When we first meet Dante, he is midway through his life's journey, seated in a dark forest sewing a red cross across his bare pecs and up the ripples of his sixpack. It's not exactly how I envisioned the ardent pilgrim from The Divine Comedy. And it's certainly not the Dante depicted scowling down from his tomb in Florence. But the buff, barechested Dante is the ideal hero for a videogame in which the torments of Hell are depicted in robust, fleshy glory.The designers of Dante's Inferno - the videogame - have taken the theologically bold stance of treating Hell like a real location, and its denizens as demons who can be decapitated and destroyed. The minions of Hell include unbaptized babies who skitter around with blades instead of arms, and obese men who spew gobs of bile and what looks like undigested food. Grim devils tower over the landscape, and Beatrice, Dante's beloved, spends much of the game in the nude.
In drawing inspiration from the first book of Dante Alighieri's epic poem, the game's creators (a company appropriately named Visceral Games) have tapped into one of the most visually imaginative works of art ever created. The detailed topography of Hell, with its nine circles, is already ideal for the staged progress of a videogame, from the electrical charges of Lust to the golden glitter of Greed. And images of the damned complement the hyper-real violence inherent in videogames. The designers have ingeniously presented many of the game's action sequences in tableaux that display gory details up close, while offering glimpses of the vast realm of the underworld stretching off in the distance.
Rendering Dante in a third-person perspective and granting him a giant scythe, Dante's Inferno unfortunately contrasts the imaginative variety of the environment with an uninspired, button-mashing form of combat that could be called God of War-lite. The foes that Dante faces provide a touch of variety, since they can't all be easily vanquished by a few swipes. But the game reveals its limitations by piling these enemies on top of one another in ever-increasing combinations. No new forms of combat emerge from these battles, which are almost always staged in small round arenas that allow the camera to maintain a fixed and disengaged vantage.
In theory, as Dante progresses, he learns new skills, which amount to powered-up versions of his basic attacks. He can also, for variety's sake, absolve or condemn the inmates of Hell he comes across. I can't vouch for the game's theology on this point, but it makes sense that any man who can defeat Death (as Dante does at the game's beginning) is free to dabble in divine judgment. And I must admit that I enjoyed saving the soul of Pontius Pilate - the judge who condemned Christ to the cross. I wonder how he'll be welcomed in Heaven. Maybe I'll see it in the sequel.
THE GOOD: Hell looks damned good.
THE BAD: The nine circles of Inferno can be traversed in about eight hours, making this a rental-length epic, at best.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Dante's Inferno burns bright but brief.
Rated Mature; 360, PS3