A man tears apart slaves, sews a cross into his chest and dives head-first into hell â€“ not exactly what you might think of if I were to say â€œinspired by classical literature.â€ But although it’s the newest IP developed by EA’s Visceral Games studio (creators of Dead Space and The Godfather) it’s a bit misleading to call Dante’s InfernoÂ “original.” Both in concept and execution, it’s difficult to describe the title to gamers and non-gamers alike without immediately calling to mind the game’s 14th-century inspiration or other titles with near-identical gameplay. And while I’ve enjoyed the majority of fresh releases that EA has put forth over the past two years, I’m left with very mixed feelings after completing the Dante’s Inferno demo, which is now available on the PS3 and Xbox 360. In a rare stroke of irony, although several games last year seemed to have suffered from a great-concept, poor-execution syndrome, EAâ€™s first 2010 effort seems be exhibiting exactly the opposite problem – great execution, awful premise.
Â Look into my eyes…
The premise, for the uninitiated, is equal parts familiar and confusing. Â Based loosely on Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy”, the original poem detailed the journey of main character Dante being led by the Roman poet Virgil through a walking tour of the medieval concept of Hell. Symbolism abound, itâ€™s an incredibly lyrical and fascinating piece thatâ€™s had a very long-lasting impact on religion and society in general. EA’s Inferno, on the other hand, finds a relentless crusader Dante slashing his way through the nine circles of hell (with Death’s scythe, no less) to free the soul of his late wife whom Satan seems to have claimed. It’s a classic “rescue the girl” plot – albeit a very graphic one – that has more in common with God of War than it does with Mario or classical literature.
And by “more in common”, I mean to say that Dante’s Inferno could easily be mistaken for a God of War spin off – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The game plays like a very well-constructed third person action title – Dante darts back and forth between waves of enemies, effortlessly swinging his gargantuan scythe and ripping apart legions of demons with simple yet upgradeable combos, all to a silky-smooth 60 frames per second. “Light” and “Strong” attack buttons are mapped to the square and triangle buttons respectively, while x allows for a jump, and circle shoots forth a white “cross” projectile, handy for defeating winged baddies or for dousing flamed-enemies that wouldn’t normally be touchable. Add to the concoction a handful of magic-infused attacks, a few quick-time event bosses, and the ability to either “absolve” or “punish” enemies for their sins (the former of which grants you more experience points for upgrades but leaves you helpless for a few seconds), and you have the closest cousin to Kratos to ever fight outside of Greece. The controls are responsive, each hit has a nice sense of impact and combat mechanics genuinely feel good.
But if there’s one thing to set Dante’s Inferno apart from other action titles arriving early this year, it’s undoubtedly the eerie, disturbing and unabashedly Christian symbol-infused environments. Each of the nine stages is said to contain landscapes and enemies that represent one particular circle of hell, and from what I’ve witnessed thus far, there’s very little being held back in favor of not pushing the envelope. (If you haven’t heard of the demon-hatching breasts from the boss of the lust stage, well, that’s just the beginning.) And although I can imagine it would be quite difficult to create a game centered on the concept of hell without Christian imagery, I was still shocked at the amount of religious symbols flashing across the screen throughout the course of the fifteen minute demo. To say it felt a little awkward would be an understatement – am I rooting for God if I kick the devil’s ass?
A thinking man’s game…
Indeed, from what I’ve been able to experience thus far, although Dante’s Inferno looks and feels quite good, my concerns lie more with its underlying concept than anything else it tries to achieve. It’s not very often that a piece of classic literature becomes the basis for a video game, and while Dante’s seems to be shaping up to be a fine third-person action title, the idea of taking the rich, symbolic commentary presented in the original poem and shoehorning it into a hack’n’slash just seems to be missing the mark. Hopefully the full release will offer either a few thought-provoking moments or bits of self-referential humor â€“ for a title that will surely involve ridiculous settings, enemies and attacks, taking itself too seriously could prove to be a major obstacle to creating something special. Alternatively, the game could offer environments so unique and haunting that I would be able to recommend it to my literature-major friends as a fresh take on the classic inspiration and not as a shallow, violent depiction of the original work.
It remains to be seen whether the game will find success upon release amidst the likes of other action juggernauts like God of War III, but if the final release is nearly as bold and brazen as the demo I’ve played, I’m sure it will leave its mark among one crowd or another. Although theyâ€™ve proven themselves as being capable of creating great atmospheres in prior titles, we’ll just have to wait and see if Visceral and EA are able to craft an experience with Dante’s Inferno that more than absolves it of its sinfully unoriginal nature. Here’s praying.