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Dante's Inferno Preview

By Jeff Buckland, 7/4/2009

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Visceral Games (formerly EA Redwood Shores) has faced a bit of an uphill battle with their Dead Space follow-up Dante's Inferno. Since it was announced last year, it's been plagued by God of War comparisons and, more recently at this year's E3, it received more attention for EA's mock protest marketing stunt than its gameplay. In short, EA's latest original IP has been through, uh, hell.

Of course, given the game's theme, any comparisons to the Netherworld are a good thing. In fact, after spending some quality time in its demon-infested depths, I can say Dante's Inferno's premise is anything but damned. Based on the first third of Dante Alighieri's literary classic The Divine Comedy, the game takes players on an extremely stylized, violence-driven trip through the nine circles of hell. Playing as the titular scribe—don't worry, his in-game self is much more badass than your typical poet—gamers embark on a quest to save the soul of their true love Beatrice from Lucifer, himself.

While the over-the-top hack, slash and spell-cast gameplay indeed recalls Kratos' gory brand of baddie-bashing, the title's artistic approach is what really impressed me. More so, in fact, than that of Sony's Greek mythology-themed series. I mean, really, with the nine rings of hell serving as the game's levels, and the final boss being Satan, it's as if Alighieri penned the world's first video game design document back in the 1300s. That's not to say the gameplay doesn't pack an equally impressive punch; using a scythe—which he acquires by killing the Grim Reaper—Dante can unleash a mad variety of light, heavy and combo attacks. He's also armed with a projectile-firing cross that's perfect for knocking annoying harpies out of the sky and also repelling ranged attacks.

But again, as satisfying as the battling is, it's what and where Dante is fighting that really steals the show. In the first ring, “Limbo”, I witnessed our ballsy hero fighting atop a raft that ferries people to the gates of hell. In the poem, the craft is piloted by Charon, a boatman, but here, Charon quite literally is the boat; at first, it appears you're on a regular, albeit bizarre looking, raft, but within seconds you'll notice its unusual construction, highlighted by Charon's spine being fused with the vessel's surface. Additionally, Charon's large, grotesque moving head serves as the front of the craft. The game is absolutely busting at its macabre seams with this sort of eye-searing style; everywhere you look there's some combination of flames, disfigured inhabitants, and screeching, tortured souls, creating an atmosphere that's as engaging to watch as it is to play in.

Of course, this only describes the stage and backdrop of hell's infected circles; it is the enemies that'll ultimately remain burned in your brain. The title doles out more than its fair share of winged, horned, and fanged beasties, but the more interesting hellions are stylized adaptions of the poem's cursed populace. The unbaptized children, for example, are brought to life in the game with extremely disturbing detail. From their haunting cries to their bladed arms, they officially take top prize for scariest video game tykes (sorry, Alma.) But as creepy as these hell-children are, it was the game's incarnation of "gluttony" that continues to pollute my dreams. Represented by a morbidly obese naked female zombie-like beast, gluttony is hard to look at and even harder to kill. She shoots a nasty projectile substance from her gaping maw and a similarly disgusting substance from her backside—yes, you heard that right. If that wasn't enough to send your stomach churning, she also possesses an attack in which she picks up Dante and attempts to swallow him whole. Yum!

Between the familiar, yet satisfying action-fused gameplay and horrifying (in a good way) presentation, Dante's Inferno definitely got my attention. What excites me most, though, is that I only saw a small portion of the game in action, yet its richly realized depictions of what horrors await in the underworld have stuck with me to this day. I can only begin to imagine what sort of gorgeously grotesque sub-bosses and end-level monstrosities will attempt to halt Dante's progress in the finished product. And how will Lucifer—the ultimate boss battle—be depicted in a game whose aesthetic ambition is like concept art come to life? If bile vomiting fat ladies and arm-bladed babies are the appetizer, then what sort of macabre main course is in store for those brave enough to descend into the game's nine circles? I, for one, can't wait to find out.



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