When Dante penned his epic poem (inspired by the earlier Virgil) the world was doubtless a very different place. However, as EA look to bring Dante's Inferno to video game life they hope that there is as much resonance with his themes now as ever.
For those not up on their 14th century poems, Inferno is the first part of Dante's Divine Comedy an allegorical tale of a journey into hell. Much of what passes for the Christian hell in popular culture is informed by this - rich pickings for a video game.
Having made strides into the survival horror genre with Dead Space, EA Redwood has their sights set on action brawlers. We headed down to the Hammersmith Ark to get our hands on the game for the first time, and get the low down from the game's Producer first hand.
As a peg on which to hang the mechanics of a video game, Dante's Inferno is better than most. Firstly the fiery fantasy setting offers up plenty of opportunities for characters both grotesque and dastardly. Platforms collapse into fiery pits; dismembered armies of sinners rise up to block the player’s path all the while in the distance, larger more ominous enemies await their arrival.
On first impression Inferno looks a lot like God of War and Devil May Cry. But spend a little time with it and the game soon makes clear that it has its own visual story to tell. There is a sense of a timeless epic here that comes from more than good character and level design. As I played, I asked my host how they tackled this look and feel. "The beauty of using such an old and well renowned classic is the ready stock of paintings, statues and other artwork to draw on." There is the sense here that the game not only pays homage to the poem but also the tradition that followed it. In the same way the Lord of the Rings films drew on artwork as well as the text of the book, Inferno too pays attention to work that has gone before.
As we play on we are introduced to the game structure. The poem proceeds through a series of circles of hell, and again seems well fitted to a video game. The game adopts each of these circles as a level in the game, each with a distinct (although similarly fiery) environment and palette. Through each level we encounter those condemned to particular sins: limbo, lust, gluttony, greed, wrath, heresy, violence, fraud and treachery. Some are more obvious than others. In Limbo, for instance, what we discovered was not a fatal failing at 'how low can you go' but a failure to be baptised at an appropriate age. Who knew!
As with other brawlers, the play is viewed over the shoulder in third-person. The camera is controlled automatically, something that frees up the second stick for evasive moves. The left stick controls movement with buttons for jumping, melee and ranged attacks. Although early levels can be navigated with a degree of hurried button pressing, as the game develops the player is introduced to (and will need to use) more nuanced attacks and combinations. The cross-powered ranged attacks for instance start in relatively straight forward fashion, but before long soon become a key part of the arsenal.
Enemy grappling and juggling open the door to point rich combination moves as players can string together attacks that reduce the likelihood of countering blows. Early on it is clear you will need to work both on aerial and ground combat to proceed - flighted enemies soon make their presence known.
The build of the game we experienced had a solid feel to it, and a certain degree of finesse. Our friendly Producer guide was keen to note that this is still quite early in development and the final polish would complete the visual story both in terms of quality and detail. He was a little less forthcoming when asked about multiplayer and online modes. These details, we were told, would need to wait for later in the calendar.
What was on offer though was the PSP version of the game. Although less advanced than the 360 and PS3 versions we could get our hands on, some time spent watching a play through was enough to impress. Using the same over-clocking techniques as pioneered by God of War on Sony's handheld, Inferno looked appropriately hot. Most impressive was the intent to replicate the console experience in its entirety on the handheld.
As we rounded off our time with Inferno there was no doubt this was a confident first showing. As we left though we wondered whether Jonathan Knight's (Executive Producer) comments that this game is a "perfect opportunity to fuse great gameplay with great story" would prove to be true. The biggest question for the game is whether the originality of the subject matter was going to be matched by gameplay. In such a crowded genre and with such high quality competition EA Redwood will need to over deliver if they are to stand out.
Whatever the case, our first taste of Inferno's hell left us wanted more - although we're not sure what that says about the state of our eternal destiny.
Dante's Inferno will be unleashed upon the PS3, Xbox 360 and PSP in 2010.