When EA announced that they would be publishing a video game adaptation of the fourteenth-century poem Inferno, there was some apprehension from gamers and fans of literature. Dante Alighieri’s story of a poet wandering through the nine circles of Hell may not have been the most obvious source for a new game, but the developers at Visceral Games, the studio behind Dead Space, seemed up to the challenge. For the most part, they have managed to make the first book of The Divine Comedy into an entertaining action-adventure game that could be the beginning of a brand new franchise. The loose adaptation of the epic poem may not be very innovative, but Dante’s Inferno is a fun and wonderfully presented vision of Hell, though it is sometimes marred by frustration.
Unlike Dante Alighieri’s version of the title character, this Dante is a crusader, not a poet. A warrior of the Third Crusade, Dante returns home to find his family brutally murdered, and is almost immediately thrust into a fight with Death. After obtaining the Grim Reaper’s scythe, Dante enters Hell in pursuit of his true love, Beatrice, and finds that she is suffering for his sins. The only way he can get her back is to delve deeper into the nine circles and save her pure soul from Lucifer himself. Along the way, Dante is occasionally guided by the poet Virgil, who introduces each circle of Hell by explaining the sins committed by the souls trapped in each section.
After starting out in the City of Acre, which serves as a prologue and tutorial to the game, Dante finds himself in Limbo, the first circle of Hell. Each section of the underworld follows Dante Alighieri’s literary depiction, with Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, and finally Treachery being explored by the warrior in his pursuit of Beatrice’s soul. Between the City of Acre and the Ninth Circle, Dante’s past is slowly revealed in animated flashbacks, unveiling his backstory bit by bit. These segments of the game stand out for their stylistic differences, but are enjoyable to watch. He also comes face to face with figures from his own life while in the underworld, making the journey much more personal. The narrative of the video game quickly diverges from the epic poem, with Visceral making it their own, while taking many descriptive details from Dante Alighieri’s work.
Dante’s Inferno controls similarly to other third-person action-adventure titles, particularly God of War and Devil May Cry. With the game being labeled a “God of War clone” almost from the time the first trailer was released, this shouldn’t really come as a surprise, but the lack of originally is still disheartening. Dante’s melee weapon is the scythe he took from the Grim Reaper, and he also has a ranged weapon, a Holy Cross that fires damaging energy. Additionally, Dante can use magic found at certain points throughout Hell, and equipping relics to his scythe will grant him additional powers. Aiding the God of War comparison is the fact that Dante’s Inferno relies heavily on button mashing and Quick Time Events for combat and other aspects. By the end of the game, you’ll likely be tired of mashing the circle button every time you want to open a door, but these elements do not feel out of place for this type of game.
Throughout the course of the game, Dante will have the option of absolving or condemning the souls of the creatures he’s constantly fighting, which will give him holy or unholy points; this is just one of the gameplay elements that result in Quick Time Events or button mashing. Becoming more unholy will make Dante’s scythe more powerful, while leveling up the holy side makes using the cross more effective. There are also more powers and bonuses that can be unlocked by spending collected souls and reaching higher levels of both holy and unholy. Leveling up either side will also make more skills and bonuses available, such as attack combinations or a longer health bar. While you can try to do both, it’s likely that you won’t master either side this way, so ultimately it is up to the player whether the scythe or cross is more important.
Throughout the nine circles of Hell, Dante may also come across some famous historical figures that appeared in Alighieri’s poem. For example, damned lovers Francesca da Polenta and Paolo Malatesta can be found in the circle of Lust, while more egregious sinners like Fra Alberigo reside in the deeper sections of Hell. Upon finding these souls, Dante can condemn or absolve them as well. While damning them results in a simple and violent animation, absolving these sinners will result in a button-pressing minigame, which serves its purpose at making absolution a little harder to achieve, though it does feel somewhat out of place.
Unfortunately, even though Dante’s Inferno recycles gameplay elements from other titles in the genre, it doesn’t make any improvements. Furthermore, while technically sound, the game definitely has some issues that could have been addressed before the game shipped. The fixed camera in particular can make some sections of the game more aggravating than they need to be; there were times when attacking enemies are just off-screen, and instances when it is hard to tell if you’re about to step onto solid ground, or off a cliff. Also, for all of the combos and special attacks that can be unlocked on both the holy and unholy sides, players will likely rely on simple melee and ranged attacks for the majority of the game. Ultimately, despite the options, the combat ends up simply feeling shallow, and when combined with enemies that are more cheap than challenging, some sections of the game can feel needlessly repetitive and irritating.
Without a doubt, the presentation is the strongest thing Dante’s Inferno has going for it. The developers have made a wonderfully haunting adaptation of Dante Alighieri’s Hell, and each circle is distinctive, with appropriately themed scenery and enemies. You’ll fight waves of demonic unbaptized babies in Limbo, be accosted by a giant, naked Cleopatra in Lust, and see pools of gold in Greed. Sinners trapped in walls cry out, the figures that you condemn will cry for mercy, and the score is appropriately dramatic. The one weak spot in the presentation is the dialogue, which can be a bit silly at times, taking away from some of the more serious moments.
Despite the characteristic themes represented by each section of Hell, there are times when the circles blend together a little too much, ruining the illusion that each one is a separate entity. Also, some sections of the game end a little suddenly, with no indication that the circle has been traversed other than Virgil telling you so. Since battles with massive bosses can occur at any time during each section, the transition from circle to circle isn’t always as smooth and obvious at it should be. A few boss fights pop up at the end of an area, while others happen right away. The difficulty of these fights is also inconsistent, with some having cheap mechanics that make the entire battle seem like a chore, while others feel appropriately grand and epic.
If you can look past the fact that Dante’s Inferno is a very loose adaptation of the classic poem, the game offers eight to ten hours of fun occasionally interrupted by unnecessary annoyances. Though it’s an entertaining game, it doesn’t do anything original, and feels like it never quite reaches its full potential. With the game’s ending and source material pointing towards an obvious sequel, one can only hope that the developers take the time to work out any issues before releasing another game in the series. Visceral’s vision of Hell is nicely presented, but the derivative gameplay drags down the experience, and it’s likely to be left in the dust when God of War III hits store shelves.