. Unwilling to go along quietly, Dante fights the Grim Reaper, eventually stealing his legendary scythe and using it to cleave the skeletal ghoul in half. Yanking the knife in his back free and tossing it away, Dante returns home to find his father slain, his house ransacked, and his lovely lady murdered in cold blood in the backyard. As he approaches her body, her soul escapes and is promptly taken away by the smokey form of Lucifer. Pledging to rescue her, Dante plunges into the underworld, and this is where Dante's Inferno takes things up a notch.
Armed with Death's scythe for melee combat and his wife Beatrice's holy cross for long-range attacks, Dante begins to descend through the circles of Hell: Limbo, Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, and Betrayal. Each circle serves as its own level packed with the appropriate enemies and obstacles. What is especially interesting and what makes the game a deeper experience than one would expect is that each circle's theme reflects back on the player, drawing one into the particular circle in question and creating a secondary challenge that the player, not Dante, must overcome. Consider the following examples. There's Limbo; a nice, generic, non-threatening-yet-damned place that serves as something of a basic guide for what one can expect in the underworld. It is here that Dante collects his first stat-altering artifact and learns the basic flow of Hell. Then there's Lust. The last half of that level is spent as Dante scales the inside of a large phallic-shaped tower while the circle's boss, a giant Cleopatra, climbs the outside. Cleopatra is topless, and the camera has a knack of focusing on her bare breasts as they jiggle into the foreground when it should be aimed at the enemies Dante is attempting to slay. If the player is distracted by Cleopatra and is tempted by lust, then there's a risk of failing the challenge. Then there's the Greed circle in which there are many useful but hard to acquire artifacts and power upgrades that could be of great use to Dante. The problem is that most of them are guarded by extra-deadly traps or swarms of enemies. Of course, the player could just walk on by, skip collecting these optional upgrades, and bypass the traps and demons. Giving in to one's greed for these upgrades could lead to being stuck in this circle of Hell for longer than necessary. All of you out there who insist on collecting each and every last in-game item, take note. Moving on, there's the Anger circle in which the game throws wave after wave of powerful demons at Dante. This is the circle where poor Dante died the most and was, by far, the most frustrating and rage-inducing circle of them all. The Violence circle is loaded with weaker enemies, and by this point in the game Dante has become significantly powerful, turning the adventure into a slaughter and serving as a nice release after the Anger circle as players mow down dozens of monsters. The Fraud circle is structured differently than all of the other circles in that it's actually made of ten sub-circles known collectively as the Maleboge. Fraud is the only one of the circles to not turn out what it seems to be. Finally, down deep in Betrayal is a stunning plot twist that will not be spoiled here except to say that the moment that the entire storyline seems to have been building towards does not play out as one might anticipate.
Dante's Inferno runs thematically deeper than many would expect, allowing it to rise above being a mere God of War knock-off. All along the way through Hell are historically notable damned souls such as Pontius Pilate, Hecuba, and Electra that Dante (as in, the player) can choose to punish or absolve. Punishing a soul completely destroys it and gives Dante a power boost to the scythe, while absolving powers the holy cross. Each damned figure comes with a quick explanation of its sins, giving the player free reign to deal out the appropriate response. While Dante prospers from the end result either way, presenting the choice at all is an interesting exercise of free will and is actually one of the few examples of it in the game, as Dante is actually on an inevitable collision course with the aforementioned plot twist. Very little in Hell is under Dante's control, so these damned souls and their fates are a notable exception. It's easy to find oneself absolving most of them, as the game presents their sins in a sympathetic light. Sure, maybe they stole gold or murdered innocents, but there must have been a compelling reason for their actions, y'know? That said, the deeper I went into the hell, the less forgiving I became.
Dante's Inferno is a game made of good old fashioned nightmare fuel. The circles of Hell provide many visually memorable moments, the first of which happens when the setting transitions from Earth to the underworld. Dante flees inside a church in the scenic countryside, but it's not long before the back wall shatters and falls into the gaping supernatural abyss that is suddenly on the other side. As enemies swarm into the room, the stone floor begins to give way as well, giving the first look at some of the horrors to come as Dante falls deep below. Lust features the previously mentioned topless Cleopatra who is simultaneously arousing and revolting. One moment her breasts are distracting players, and the next her nipples disgorge a mixture of foul-colored ooze and the damned figures of unbaptized babies, all of which have blades instead of hands for some reason. The Gluttony circle is built from intestines, stomachs, and other digestive organs. Gluttons wander the area, vomiting and defecating for attacks. Greed sports lakes of molten gold in which the damned writhe, their scalded hands reaching out for Dante as it leaps overhead. False idols made of previous metals are common in the Heresy circle. Then, after spending the entire game mucking through various forms of fire, the Betrayal circle shifts gears and is built entirely of ice. The sudden visual shift is jarring and serves as another one of Hell's tricks as the setting betrays one's expectations.
The PlayStation 3 version of the game is presented as the Divine Edition and includes several extras that other versions of the game do not provide. The original Inferno portion of the Divine Comedy can be scrolled onto the screen two lines at a time which is a nice addition, but is basically unreadable in this state. The interface takes up just as much if not more of the screen then the actual text. The soundtrack is accessible through in-game menus as something of a throwback to the Sound Test modes of yesteryear. Concept artwork of settings, enemies, heroes, and villains are worth a look, while developer video diaries give an inside look into the making of the adventure. Finally, new copies of the game include a free DLC code for the first wave of extra content. The Dark Forest DLC takes a page from The Legend of Zelda's Lost Woods by providing a wooded maze for Dante to explore and purge of enemies. Despite being labeled as a prequel mini-adventure, the story does not quite mesh with the main game's narrative, as Beatrice's soul appears to Dante here before we see it leave her dead body at the start of the game and Dante appears here with a completely powered-up skillset. It's worth a look considering that it's free, but it doesn't add much to the experience that the main game does not already provide. A fun addition in the DLC is an extra costume for Dante: a swinging 1970s disco suit which serves as obvious wordplay on the Inferno.
One almost has to feel sorry for Dante's Inferno, as it's a title aimed at the God of War audience released on the eve of the next actual God of War title. Inferno is a fun adventure, doesn't overstay its welcome, and treads deeper than expected. It presents the original epic poem as a big dumb action game, but this is not a negative criticism. The poem has been begging for this sort of presentation long before the entertainment medium needed to do it justice existed, and while one could say that we've come full circle on Dante's Inferno, the game is not satisfied with being merely a good game. It's a whole new IP from Electronic Arts and came into this world fully formed with a tie-in animated movie, comic book, and a planned sequel to the game (as the narrative here ends with an outright "To Be Continued...", so do not expect much closure at the end - another way that the Betrayal circle works thematically). God of War fans will enjoy Dante's Inferno but will most likely pass it over right now given the timing between the adventures of Dante and Kratos. Anyone looking for new sources for horrific imagery will also enjoy it, but again, that's not a negative criticism. This game is rated M-for-Mature for a damned good reason. If nothing else, Dante's Inferno will leave a lasting mark on players. Consider it recommended (particularly for its thematic elements).