Vintage Game Club 2.0
Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 28

Dante's Inferno


I like Dante's Inferno. There. I said it. It's off my chest, and I feel like a new man. Since I'm in a confessional mood, I might as well spill all the beans, so I'll admit that I even prefer the game to its source material, Dante Alighieri's epic-poem medieval Christian vision of Hell. To all the reviewers who (rightly) panned the game for its repetitiveness, I say have you read the book? In this regard (and this regard only), maybe we should praise the game for fidelity to its source. Oh boy, here comes the hate mail.

Of course, we all know Dante's epic poem is merely a wrapper for the game's actual source material: God of War,  so it seems fair to judge Dante's Inferno against that highly regarded measuring stick. But I won't. We also know EA promoted the game with a repugnant marketing campaign that many of us found offensive, so it seems fair to appraise this game with that in mind too, but I won't do that either.

Considered on its own merits as a hack-and-slash adventure, Dante's Inferno is a terrific, if occasionally flawed game. Set in a series of grotesquely redolent environments, the game features an addictive combat system with responsive controls, a variety of interesting weapons and over-the-top allegorical bosses, and an art style born of Caravaggio with striking chiaroscuro lighting. Dante's Inferno looks and plays like a self-assured high concept game, even as its gameplay reminds us we're in wholly derivative territory.

We were supposed to hate this game, and I was fully prepared for the task. EA did its best to kill my desire to play it, so when Dante's Inferno finally appeared I peeked at a few lukewarm reviews and moved on. Inferior God of War clone with lots of gratuitous nudity. End of story.

Then something interesting happened. I met a human being who helped build the game - a developer from Visceral who worked on the visuals - and we had a conversation. I asked him what he thought about the response to the game, and he said, "Have you played it?" When I told him no, he said "I wish you would. Everybody had their minds made up before they even saw the game." When I asked him if he blamed EA for that, he replied "No comment. But you should play it."

So I did, and I'm glad. Dante's Inferno is far from perfect. It unravels in its last two levels, and it suffers as a game that mimics, without improving on, God of War's formula. It finally runs out of stylish imagination - its best quality - and it relies too heavily on turning cranks, swinging ropes, lumbering beasts, and solving environmental puzzles.

Nevertheless, this game is full of marvelous ideas, mainly attributable to imaginative art and sound design that translate into fantastical depictions of Hell and its tormented inhabitants. Each circle of Hell visually communicates a particular sin (greed, lust, gluttony, etc.), essentially turning the game's level design into a deadly sin theme park. That the game largely avoids making this seem contrived (it is contrived, of course, but somehow not ridiculous) is a testament to Visceral's design team. 

Distorted sexual forms, twisted sculptural elements embedded into their environments, protruding human organs - all convey theme via fantastical place and grotesque form. Place communicates meaning and emotion, often in disturbingly outrageous dream-like ways. It all runs at 60 fps, which normally means little to me, but in this game the fluidity shows.

What does corpulence sound like? The music and ambient sound in the Gluttony level create a sickening atmosphere that's difficult to describe. The symphonic score (by Bioshock composer Garry Schyman) incorporates choral voices in a manner similar to Demon's Souls' score, but listen to how the instruments themselves are distorted within the vocal mix inside the arrangement. 

Click to play

Dante's Inferno is Schyman's best and most ambitious video game score, and it highlights excellent work by many other designers in this game. 

If you were put off by the negative hype surrounding Dante's Inferno, I suggest you play it and take a careful look at the work of its talented team of designers and developers. I personally chose not to purchase the game because EA's degrading "Sin to Win" campaign made me unwilling to support such marketing with my money. [Visceral Games is wholly owned by EA.] You may or may not agree with my decision, but regardless, I encourage you to give the game a look and determine its merits for yourself.