In the early 1300s the poet Dante Alighieri penned a three-part epic called the Divine Comedy about an amazing journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven. It was a controversial piece in its debut, and to this day remains an interesting source of debate and philosophy and the inspiration much of the modern ideas of Christian afterlife. Naturally this is excellent source material for… a third-person brawler nicking most of its gameplay from the One True Franchise that all third-person brawlers must now emulate by law for some reason. On paper this seems like about as good of an idea as turning a short story about the moral quandries of artificial intelligence and self-awareness into a sci-fi action flick about killer robots, but how shall the final product of Visceral Games’ and A2M’s efforts be judged?
Best book report ever? – Anyone worried that the epic poem was simply harvested for some simple monster and level ideas and then tossed aside, worry not. The development team went through the Divine Comedy cover to cover and found ways to use nearly every part of it. Taken as written one would think the poems would best take the form of some kind of point & click adventure game (or the best theme park ride ever), so making a brawler out of it required a few changes to the story. Rather than a poet, the Dante of this game’s story is a knight in the Crusades who tears hell a new one in search of his gal Beatrice, advised along the way by ghostly tour guide Virgil. Further, the levels and enemies that populate them are all designed after or at least inspired by the poem. There’s even a bit of tangential learning afoot, as after completing the game I decided to seek out a bit of research on the real Dante’s Inferno, as well as the other two parts of the Divine Comedy. Not many video games can say they inspired me to research 14th century Italian poetry. The bonus features menu even includes the complete Inferno, for the curious.
Hellish – If this game is any indication, hell is a very unpleasant place, crafted in an art style intended to unsettle and unnerve. There’s a few parts that stick out in my mind that folks may say is going a bit too far, but also remember this is hell we’re talking about; by definition it’s supposed to be the most horrific place imaginable. And this isn’t modern ‘don’t be a jerk and you’ll probably go to heaven’ afterlife. This is old-school ‘if you don’t cover your mouth when you sneeze you’ll burn for eternity’ afterlife. The environments are choc full of folks suffering assorted terrible torments for various offenses, and each circle is a bit more messed up than the last. The sound design gets in on it too; hope you don’t mind listening to the cries of the damned for the next several hours. In case you hadn’t guessed this is about as mature as mature-rated games get, choc full of nudity and violence.
No sympathy for the devil – In the first two minutes of the game you die and are greeted by Death, come to take you to you final resting place. A minute or two after that you kill Death, steal his scythe, and dive into hell to make a ruckus. The action continues on in this fashion of epic with lots of flashy visuals. The special moves you unlock are also niftily cinematic; the holy powers are all glowy and smitey, and the unholy powers cause all manner of evisceration. As a Catholic, I also must say there’s something kind of awesome about sprouting glowing wings and punching the devil in the face with a glowing laser cross.
Once more, with feeling – Thus I bestow upon ye another of my Commandments of Game Design: thou shalt incorporate new game plus whenever possible. One of my favorite bits of any game where I level up and get more powerful along the way is to savagely destroy the early levels with my endgame abilities, and upon completion Dante’s Inferno allows just that.
Good, bad, I’m the guy with the scythe – Games about religion often run a big risk of driving out the fun and driving away players by beating the audience over the head with the point. Perhaps the best move for this game then was that the development team didn’t start off intenting to make a game about religion, but rather they set out to make a fun Dante’s-Inferno-inspired brawler and let the religious aspects come in where they needed to. Nor does the story try to hold up Christians as infallible moral paragons; there’s sinners and saints amongst all peoples, and in fact the story (of both the game and the poem) can also be a critique of what happens when organized religion is twisted by the ignorant and/or malicious (for example, the Crusades). Wisely the game doesn’t try to preach to the player, but rather tells the story through Dante’s own failings and quest for redemption. The protagonist is not a very nice man, perhaps well-meaning but easily tempted to pretty much every deadly sin, and he’s got almost as many skeletons in his closet as he does facing him in battle. In this way I actually find him a more compelling character than fan-favorite Kratos, because for him the problems caused by a lifetime of brutal violence can be solved by causing even more violence on a ridiculous scale. Dante indeed hacks his way through countless legions of hell, but he also seeks a higher calling. He wants to fight for some greater cause, and both his past misdeeds and his future attempt at redemption involve him trying to figure out what that cause is. Whether or not you personally believe in heaven and hell and whatnot, you can enjoy the story of a deeply flawed protagonist on a journey that will cause him to question his faith, his self-worth, and basically his entire worldview. If you do share the ideas of Christian afterlife the game can be thought-provoking as you walk through a game world filled with people who gave into various vices and ponder what shennanigans the player has been up to in their own personal life. Look up Daniel Floyd and the power of Video Games and Tangential Learning at the link below for a bit more on the matter of expanding your mind through gaming.
Saint or sinner, but nothing inbetween – Daniel Floyd has crafted some very insightful videos on this topic; in short, many games that tout complex moral decisions really just end up presenting uncomplicated binary selections, and often only absolute good or absolute evil (clear choices which rarely exist in our real daily lives). Along the way you find assorted famous dead folks and can choose whether to absolve them of their sins or punish them and make them even more dead than they already were or something. Absolving leads to a mini-game where if you’re patient and have a good sense of timing you can net a lot of bonus souls (upgrade currency), while punishing just gives you a quick mid-size soul package. Most enemy types can also be absolved or punished, and again the punishment option is just one button-press while absolving requires a bit more time-consuming event of repeatedly mashing a button. Absolving or punishing also nets extra holy or unholy points to unlock more levels of powers on the respective skill trees. This unfortunately tends to take roleplaying out of the equation and change it from a choice (choose between options of indeterminate value) into a problem (choose the option that assure success). If you want to max out either skill tree on your first play-through you have to stick to either just absolving or just punishing for most of the game. Instead of ‘does this sinner deserve absolution’ or ‘should I risk getting hit to absolve these minions’ it comes down to ‘which powers do I want’. The superheroic feel of holding back on my attacks to try to save the enemies who are doing their best to destroy me was neat, but overall this mechanic doesn’t achieve its full potential.
Evil pockets (of broken immersion) – In the poem there is a part where Dante and Virgil must traverse ten bolgie, great stone ditches with stone bridges spanning them. In the game this translates to a series of challenge rooms. These would feel right at home as a bonus feature or something you could visit from an overworld map to go rack up some more souls, but shoehorned into the main game like this they just feel like artificial padding. Unlike the detailed and varied environments before and after it, the bolgie are a simple series of cut & paste rooms with only the slightest variations between a repeating pattern of a small corridor and a large room with a floating platform. Also unlike the rest of the game the challenges seem to have little to do with the sins associated with each area. I’m pretty sure there’s nothing in the poem about folks being punished for fraud by maintaining an air juggle for eight seconds.
Quick time events can go die in a fire – Another Commandment of Game Design: Thou shalt either use quick time events very carefully or not at all. I wouldn’t mind in the slightest if this game mechanic was taken out back and shot but it seems its here to stay so that developers can continue to essentially make cutscenes that you can fail at instead of either letting you do cool stuff or letting you relax and watch cool stuff happen. There is at least a slight darkening at the edges of the screen to let you know QTE is afoot, but the button to be pressed doesn’t always have a logical attachment to the action you’re supposed to be performing. Of particular note to PS3 players is that it’s a bit more difficult to make out which button they want you to be using because you’re looking for a symbol rather than a bright color. It’s not the worst application of QTE, but it still vexes me.
The beatings will continue until morale improves – Those hungry for deep combat tactics will go wanting. There’s little in the way of combos or strategy beyond ‘hit it a lot’ and ‘hit it really hard’. Most of it comes down to watching enemy attacks and either countering or dodging, and I spent a majority of the game just pressing Circle over and over until everything in the room was dead (or absolved).
Press X to roll the stone up the hill again – I can think of exactly one point in the game in which I thought ‘I’m glad they put the checkpoint right there’, and many more where I wanted to bop some level designers on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. There’s quite a few points where a checkpoint would have better been placed somewhere midway through a complicated sequence instead of back at the beginning of it, requiring some frequent repitition of complex (and often instant-death) trials. A particular favorite involves moving a gear on a lever back and forth to raise a platform while flames gradually envelop it. Go a little too slowly and 2-3 minutes of smashing and pulling must be redone in a mild case of what Shamus Young has coined DIAS (do it again, stupid) gameplay until you suss out what you were supposed to have been doing while you were engulfed in flames. This is time that could possibly better be spent smiting more demons.
The Final Word
After how much I disliked the demo I went into this expecting to tear the final product apart, but it was a pleasant surprise overall. At times the combat was bland and the puzzles vexing, but getting to play as a Christian character smiting demons instead of using allegorical characters in a fictional setting. You could easily trounce this one in the weekend, maybe a week tops if you really dig in to unlock all the powers and find all the hidden items. The subject matter also might just not be for everyone because it doesn’t pull punches with direct refrences to prominent figures and events in Judeo-Christian dogma. However, as mentioned above, the game isn’t trying to preach. It’s just an old story about love, death, betreyal, miracles, failures, redemption, and other classics, with a protagonist who has a higher goal in mind beyond ‘just keep stabbing things in the face until the situation improves’. It may not be a good buy unless you’re a completionist, but it’s certainly worth a rental. Between PS3 and 360, the former has nicer shading but the latter has marginally better texture and smoother animation, and as mentioned above more easily discerned QTEs. The PSP version compounds the PS3 version’s problem with QTE, vexingly makes tutorial popups take up most of the screen, and tones back the graphics as appropriate to the hardware, but otherwise appears to retain the same storyline and largely the same combat.
Dante’s Inferno was played on the Playstation 3, and is also available on the Xbox 360 and the Playstation Portable. Initial retail price was $59.99, and current prices are about the same or slightly lower. The ESRB has rated this game M for Mature for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Nudity, and Sexual Content. Dante’s Inferno is developed by Visceral Games, ported to the PSP by Artificial Mind & Movement, and published by Electronic Arts. All copyrights property of their respective owners.