Hell is a place of personal sin and redemption, a torturous landscape molded in the immorality of human flesh to create dreadful warnings of what the conclusion of an unrepentant lifestyle has in store.
At least that's what four hours with Electronic Arts' Dante's Inferno has taught me.
In unraveling what many believe is one of the greatest literary works of mankind and then weaving it back together to provide the backdrop to Inferno, developer Visceral Games is careful to tread lightly in the handling of Alighieri's vision of hell.
Virgil, luminescent in both body and mind, still serves as your tour guide through hell. As you descend through the rings, he stoically explains why unbaptized babies dwell in hell, how virtuous pagans such as Saladin never made it to heaven, why lust, gluttony and avarice can lead you to a life swimming in liquid gold or being consumed by demons.
But hell is really just a seething backdrop, filled with living, squirming bas relief, peppered with a few famous and infamous lost souls. The path, the narrative is a product entirely of Visceral Games. When I spoke with the developers in the past, they said that narrative would draw from the real Dante Alighieri's real-life experiences. That doesn't really happen.
The game opens outside the walls of Acre, Israel, one of the key cities fought over during the crusades. Alighieri is a prison guard in the city at the tail end of the Third Crusade, one of nine or so religiously-sanctioned wars of the time. The real Third Crusade, though, took place before Alighieri's birth. While the poet was once a warrior, it was during the political wars of Florence, Italy nearly 100 years later in which he fought.
In Dante's Inferno the central story is Alighieri's pursuit of Beatrice through hell. While the real Beatrice was an important part of Aligheri's life, he was married and his feelings for Beatrice never extended past his poetry. In fact his unrequited love of Beatrice served as an example of what became known as "courtly love."
Despite breaking so far both from the fiction and reality of Alighieri's life, Visceral Games' narrative is a worthy addition to the game, delivering a complex, enthralling story that at least initially appears to be far beyond the typical rescue-Princess-Peach tale of a damsel in distress.
This same deft touch of mixing known fiction with new fiction is found in the game's antagonists. While there is an army of rambling undead and lost souls to contend with, each ring I fought through - Limbo, Lust, Gluttony and Greed - had its own special manifestations of sin.
These creatures may seem trite or overboard when viewed apart from the story and your gradual decent into a place of humanity's worst nightmares, but when happened upon in the game they are frightful, distracting foes. Combined with Visceral's just treatment of Aligheri's hell and a far-stretching, but immensely evocative story, these nightmare enemies breath more horror and life into the game.
But Inferno is a game that will inevitably be pulled down by its Achilles Heel: It plays like God of War.
That is an immense simplification. Inferno has a lot of subtitles I haven't even touched on like saving lost souls, your own internal struggle between good and evil, but that similarity is not something you can avoid. From the button-mashing mini-game of opening every chest or vase you find, to the chain attacks and floating mid-air combat, Dante's Inferno plays every bit like God of War.
That wouldn't be a bad thing if it didn't deliver so much more than the God of War source material. Dante's Inferno handily deals with deep and disturbing issues of religion, it manages to turn what was essentially a poetic travel guide of hell into a meaningful story and it creates moving, vengeful manifestations of sin that are both startling and fitting. So why did it take the easy road when it came to the core mechanics?
God of War is a fantastic game, but it isn't without it's own stumbling blocks in control, camera angels and repetitive actions. Should it be the game that all action titles look to recreate in terms of controls and mechanics?
This one issue shouldn't be enough to derail what my early take on the first half of Inferno makes me think will be a potential game of the year contender, but it is a disappointment.
Good thing that the next circle of hell the PS3 and Xbox 360 game has me descending into is Anger.
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