It is perhaps the biggest question of faith that has persisted since the dawn of man. Throughout ancient cave walls and carved stones among pyramid tombs, to modern day grave markers inscribed with biblical verses to help our beloved find their way, we continue to ponder: What happens to us when we die? Every religion, major or minor, paints their own perspective through vivid imagery and metaphorical meaning to allow the person to interpret their own personal life-after-death. Keynote among these tales is the iconic Divine Comedy written by Dante Alighieri and for centuries to follow, his book would become the backbone of scholarly debates and arguments as the definitive exploration of where our souls go when our bodies cease to be. I doubt, however, he would have ever thought such literary pursuits would later serve as the backdrop for Visceral Games’ latest graphic entry in their video game history.
It was hard at first to imagine someone making a video game based on the first part of the Comedy Dante’s Inferno, being a staple among the diets of high school English classes across the nation. “How can they pull this off?” I kept inquiring as rumor turned to fact. Quite simply, actually, as the thirty or so Cantos that make up the literature provide more than enough visual potential to create a video game experience. But would that simply be enough? Not if Visceral Games is at the helm. If Dead Space has revealed to us any insight into the minds of those at Visceral, it is that there is no such thing as going too far; they cannot cross a line because to them, one doesn’t exist. It is a mindset that has payed off for several notable franchises (one of which Dante’s Inferno borrows very heavily from), and carries this game as it’s best quality. Since Hell was the setting of their tale, those at Visceral saw the perfect opportunity to unleash the bestial and disgusting portions of their creative side, and they succeed to a nearly disturbing level. Beyond that, however, is a mildly entertaining action game that loses steam in the latter half of the game and leaves something to be desired in the combat department.
Seeing as a literal translation of the poem would have amounted to nothing more than a poet walking through the levels of hell in a fit of sadness and depression, Visceral took only the liberties needed to create a character with a fitting motive: Mightier with the sword instead of the pen, the game pictures Dante as a hero of the crusades returning to his loving wife, Beatrice. He returns home only to find her murdered, and her soul is dragged away from her body by a shady looking…well, shade. Determined to rescue her from an eternity of pain and hellfire, Dante thrusts himself into the realms of hell and traverses each level, answering for each of his sins and for those of his family and friends. It’s a story we have heard in multiple forms and isn’t anything refreshingly new, but the fact that it takes place in Hell is usually enough to warrant a look and in this case, that look comes through in fits of repulsion and squeamish stomach churns.
Let’s not beat around the blood-stained bush here—this game is disturbing, gross, and according to some, downright offensive. But this isn’t the usual shock-factor degree we’ve seen before; it’s shock with a purpose. Trying to sugar-coat depictions of hellfire and eternal punishment would make very little sense, so Visceral thoughtfully decided to go for the jugular and really make Dante’s description of Hell come alive in a frightful manner. As you progress through each circle of hell, the environment becomes an outward manifestation of the punishment that awaits these poor souls. the circle of Violence echoes with the screams of fallen crusaders and suicides among the barren sands, while Gluttony is plagued with a rain of bile as you trek through fields of feces amidst pulsating walls. Each level appears starkly unique from the rest and makes for a visual adventure that is both awe inspiring and vomit inducing at the same time. Moreover, this same imagery is brought to your enemies in ways that make you really question the sanity of those at Visceral. Those from the circle of Lust lash at you with tentacles from their vagina, babies from Limbo waddle toward you with blades etched from bone, and monstrous ogres from Gluttony spew vomit and diarrhea while trying to grab you with hands made of mouths. And these are only from the first three circles.
But, as we have all learned from dating crazy women (or at least I have, sadly), beauty is only skin deep. While the game is beautiful on a visual level, it’s marred in its execution of gameplay and its combat mechanics. From the beginning, you can choose to fight with either a scythe or a cross. Each weapon is also represented by a tree of Holy and Unholy attacks (I’ll leave it to you to figure out which weapon goes to which tree) that can be upgraded as the game progresses. This allows you the freedom to mold Dante’s attacks around your type of play style. If you enjoy the safety in ranged attacks, the cross will be your savior. If close and brutal combat tickles your fancy, the scythe is no stranger to dealing punishment in close proximity. Unfortunately, the moves learned cannot be combined with moves from the other tree, which comes off as a bit of a missed opportunity for some really impressive combos and finishing moves. As such, you are left to creating combos with just your scythe, followed by combos with just your cross. It doesn’t slow the overall combat scheme or hurt the player’s pace any, but I feel that it was a possible avenue that Visceral could have tapped into to create a solid combat system.
To take things a bit deeper, Visceral implemented the use of relics to enchance Dante’s abilities the way you desire. If you take a lot of damage, throw on a reduction relic. If upping your combo is your thing, you can equip a relic that increases the time between linked attacks, allowing more room for error, and so on and so on. It supplements the existing means of freedom in an otherwise confined character development system, but every little bit helps in a linear progression such as this one.
Finally, the experience ends somewhere in the eight hour mark with an elaborate, yet sometimes frustrating final boss fight with Lucifer. Without spoiling the ending itself, one can still conclude that since there are two more chapters left in the Divine Comedy that have yet to be tapped, for better or worse. It isn’t to say that Visceral missed the mark with Inferno, but we have seen what Visceral is capable of. These are the people who go looking for the things that go bump in the night, and then go looking for whatever scares them. Optimistically, Inferno will serve as the invaluable first lessons that lead to a great middle chapter and a stellar finale. While Visceral has the potential to overcome their missteps, it certainly doesn’t guarantee follow-through, especially considering Dante’s Purgatory varies greatly from Inferno. For now, one can only have faith, lest we be doomed to our own circle of hell.
See you in the next level,