Dante's Inferno Review: Big Ideas, Small Problems

Dante Alighieri, real world 14th-century poet and cavalryman, is re-imagined as a love-struck crusader in this retelling of the poet's greatest work.

Dante's Inferno, one third of Alighieri's Divine Comedy, serves as the backdrop for this video game's story of the poet's search for real-world love Beatrice in hell. Players arm themselves with Death's scythe and Beatrice's cross as they hack and slash their way through the underworld, battling sins, demons and souls of the damned.

But can an epic poem that solidified humanity's image of hell and gave birth to the modern Italian language also make for a good, and more importantly, a meaningful video game?

Loved
Epic Poem: Dante Alighieri's 14th-century poem, Inferno, is mostly a field guide to hell with is plenty of allegory packed into Dante's figurative tour through the underworld at the side of Virgil. Cautionary tales and fables abound as he works his way down the circles of hell, constantly reminded how one can end up there. What makes Inferno such a powerful work is in how it so chillingly describes the repercussions of earthly sin.

It is here that developers Visceral Games stick closest to the source material and the results are spectacular. Walls seethe with souls clutching for solace. Hands reach from pools of boiling blood to drag you to your death. Each circle is minutely detailed with touches seemingly pulled from the poem, like carvings of Sisyphean torment tucked away in one area and the howling, gold-encrusted souls decapitated as you make your way through another.

Often, the scenery of a video game gets lost among the pomp of gameplay and story. In Dante's Inferno, the abhorrent landscape is as important as the characters and the story, perhaps more so.

Poetic License: Initially, I was put off by the idea of overlaying a traditional story onto such an important literary work. But Visceral's tale adds a much needed story arc, protagonists and antagonists to the game. And it's fairly well executed. In this new work, Dante examines his life on earth, his relationships and his sins as he works through what increasingly becomes a personal hell. That's fitting with the notion of Alighieri's Divine Comedy and its telling, perhaps leaning a bit on Milton's work, is a meaningful addition to the game.

Holy Unholy: There was a lot borrowed in the creation of this game. But there's also quite a bit that feels fresh. The most striking is the game's forking upgrade paths. As you make your way through hell there are damned souls that you can choose to punish or absolve. You can also snap up the lower minions of hell in battle and quickly pass judgment. Your decision grants you holy or unholy experience. This experience opens up the path to new unique abilities. While you can work on both the holy and unholy path, concentrating on one or the other means more powers.

Facing Your Sins: The landscape of hell is a powerful character in its own right, but that doesn't mean there aren't other manifestations of sin and evil. Each of the circles has their own take on the denizens of hell. These sinful souls have been warped by their misdeeds. Visceral's creations sometimes lean on the work of Alighieri's poem (such as Cerberus), but more often take a notion and turn it into something horrific and memorable.

An Infinite Tumult: Anyone who has played Visceral Games' Dead Space shouldn't be surprised at what an important role sound plays in the developer's version of hell. While sound is key to Alighieri's descriptions, the developers managed to dig much deeper than I expected into the source material and come away with something equal parts unnatural and unnerving.

Blessed Are the Gamers: Likely the most significant thing about this adaptation of a medieval cautionary tale about hell is how it manages to, on purpose or not, essentially evangelize. I'm not saying that I want my video games to tell me that sodomy, failing to be baptized or gluttony are all paths to eternal damnation. But the fact that a mainstream game does that, and does it so blatantly leaves me conflicted.

For many, gaming is a lighthearted, thought-free diversion and there are plenty of titles designed to tap into that market. But there are so few that deal with important issues in a consequential way. So the overt inclusion of a Christian Hell guided by Christan morality in a video game meant for a wide audience is a big deal. Not because of what it is saying about the afterlife, but because of what it says about the willingness of a publicly held, widely known game publisher to create something so steeped in controversy and not—beyond horrid marketing—allow that controversy to become the game. It manages to entertain and preach equally.

Hated
Hell Is Other Developers' Gameplay: There is a fine line between derivation and iteration, and Dante's Inferno spends the first half of the game dancing back and forth across it. It is impossible for those familiar with God of War to not see it peeking out from Dante's Inferno. Glimpses of the PlayStation series can be found in the button-tapping mechanic for healing and gaining mana, cinematic quick time events and the mix of puzzles and action. It's unfortunate, because Dante's Inferno is a deep and entertaining game. One that could have and should have found new, more fitting ways to deal with age-old issue of in-game replenishment, boss battles and movement.

The Rhythm Is Gonna Save Ya: One of the most unappealing aspects of this game for me is found in how you absolve the big-named damned of Dante's hell. It's a rhythm game. No, there's no music, but you may find yourself humming as you tap the face buttons of the controller to match timing of "sins" floating across a D-pad shaped cross. You could (and EA did) argue that this is meant to make the path of the holy more challenging. But challenging doesn't need to mean derivative and poorly designed.

Before The Shadowed Forest: Dante's Inferno starts out weak, very weak. You play through a fragment of what is sure to be future downloadable content, tearing through waves of generic enemies in a generic earth-side setting with a generic weapon. Fortunately, this odd prequel to the plot is very short lived.

A Swing and a Miss: If you absolutely must force people to jump and double jump and swing and climb, please make the mechanic work. Make sure the camera angle allows you to see where you are coming from or going to. Better still, just don't include it, it detracts from the experience.

I've come to understand that creating a game based on something revered doesn't mean it has to be a copy or endlessly quoted. To work, the byproduct has to just stay true to the intentions of that work. That's what Dante's Inferno does. You could fill a book about how hell doesn't have switches or big flashing symbols or life and mana, but those are just the trappings of gameplay and mechanic. Certainly, the developers could have done a better job of weaving those basics of play into the tapestry of their take on hell. But that shouldn't lessen the impact of all of the things they did right.

Dante's Inferno the video game is a metaphysical journey though and an animated illumination of medieval hell. It deals with morality and existentialism as aptly as it delivers an engrossing experience.

It is not without its issues, it most certainly won't be for everyone, but it does something that very few video games do: It opens the door for moral introspection.

Dante's Inferno was developed by Visceral Games and published by Electronic Arts for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 on Feb. 9. Retails for $59.99 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through the entire game on the default setting on the Playstation 3. Played through nearly the entire game on the easy and hard settings on the Xbox 360.

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