Review
Dante’s Inferno

By Jonathan Ore - August 1st, 2011

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Dante’s Inferno is an utterly baffling game to write about. On one hand it is a completely derivative, by-the-numbers large budget action game – a shameless, wholesale rip-off of Sony’s God of War series. The monsters are one-note, your wife is a sexualized damsel-in-distress, and your final enemy is Lucifer – a familiar asshole of an antagonist who you fight to the end in an apocalyptic arena. You wade through tiny enemies and later fight bigger enemies who you finish off with brutal quick-time events. On the surface it’s a smorgasbord of been-there, eviscerated-that.

On the other hand, it’s an adaptation of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, a seminal work of literature from the 14th century. It is an historical source that, unlike several Greek epics, has not been plundered for popular culture’s sake with great frequency. In its portrayal of the Underworld, developer Visceral Games pays a startling amount of respect towards the original material; so much so, in fact, that dismissing the title entirely because of its derivative game-play would do gamers a grave disservice.

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The ghost of Virgil, the Roman poet, is sent by Dante’s wife Beatrice to guide him through Hell, as he does in the book (never mind the real Beatrice Portinari was never Dante Alighieri’s wife). He appears in multiple locations, quoting the original text as you, a hulking warrior wielding a scythe literally ripped from Death’s hands, descend the Circles of Hell on the way to a final confrontation with Lucifer.

Virgil’s ghastly representation is a more cultured companion than typical AAA-Game muscle-bound broskis. Instead of fist pumps and innuendos he dispenses lines from the poem that remain beautiful and haunting even in a modern-day slash-em-up video game:

“All the Earth’s treasure that is beneath the Moon, or ever was, cannot give relief to these weary souls. What a mockery is made of the brief battle for possessions that makes so short a life.”

It’s a long way from Bulletstorm’s “dick tits”, isn’t it?

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What’s particularly brilliant about Visceral’s Inferno is how characters and scenes in the poem appear in the game. Virgil’s excerpts are collectible: sometimes he appears along the scripted path to introduce the next Circle of Hell; other times he’s only content to dispense his wisdom to intrepid explorers who find him stuck behind a door or wall of wailing corpses. The Souls of the Damned are icons of history mentioned in Dante’s text, such as Francesca de Polenta or Mordred (son of Arthur). They are similarly scattered about the game, acting as the main subjects of player choice: you can either Punish or Absolve them, contributing to two sets of in-game powers and abilities. Combined with the Circles of Hell providing the level framework sprinkled with set-pieces ripped directly from the narrative, like a Phylegyas escorting Dante across the Styx, Visceral’s Inferno ensures that no gamer can ignore the beautiful verse and lasting historical figures.

Visceral put a lot of effort in its “Divine Edition” extras to call attention to the source text. Foremost is the Dante in History mini-doc, where the game’s producers and designers talk about the poet’s life and portrayals of the work throughout history. As a promotional film, it’s hard to say how honest everyone is about just how much they seem to love the original Inferno, but the inclusion of scholars like Dr. Steven Botterhill, Associate Chair of Italian Studies at Berkeley University and author of two books on Dante, adds credibility and genuine insight to Alighieri’s life and work.

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Fantasy and sci-fi artist Wayne Barlowe developed the concept art for most of the game’s levels and monsters. His formidable portfolio includes art for James Cameron’s Avatar and Barlowe’s Inferno, his 1998 imagining of Hell. The warped imagery of the game almost brings to life his previous work, going beyond the typical video-game tropes of Forest Level, Fire Level etc. His artistic direction makes a hulking rock monster version of Phlegyas and the Lust Tower – a structure in the form of a massive penis – somehow fit together into one unifying image of Hell.

All of the elements from Dante’s Inferno are used in the videogame with enough care and respect for the source that as a result it’s almost a shame that the game-play and main narrative are nothing new. Re-casting Beatrice as Dante’s wife and “Alighiero” as his father feels completely unoriginal, especially when they share the spotlight with Virgil’s verse and Barlowe’s magnificent rendition of Hell.

But perhaps it’s for the best; because while I slice through enemies without a care, I can spend more time appreciating the terrifying monsters with their misshapen limbs and piercing screams. I can admire the scenery filled with rivers of corpses drawn through history by William Blake and Gustave Dore. And maybe, just maybe, some people initially enticed by Dante’s mega-sweet scythe on the cover will get bitten by the literary bug and check out a copy of Dante’s work, or Dore’s paintings.

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