June 21, 2010

From Hell

When last we spoke of gaming, it was Nier that had my attention and I was just picking up Dante’s Inferno, a relatively fresh title from EA developed by the aptly-named Visceral Games.

I expressed my interest in the game quite a while ago, largely because I am a fan of the original literature that inspired it, but also because notable game audio wonderman Garry Schyman (of Bioshock fame) was composing the score for the project. So when the packaging suggested I go to hell, it was difficult to resist. Now that I’ve had some time to reflect upon the experience, I wanted to share my thoughts.

My descent into the Stygian depths of this imagined realm was a patient one. Having been raised on a diet of Zelda and Mario, I am well accustomed to keeping a sharp eye out for collectible items, side-missions, mini-games, and other distractions from the main quest. Were I to ever find myself in a real situation wherein the world (princess, etc) needed saving and I was The Only Hope (Chosen One, etc), I am fairly certain that I would be the most useless hero ever. Admiral ADD to the rescue.

Anyone need help with their groceries? Need a package delivered to a friend in a distant town? There’s probably time for some fishing before I get on with saving things…after all, it’s the journey that counts, not the destination, right?

Besides, it was Hell I was heading into. One typically isn’t in a great hurry to get there.

Dante’s Inferno opens with one of the most visually impressive cutscenes I’ve ever seen. And it’s not just because of the liberal display of breasts. Everything from the cloth animations to the faces to the environment is expertly rendered, and the weird blend of 3D and graphic-novel-style 2D is both unexpected and strangely effective. Whether it was the plan all along or came about as a result of time or budgetary constraints is worth wondering about.

The opening cutscene is also notable for being the first and last time the game adheres with any accuracy to the content of the original verses. The opening voiceover is a recitation of the poem’s opening lines, and it seems that once they had established that little connection, Visceral figured they were good to go off and do their own thing. And they did, which I actually have no problem with. It can’t be said that their plot represents any milestone in video game narrative, but in a game about badassing your way into Satan’s pantry, a more sophisticated story just isn’t necessary. I mean the first thing you do when you gain control is kill Death, so they’re obviously not exploring subtlety in the game design.

The whole redemption and atonement for past sins angle is fine, but make no mistake about it: Dante’s Inferno is little more than a beat-shit-up simulator. It’s a very one-sided Mortal Kombat rampage to rescue Beatrice’s boobs. I mean soul. Rescue her soul.

What was I saying?

Oh right: combat rocks. For someone like me who mostly missed out on the Playstation craze, the endless nattering of critics that it’s just like God of War!” did little to dissuade me. Okay, I thought, my only extended exposure to God of War was on the PSP, and it was a lot of fun, so what’s the problem here? I mean really, how many ways are there to make a game in this genre? The mechanics are obviously going to be similar.

Fighting unfolds like a manly ballet of death and improbable scythe physics. After you murder the Grim Reaper for doing his job, you steal his weapon of choice and immediately learn how to make it bend, stretch, and do other acrobatic things one doesn’t typically associate with farming tools. As far as main weapons go, it’s just plain awesome.

I could go into detail about how each of the nine circles of hell is crafted and what I encountered there, but I honestly don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t played through the game yet. I have simply never seen such unashamedly gruesome, disgusting, and creative art design in a game before.

Way up in Limbo, before even descending into the depths, I was struck by a thought. I remember being scared to fight some of the enemies in Zelda: Ocarina of Time on my first play-through because they were so freaky looking. As I walked into a room and watched an unbaptized baby crawl out of an oven to attack me with its bladed arms, I was thinking my my, times have changed.”

Plunging deeper, more strange and horrible things emerged to munch on my face, and I dutifully collected all the items and souls necessary to power up Dante’s attacks to the point of unfairness. The game was rarely challenging on the normal difficulty level, with only some of the bosses posing a significant threat. In fact, if you were to examine the game coldly, it would be a very tedious and linear descent into hell. The only thing that keeps it from feeling that way too often is the strength of the art design, which is uniformly top-notch.

Sadly, It’s true that some of the creativity falters near the last few circles, with no new and interesting monsters being introduced, but by then you’ll have become quite adept at fighting anyway so the latter half of the game should go by pretty quickly.

Garry Schyman and his colleague Paul Gorman outdid themselves with the musical score, providing an exquisite and downright evil depiction of the circles, with creative instrumentation, dark choral chants, and loud orchestral terror of the finest calibre. It won’t lull you to sleep at night, but it’s a damn fine score. Voice acting was minimal but effective, with Lucifer’s deep voice managing to bridge the gap between dark and deceptively kind.

In the end, as I pulled myself back out of the inferno, I guess you could say I considered it time well spent. Dante’s Inferno is by no means a brilliant game; it is simply a formulaic shell over which Visceral has draped the most amazing visual design cloak imaginable. But it’s still just a veil, and if you peel it back you’ll realize the shallowness and blandness of the underlying structure.

Still, worth a rental for sure if only just to explore the twisted creations hiding in the nine circles of Dante’s Inferno.

Parting thoughts:

  • On the soundtrack, listen to Storms of Lust”, Crossing the Styx”, and Whores of Babylon” for a good introduction to the music
  • I don’t think Dante understands how tattoos work
  • Good setup for a sequel, but what are we going to kill in Paradise/Purgatory?

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