When I first heard about Dante's Inferno, I was like, "What the hell? I had to read that in college. How are they making a game about it?" Then when publicity stunt after stunt was pulled, I figured that the game must have sucked and that EA was compensating by throwing lots of marketing money at it. I was convinced that there was no way the designers at Visceral Games could make a playable game out of some 14th century Italian literature and, if they did, it wouldn't be very good. Well, I was wrong.
Dante's Inferno takes all of the stuff it needed from its source material (the hero's descent through the circles of Hell, the Roman poet Virgil as a guide, the investigation of sin and consequence) and adds the necessary elements (Dante as violent hero, compelling backstory, tits) to make it a thoroughly enjoyable game.
Even though I was apprehensive about the change at first, reinventing Dante as a Crusader in the Middle Ages was a stroke of genius. No other scenario offers Visceral the chance to delve into guilt and sin than the morally questionable choices made by the invaders of the Holy Land in the Middle Ages. Dante was at war, and he did some horrible things. When he makes his way back home to Florence, after having bested Death and stolen its scythe, of course, he finds his father and girlfriend murdered. Beatrice is taken by Lucifer into Hell, and Dante follows her.
What Dante's Inferno does brilliantly is to make each sin personal. We see Dante falling to Lust and Treachery; we see members of his family succumb to Greed and Violence. By showing each fault in Dante, it doesn't just feel like we're whacking creepy knife babies or absolving random demons, we're confronting Dante's sins and his guilty anguish is palpable through Graham McTavish's excellent voiceacting.
But the true star of the game is the setting. The artists at Visceral carefully crafted each Circle of Hell so that it felt distinct from every other. Greed is full of molten gold and churning gears, while the carnal bodies of Lust swirl around forever in a storm. Anger is black and sharp, while Gluttony is predictably covered in soft pulsing flesh reminiscent of the digestive tract. As Dante gets further into Hell, he traverses rivers of blood and even bursts into the City of Dis on his way to Treachery, where Lucifer himself lies.
The sound design helps, with the screeches and laments of the souls around you signifying that you are in Lust, or in Anger, by asking you to come forward or to "Get your hands off me!" In addition, the music feels sufficiently epic, although it does rely a little too heavily upon soaring voices and fanfares suitable for dramatic prairie dogs.
You can't control the camera in Dante's Inferno, but the game does such a great job of handling it that it doesn't matter. The third-person view organically zooms in when necessary and pulls out for more open vistas. The camera swings fluidly to highlight towers or structures in the distance and more than once I was struck by a wonderfully crafted shot that would feel at home in an art film.