Dante: “Where are the others? Why aren’t the other damned down here with me?”
Lucifer: “This isn’t their Hell, Dante. It’s yours.”
- from Dante’s Inferno
Dante’s Inferno is a half-hearted action game that gets caught up in its own spectacle. The offensive content of this video game is enough to repulse the casual observer, but those that actually play it will find its sins go far deeper: it is a video game that makes its own existence unnecessary with a combat system wrought by designers who have learned nothing about action games in the last five years. The result is an artifact that only serves as another reason why video game enthusiasts continue to bleat loudly and thump their chest while struggling to justify the cultural legitimacy of video games. Dante’s Inferno is a game that sought and received a lot of attention, but for all the wrong reasons. Electronic Arts’ campaign to promote the game was an embarrassing display, but fascinating in how it adapted to the response of the video game community. And yet the worst criticism levelled at the actual game upon its release was that it was a poor imitation of God of War, while glossing over the general offensiveness of the content – both visual and ludic – in what can only be labelled as acts of sloth. Dante’s Inferno is a mark upon the rich history of video games that reveals more failures than successes, but still manages to recognize the most noble of attempts. However, Dante’s Inferno has no hope of being a work as accessible or impactful as the ones that are the subject of so many retrospectives. Dante’s Inferno will be remembered, but not for the reasons Visceral Entertainment had hoped.
The biggest mistake that EA made with Dante’s Inferno was their marketing campaign1. The callous way they manipulated video game culture did more to damage the public image of video games and the video game media than actually advertise the game itself. While the campaign may have received a lot of attention, the majority of it was negative and was mostly related to three things: the marketing push for “Lust”, the marketing push for “Greed”, and the fact that a lowly video game – surely the basest form of modern entertainment – was attempting to adapt an untouchable piece of classic literature. The most startling fact amongst all this degenerate drum-beating was how little was mentioned about the actual video game, as if this campaign was intended to distract from it.
In fact, when Dante’s Inferno was first rumored to be in development in late 2008, many people thought it was a joke. How could anyone hope to adapt a 700 year old poem and use it as the setting for a video game? The wells of creativity had truly run dry, and game developers were turning to other sources in the same manner that Hollywood has recently taken to trawling the shelves of comic book shops. This made Dante’s Inferno an easy target for critics: what better way to prove a video game’s worthlessness than pointing out how it represents everything that is wrong with the industry? The game became a pariah, and subject to the scorn of what seemed like the entire internet.
In the face of such adversity, the team responsible for Dante’s Inferno had to create a product that would surmount the horde of critics that were simply waiting for it to fail. One could argue the old adage that any publicity is good publicity, but the events leading up to this game’s release were setting it up for Daikatana-like disappointment. Buckling under the hype is not an option if Dante’s Inferno was to succeed in the eyes of the press and the game-buying public that accept their recommendations. It would simply be another nail in the coffin of video games’ cultural legitimacy.
The demo for Dante’s Inferno was released in December 2009 and showcased the setup for Dante’s journey into Hell. It was engaging in the sense that God of War was engaging: the game begins with the spectacle of fighting an omnipotent adversary, and moves forward in the name of cutting things to pieces while defying gravity with double-jumps and following button prompts as each new enemy is killed in dramatic fashion. This sampler proved to be enough to illustrate the game’s direction and its aspirations. Many of the game’s detractors labelled Dante’s Inferno a shameless clone, and this claim is not without substance. However, for those that would never get to try such a game otherwise, Dante’s Inferno initially appeared as a suitable alternative that would not require investing in more hardware. This assumption would prove to be wishful thinking.
After a few hours of play, Dante’s Inferno exposes itself as an unambitious entry into the third-person action genre, but a surprisingly structured adaptation of the poem. It is a rock concert of a video game: full of puerile imagery and middle fingers given to Christianity’s dark history. However, setting out to compare the poem and video game in a review would be folly; any player of video games who claims to have read it was probably just skimming the Wikipedia summary, anyway2. Dante’s Inferno is not meant to be an adaptation in the purest sense; rather, it is a video game that wishes to turn Aligheri’s Hell into a battleground of depravity, parading horrid displays in front of the player as they are corraled through its wretched depths.
The designers at Visceral clearly did some research – every aspect of the Inferno itself as described by Aligheri is represented in some way, as if they made a list and checked everything off. While the imagery of Aligheri’s Inferno was left to the reader’s imagination, Visceral have tried their hardest to make the player’s skin crawl – it certainly took a twisted imagination to come up with what has been presented. And there really isn’t any other way this could have been done. This is Hell for a modern age: nothing’s shocking anymore, and so to get the player’s attention, the team of artists at Visceral had to overcompensate resulting in some questionable and outright offensive content. The atmosphere that is developed relies entirely on this principle, with the expectation that the egregious failings of the game will be forgiven. This would prove to be an arrogant assumption by the designers.
Dante Aligheri’s The Divine Comedy is no religious text; it is one man’s interpretation of the afterlife seen through the lens of the prevailing opinions of fourteenth century Christianity. Setting himself up as the protagonist allows the reader to see it through his eyes. To create a video game based on what is essentially a Tourist Guide wouldn’t be very exciting, though. There must be action. There must be jumping puzzles. There must be blood.
So Visceral came up with the idea of making Dante’s character a Knight of the Crusades, who is painted as a troubled and evil man. He sews pieces of tapestry to his chest in what appear to be fits of self-punishment, having been responsible for some unspeakable acts in the name of cleansing the Holy Land of non-Christians. There is certainly some underlying criticism of these events by the game’s creators, through a series of haunting montages done in stylized animation reminiscent of Gerald Scarfe’s work on Pink Floyd The Wall (1982).
The reason for Dante’s descent into Hell is because he wants to save the soul of his betrothed, Beatrice. As a result of Dante’s indiscretions in the Holy Land, she was killed in his absence and her soul is being held captive by Lucifer. She represents the symbol of purity and Dante’s broken promise, so naturally saving Beatrice is the only way Dante can redeem himself.
After Dante is stabbed in the back, Death arrives to claim his soul for Hell, beginning Dante’s quest to save the soul of Beatrice. Making Dante’s first major encounter a fight with Death says something about the game’s ambitions. This is Dante’s boot in the door, but he doesn’t leave without taking Death’s Scythe with him in an act that sets the stage for the exaggerated action that is sure to follow. Dante’s Inferno is typical video game pastiche, yet establishes itself as an epic, bloody adventure.
The game is clearly presented as Dante the character’s Inferno, so taking these liberties with the source material is expected. It is a man’s personal quest to atone for his sins, driven by the guilt of his actions while away from his betrothed. The shouting and virulent rage expressed by Dante while performing the more powerful of his attacks is pronounced. It is not just pure anger; it is a plaintive cry. He wants release from his suffering and inner anguish. For an instant one might even sympathize with the character. Then the game happens.
Dante’s Inferno isn’t coy about its influences. The combat’s fluidity and system of combinations make it an action game that at least meets the basic requirements of the genre, but it is far from being genre-defining. To create a God of War clone without improving on this inspiration draw obvious criticisms about its lack of ambition. What’s worse is that these criticims were used to elevate the God of War series to paragon of third-person action games. It is here that reviewers lose sight of the real issue: neither game is mechanically original, and if anything do more to further constrain the third-person action genre with prescriptive combat. One only needs to look at the negative reviews of God of War III to see that reviewers are finally recognizing a regressive design philosophy.
Shortly after obtaining Death’s Scythe, Dante gets the “Beatrice Cross” for his secondary attack. The Beatrice Cross is a multi-part projectile that resembles something out of the Castlevania series. With these two weapons, Dante has two paths for weapon and skill upgrades: Unholy (Scythe) and Holy (Beatrice Cross). To perform these upgrades, Dante must collect and spend souls. Unlike God of War and Darksiders, these souls are not random and available with every kill. To upgrade Unholy or Holy skills, you must either “Punish” or “Absolve” each enemy you are faced with. Punishing will grant unholy souls, while absolving will result in holy souls.
This is actually a good system in theory, even if it makes no logical sense that an undeniably evil man is able to absolve sinful souls. Apart from the standard mobs, Dante will encounter various historical figures or “Shades” as they appeared in the original poem and will be given the choice to punish or absolve them of their sins. Doing either will result in more souls than the typical monster, so these encounters are usually the ones that allow the player to upgrade the skills in each path, so it definitely becomes a conscious choice. Initially, experimenting with the first two tiers of abilities in each path gives a sense of depth to the game. The rudimentary combinations seem tight and serviceable.
However, after traversing the first circle of Hell, the combat system’s weaknesses start to reveal themselves. The Scythe feels thin and reedy in comparison to the chunky Chaoseater of Darksiders3 or the switchblade precision of the Dragon Sword from Ninja Gaiden II4. The Scythe was taken from Death himself, but presents itself as so much junk to be upgraded. There is a compulsion to hit the attack buttons harder, as if it makes a difference. There is a hit counter like any self-respecting third-person melee game, but aside from a couple of Achievements there is no reason to pursue drawn-out combinations. There are no style points like in Devil May Cry or the recent Bayonetta that grade the player on their performance.
As the game increases in difficulty, it becomes easier to punish souls because it is faster. Most lower-level enemies are actually killed in one hit by punishing them. The player is untouchable when absolving a soul (which involves mashing the “B” button repeatedly), but this does serious damage to the flow of action. As a result, the player doesn’t want to punish everything in sight because they are evil; they simply want to keep moving. This is more pronounced when absolving the Shades, which starts a ridiculous mini-game that determines how many Holy souls the player will get.
With even a few points spent upgrading the Beatrice Cross, the player doesn’t have to get close in order to engage any adversaries. Maximizing the Beatrice Cross powers through the Holy path of skills ensures the player is all but invincible for a good portion of the game. It can be used with no penalty (that is, no mana draw), and can be hammered until all feeling in the thumb is lost. Using the Beatrice Cross quickly becomes tiresome as the challenge is drained from the proceedings.
Combat is the primary focus of Dante’s Inferno, and it is exposed as weak and unsatisfying under analysis. It devolves into a utilitarian system that is tedious to participate in. The combat has been constructed to simply illustrate a point: the player is fighting things. The spells and special attacks that are supposed to add variety become worthless when under assault because there is no reason to use them, despite feeling compelled to do so. The game’s combat system is simply unwilling to comply. The player surmounts every encounter through brute force: the combat is an exercise in hammering on the same buttons over and over, just to survive and make it to the next area.
If this fault in the combat system is not detected early in the game, it will most certainly be exposed in the game’s latter half. The difficulty5 increases unforgivingly to compensate for a repetitive and unchallenging combat system, clumsily concealing what should have been an increase in the combat system’s complexity. There are enemies that are suddenly able to block all of Dante’s attacks, have unblockable attacks, and the player is forced into situations where the magic abilities that were previously untouched must be relied upon, while hammering away on the Beatrice Cross for crowd control. To have combat become monotonous after only a third of what the game is offering means the designers have made a mistake. It leaves the player no choice but to hate the game for the painfully limiting constraints of what should be its strongest attribute.
Yet in spite of the uncontrollable wells of anger that spring up due to the game’s inability to control its own difficulty curve, there is still the need to continue. There is a nagging curiosity to see what else Visceral has created for their interpretation of Aligheri’s Hell.
And nothing says “Decent into Hell” like rappelling with human entrails down the faces of cliffs made up of undulating corpses. These brief interludes allow the game’s scenery to be taken in; to hear the moaning of restless souls begging for mercy that never seem to fade into the background. And there are a number of foreboding areas that successfully convey Dante’s role as intruder: the bubbling pools of human filth in Gluttony; the river of boiling blood in Violence; the Forest of Suicides where Dante finds his mother and continues his downward spiral into self-loathing.
Yet these are modest interpretations of Hell when compared with the inhabitants of each circle. The Temptress and her outward-reaching crotch-tendril6. The shapeless Gluttons that cover Dante in all manner of excrement. The hook-armed babies that erupt from the exposed nipples of a 40-foot zombie Cleopatra. These were the wretched of humankind as imagined by Visceral to make the player squirm. And it works, until the veneer of repulsion is scratched away by the frustrating limitations of the combat system and replaced with simple hatred of the obstacles.
And if it wasn’t enough just to observe the environment, the designers felt the need to make its presence known through pointless interactions with it, like mashing buttons to open doors, chests, and fountains. There are the puzzles solved with barely a thought, serving only as interruptions to the flow of play. It becomes hard to justify the forgiveness of a game that relies on a distressing aesthetic to obscure its failings.
Rather than divide the game up into obvious stages, Visceral stuck with the structure of Inferno and placed the “Boss” characters where they appear in the poem. For example, King Minos – the sorter of sinful souls – must be fought before entering Hell proper (after Limbo), and Cerberus guards the gates into Gluttonous realm. Some areas don’t have bosses, and others bring forth characters from Dante’s life who must be slain and absolved. There is resistance everywhere, and it’s made frighteningly clear that the player shouldn’t be there.
However, the Boss encounters are just more examples of how the game’s combat system fails to emerge from self-sabotage. The Boss creatures are disturbingly impressive to behold – that is, until you have to fight them. There are no “hot spots” in the purest sense; rather, there are prescribed routines that must be followed in order to proceed to the next damage state. And this would be almost bearable were it not for the stilted and imprecise controls that are aggravated in these isolated scenarios, and weapons that feel powerless against them in what feels like intentionally drawn-out fights just to show off the design of these creatures. There are tight windows of opportunity that must be taken in each of these fights, and punishment for missing them is always a significant portion of Dante’s health bar. This is not balanced difficulty: this is the designers resorting to unfair tactics. The response, naturally, is hammering on attacks when these opportunities arise, and using defenses like Divine Armor to recuperate while still being able to take damage. This teaches the player nothing of the game’s combat system – only how to survive it. When the boss creatures are defeated, it is not the glorious thrill of victory that is felt. It is exasperated relief that these battles will never have to be fought again.
In what seems like inches from completing the game, The Malebolge is introduced. The description of each area is taken from the poem, but the theme is not. The ten pits are set up as a series of discrete challenge arenas and bear a resemblance to the hidden challenges in Devil May Cry 4 – something only skilled players should attempt – but they are optional in that game. Instead of carrying themes like the rest of the game, the Malebolge throws an assortment of monsters at the player that have been fought countless times before, and issues a directive that must be completed prior to gaining access to the following pits, such as get a 100-hit combo or stay aloft for eight seconds. This is the sign of a developer who has run out of ideas or time (or both), but through some slavish sense of duty wants to remain faithful to their source material. There was no buildup of difficulty in these challenges, just a bunch of random encounters with some arbitrary way of measuring success. The dramatic change of pace for the Malebolge effectively kills any momentum that was maintained to that point, making the subsequent fight with Lucifer feel like an obligation.
It’s only fitting that the final battle with Lucifer is longer than the others – this is the end of Dante’s journey through Hell. However, the challenge of Lucifer is not one that was fostered and developed for the duration of the game, like the Archfiend in Ninja Gaiden II. The player is suddenly expected to apply skills learned during the gauntlet of the Malebolge (if they were paying attention and not just trying to survive it), and make it through Lucifer’s two forms.
Realistically, the first form of Lucifer provides no course of action for the player except to continue hammering the same attacks as they have been for the whole game while hoping they will make it to the next area. The quick time events allowing the use of the Scythe during this sequence further illustrate its frustrating ineptitude as a weapon. If the player manages to make it through this encounter, they get to face Lucifer on foot.
In this form, Lucifer does not inspire fear – only more exasperation. He is identical to all the other humanoid bosses that were encountered in the game. Aside from some very powerful distance attacks, his movements and melee patterns are predictable. The player watches as Lucifer’s manhood swings between his legs during the battle, as if possessed. The only distraction is wondering how many animators it took to create this feature.
After Lucifer’s patterns are learned it becomes a war of attrition with distance attacks because it is the only way to mitigate damage. Lucifer will also begin to block the Beatrice Cross at some points, forcing the use of the Scythe and further highlighting its decrepitude. The fight lasts what seems like an eternity, as a steady rhythm of Beatrice Cross attacks and rolling dodges is engraved into the mind of the player while they slowly chip away at Lucifer’s health bar. The fight with Lucifer is not so much giving the player a final exam as it is pulling the rug out from underneath their feet.
After defeating Lucifer, Dante is shown naked and reborn, looking at the shores of Purgatory. The heart sinks at what EA and Visceral have planned for this series. What is Dante going to do next? Take on Purgatory? Purgatory is full of people who are allowed to atone for their sins and make their way to the top of a tower into Eden, and eventually Paradise. It’s hard to wrap the mind around what someone would even fight in Paradise. While one can allow Visceral a little flexibility for making the killing happen where it actually makes sense, basing a game on anything other than self-flagellation while ascending a tower is a challenge destined for levels of criticism only hinted at during the buildup to Dante’s Inferno. And since Dante’s Inferno was not universally reviled7, someone is thinking about a sequel. Probably two of them.
The Hell of Dante’s Inferno is disturbing, but it is effective. It represents Aligheri’s visions of the worst of humankind, often degenerating into parody to make its point – but it is made nonetheless. Visceral obviously took the time to create a Hell that would both revolt and captivate, to ensure the player is engaged in their surroundings. However, this is no walking tour of Hell. This is a video game, and the easy disassembly of the combat system proves there is little to retain the player when it is easily grasped and mastered through its circumvention. Dante’s Inferno manages to work as the structure for a video game, but it is the execution of the game that is enough to make anyone familiar with them want to throw their controller through a window in disgust. A game that could have risen above mere imitator with the support of its source material becomes frustrating and unnecessary. It is the Hell of Mashing 10,000 Buttons. From the incredulous first announcement to the repugnant advertising campaign, Dante’s Inferno will not be forgotten. Indeed, Dante’s Inferno will receive its place in video game history for many reasons, but not one of them is because it was a good video game.
- I suggest reading the well-assembled post-mortem of the marketing campaign at Ad Week (one of AdWeek’s associated weblogs). While the negative reaction will always remain prominent in the video game community, from a marketing standpoint this was actually a very agile campaign. It’s pretty impressive how ad agency Wieden + Kennedy responded to an angry internet while the campaign was still going on. ↩
- I know I did before playing the game. ↩
- Read all about the Chaoseater in my review of Darksiders. It really is a magnificent weapon. ↩
- Ninja Gaiden II: Born to Die One Thousand Times, May 2009. ↩
- There are three difficulty levels: Classic (Easy), Zealot (Normal), and Hellish (Hard). I played the game in Zealot, but increased the difficulty in some areas so I could get the continuous combo Achievements and complete the Malebolge arenas that required the same. ↩
- I can only imagine the outcry had there been male versions of this creature. ↩
- Dante’s Inferno is actually sitting quite comfortably at Metacritic with a 73% XBox 360 score and 75% Playstation 3 score. GamesTM even said it was better than Darksiders. I’ve since stopped buying their magazine. ↩