a review of Dante's Inferno
a videogame developed by visceral games
and published by electronic arts
for the microsoft xbox 360, the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system and the sony playstation portable
text by Ario Barzan

ZERO stars

Bottom line: Dante's Inferno is “the epic video game epically based on the epic epic.”

The horrid little issue, here, is not just how this thing blows our minds with all the force of a dying fart. It’s also the question, “Who made this?” At first glance, it’s easy enough to assume an absence of human thought. The closer we look, though, the clearer the cheetoh-stained fingerprints of Homo sapiens become. Dante’s Inferno was, yes, brutally, bloodily shat out by the person who thinks devising the marketing phrase, “GO TO HELL“, is worth losing at least one night’s worth of sleep over on self-congratulation. With a nauseous excitement (also achievable by finally glimpsing Bigfoot, but only when it is masturbating), we can say that we know who this person is. This is the person who is ten minutes late to a meeting because they got lost on the way back to the train station. This is because they were in a nearby electronics superstore, buying Mario Kart Wii, because it wasn’t going to come out in the U.S. for two more weeks. This person barges into the meeting room, ten minutes late, wearing a Wind Waker t-shirt from Gamestop, and holding a bag containing Mario Kart Wii and a Japanese Wii to play it on.

Instead of “confessing” that I’ve not read the Divine Comedy, since a confession is prompted by guilt, I’m just going to say: “I have not read the Divine Comedy.” As information for Dante’s Inferno became more plentiful, the eye-rolling already going on sped up. E.A.’s marketing campaign didn’t even work on the level of absurd humor. One ploy revolved around a “Sin to Win” contest, wherein the demands were: 1) “commit acts of lust — take photos with us or any booth babe”, 2) “prove it”, and 3) “repeat.” The prize: “Dinner and a SINful night with TWO hot girls, a limo service, paparazzi and a chest full of booty.” The fact that E.A. was later willing to offer an apology, somehow, made this stuff even worse. Dumbly, disdain for the game was now and then met by the sort of tired, “progressivist” counter that anyone who had anything critical to say should just “lighten up” and let appropriation take its course. These apologetics were built on the assumption that mean words could only be coming from an indignation that E.A.’s project didn’t do justice to the source. We can’t really speak for everyone’s revulsion, but we will anyway, and say that this revulsion was born from something innate. There is something intrinsically bad about this thing. If it were the only game in the world, and if the literary source material did not exist, it would remain junk. Having not read the Divine Comedy ourselves, I had and have nothing to exactly weigh it against. Dante’s Inferno is not a “bad translation” — rather, it is bad entertainment, through and through.

If you’ve played E.A.’s The Lord of the Rings games for the Playstation 2 (thinking specifically of The Two Towers), Dante’s Inferno isn’t much different, in that the design is wonderfully effective as a mental tranquilizer. In the LotR titles, because almost all of the resources for enemy-design have been put into making an Orc animate like a movie Orc, there’s no real ground-up behaviorism to engage: just masses of scrambling Others fit to an indebted look. The games become something of a faceless endurance test — and the test is how consistently you can use the currently objectively-best canned-combo you just purchased on everything. While Dante’s Inferno isn’t leaping off of cinematic material, there’s a commensurate outer focus. Put an enjoyed artist on the team (weirdly, the only graphically sticking part of the game is Hell’s gate, a copy of Rodin’s sculpture, itself downgraded by meager placement, slapped against a rock wall in Boring Cave Place), animate, and call it good when the clusterheck appears rowdy enough. The real divide responsible for Dante’s Inferno‘s status as full-fledged, zero-star trash, though, is how it couples this disengaged brainlessness with aesthetic terror, all amplified by an insistence on its “edginess,” “flair,” and “contemporary richness.” The game’s way of dead-seriously communicating Dante’s repentance is by showing him as having literally stitched the image of the cross to his chest. One imagines E.A.’s video-game interpretation of the New Testament, where Jesus is born with a galactic crown of thorns already atop his head, the thorns replaced with the teeth of a Megalodon.


Not a few minutes into the game, the player — Dante — is laying waste with a spear to swarming heretics, as a counter on the left documents each murder. Ill-integrated messages spring up, explaining controls. And not a few minutes past that, Death shows up to claim the soul of a sneak-stabbed Dante in a boss fight, whose import is not indicated through the fight itself, or prior content, but through an overscored soundtrack (which, at its worse, is surely some form of auditory terrorism (seriously, someone arrest those responsible — Heavy Rain’s composer, too, please)) and a tediously elongated enemy lifebar. By the end, Dante has appropriated Death’s scythe, and Death is crying for mercy, choking, “No! No! Please don’t!” The intention seems to have been to present Dante as a “spiritually misguided” warrior who, in the end, is relatable because of his “human struggle” or resistance in the face of seeming inevitability. Instead, the first boss fight of the game establishes Dante as more unsavory and barbaric than Death. When your protagonist is harder to sympathize with than the personification of mankind’s greatest fear, there is probably a problem.

Afterwards, Russell Crowe returns to his Tuscan home to see that his lover has been murdered, is soul-bound to Satan, and that the CG directors find it important to remind us that women do, indeed, have breasts. In as humorous and abrupt a transition as the opening-CG-to-heretic-exterminating was, Dante’s mourning is slammed against returning control to players in a silly graveyard as the music hecking screams. Artless, hairless beings clamber out of the earth, begging to be re-killed, the exit ahead walled off by a flames — though the brick walls on either side are two-feet high. Whatever one feels at this point is what one will feel, more or less, in ensuing hours (in this sense, the demo is a success). That the locked-in-a-room design multiplies so eagerly is just worsened by the junky combat rendering it as explicit. Because fights play out with the same type of loose, indiscriminate weightlessness of a Dynasty Warriors game, the mind keeps detaching from the moment and leaping to an end point. Here, it’s the lowering of that barrier, or experience points (used in an ability tree whose context, through a “moral decision,” is more transparent than I don’t know what). In God Hand, it wasn’t until recently that I cared to notice “locked” doors that required room-clearing (this doesn’t include gates that physically open); which is to say, God Hand‘s self-dedicated fighting distracts one from focusing on conditional barriers, outside of when they’re made immediately relevant, such as the death-cage matches. Even once you’ve made the discovery, it remains an effort to detach from the moment and get concerned with the reward. Instead, future contemplation centers on how a current fight can hook onto the next.

All of this just goes back to the game’s inexplicable identity as culled from literature. Again, it’s not so much the mere fact of E.A.’s adoption, as much as they’ve put the adopted child into a goo-filled cylinder and transformed it into a different child, leaving us to wonder: why didn’t you just do that to begin with? Really, why did this need to specifically be Dante’s Inferno, and not a hell-based game of another name? The answer comes down to an And/Or duo. 1) E.A. and Visceral Games were desperately scrambling for ideas, and since there are no copyright hurdles with the Divine Comedy, the teams latched onto the opportunity, and/or 2) E.A. and Visceral Games hoped to convey some sense of historical weight, cultural relevance, and “artistic conscience” by basing their game on the poem which, “get this dude — has some totally messed up stuff in it.” If both of these things are not dishonest (one is, for sure), they are at least indicative of creative failure in beginning, middle, and end. As that hell-based game, Dante’s Inferno is another dreary slew of mismanaged violence; for what it is, it’s intolerable proof that Inspiration is never, ever a guarantee of quality, and that features like an Achievement for killing scythe-armed babies are less shocking, and more embarrassingly desperate.

I leave you with this.

–Ario Barzan


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