When I first heard about Dante’s Inferno, I was like, “What the hell? I had to read that in college. How are they making a game about it?” Then when publicity stunt after stunt was pulled, I figured that the game must have sucked and that EA was compensating by throwing lots of marketing money at it. I was convinced that there was no way the designers at Visceral Games could make a playable game out of some 14th century Italian literature and, if they did, it wouldn’t be very good. Well, I was wrong.

Dante’s Inferno takes all of the stuff it needed from its source material (the hero’s descent through the circles of Hell, the Roman poet Virgil as a guide, the investigation of sin and consequence) and adds the necessary elements (Dante as violent hero, compelling backstory, tits) to make it a thoroughly enjoyable game.

Even though I was apprehensive about the change at first, reinventing Dante as a Crusader in the Middle Ages was a stroke of genius. No other scenario offers Visceral the chance to delve into guilt and sin than the morally questionable choices made by the invaders of the Holy Land in the Middle Ages. Dante was at war, and he did some horrible things. When he makes his way back home to Florence, after having bested Death and stolen its scythe, of course, he finds his father and girlfriend murdered. Beatrice is taken by Lucifer into Hell, and Dante follows her.

What Dante’s Inferno does brilliantly is to make each sin personal. We see Dante falling to Lust and Treachery; we see members of his family succumb to Greed and Violence. By showing each fault in Dante, it doesn’t just feel like we’re whacking creepy knife babies or absolving random demons, we’re confronting Dante’s sins and his guilty anguish is palpable through Graham McTavish’s excellent voiceacting.

But the true star of the game is the setting. The artists at Visceral carefully crafted each Circle of Hell so that it felt distinct from every other. Greed is full of molten gold and churning gears, while the carnal bodies of Lust swirl around forever in a storm. Anger is black and sharp, while Gluttony is predictably covered in soft pulsing flesh reminiscent of the digestive tract. As Dante gets further into Hell, he traverses rivers of blood and even bursts into the City of Dis on his way to Treachery, where Lucifer himself lies.

The sound design helps, with the screeches and laments of the souls around you signifying that you are in Lust, or in Anger, by asking you to come forward or to “Get your hands off me!” In addition, the music feels sufficiently epic, although it does rely a little too heavily upon soaring voices and fanfares suitable for dramatic prairie dogs.

You can’t control the camera in Dante’s Inferno, but the game does such a great job of handling it that it doesn’t matter. The third-person view organically zooms in when necessary and pulls out for more open vistas. The camera swings fluidly to highlight towers or structures in the distance and more than once I was struck by a wonderfully crafted shot that would feel at home in an art film.

It’s easy to compare Dante’s Inferno with other third person action games like God of War, and the point is valid. But God of War was not the first of its kind either, and Dante’s Inferno adds enough original gameplay elements to set it apart. Dante wields Death’s Scythe and can either do quick light attacks or a slower heavier swing for more damage. You’ve been carrying the Cross of your girlfriend Beatrice with you and, in Hell, it glows with Holy power and becomes your ranged weapon. Throughout the descent you also gain magic spells, the first given to you by your guide Virgil, but you can acquire more through trading in souls or by besting certain bosses a la Mega Man.

Dante gets more powerful in a couple of ways. First, you unlock new combos or abilities by trading in the souls you acquire through killing enemies. Which ones you buy are up to you but a casual play through will not net you enough souls to purchase them all, so choose wisely. Some enemies, such as the fallen angel demon types, give you the option to absolve or damn them. Choosing one or the other unlocks a fun animation and corresponding button-mashing mechanic and gives Dante Holy or Unholy experience. Leveling up both is important as each empowers your scythe or cross attacks, but also allows the purchase of better abilities. I generally chose to damn enemies in battle, because you can get massive amounts of souls by absolving the named damned you find while exploring, which opens up a deceptively simple minigame to “capture sins.” You can also find and equip relics, and level those up independently. Some the relics are incredibly useful, and switching them out for specific fights almost becomes necessary as you progress.

The boss battles are hard, and there were some points where I died so many times in a row that the game annoyingly reminded me that I could change the difficulty setting at any time. There was one moment late in the game, however, where the difficulty ramped up quickly and monotony suddenly attacked. To get through Fraud, you are faced with 10 successive challenges such as killing all enemies without resetting your combo meter or taking out enemies in the air. The game felt so organic up until then that being confronted with such artificial gameplay constraints which didn’t inform the story or the setting made it feel like the designers ran out of ideas.

The length of the game might bother some, but beating Lucifer in less than 12 hours on the “normal” difficulty felt about right, if a bit disappointing. The final battle with the fallen angel, though it was definitely epic in scale and had several phases, just wasn’t as hard as, say, fighting Marc Antony atop the Lust tower in the first Circle of Hell. But it was the story and the setting that sucked me into Dante’s Inferno and that’s what I’ll take away from it.

Bottom Line: Dante’s Inferno brings Hell to life and tells a compelling story of sin and redemption, with enough fun fighting mechanics and leveling choices to keep any gamer satisfied.

Recommendation: A well-crafted third-person action adventure, Dante’s Inferno is worth a buy.

Score: [rating=4] – It won’t win Game of the Year, but it is better than most.

Greg Tito totally didn’t read The Divine Comedy in college; he copied his paper off his girlfriend’s.

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