After ripping off the head of a living ship while crossing one of the main rivers of hell, causing the boat to crash, you make your way up the sheer face of a pair of trembling mountainous columns and sprint across a crumbling bridge that's collapsing behind you. At quite literally the last moment, you make a final desperate leap to safety, attach yourself to a wall, and then drop to the ground to enjoy a moment's rest. With whatever breath remains in your lungs, you continue on your quest, circling down into another hellish dungeon where, after kicking the door down and readying your weapon, you prepare to meet your foe. From a fiery furnace a few feet away, it emerges: a small, monstrous infant with long curved blades where its hands used to be. Worse yet, it's not alone; soon the lone menacing demon-child is joined by another, and another, and still more. You grip your weapon and prepare for the worst.
And this is just the first layer of hell.
As Dante Alighieri, the hero of EA's upcoming video game adaptation of the literary masterwork Dante's Inferno, you'll explore more of that first layer of hell, as well as eight additional levels, each plunging deeper into the morbid and horrific medieval vision of hell as well as the progressively uglier sides of human nature. During an EA press event yesterday, developers and producers behind Dante's Inferno debuted a playable build of the game and also spoke about the process of adapting the epic poem (itself just one-third of Dante's Divine Comedy) into a work of video game adventure.
In many ways, producers said, a lot of the work in adapting the story to the game was already complete. After all, if you've read Dante's grim poem--essentially a travelogue through the nine circles of hell, told in first-person narrative as Dante is accompanied by the poet Virgil--it's obvious that the setting and the structure of the story are ripe for a video game: a lone hero making his way through nine clearly delineated levels of a terrifying locale, surrounded by evil creatures, and all of it clearly described in Dante's rich and evocative language. Even the boss battles are taken care of--who, after all, is a better final boss than Lucifer himself?
Still, excellent source material doesn't automatically translate into fun. That's where the folks at the EA Redwood Shores studio come in. The studio is the same one that put out last year's critically hailed Dead Space, but producers said that while there is some crossover between the two games, the current team isn't the exact same one that worked on Dead Space. The team has been working on making the third-person action that is at the heart of Dante's Inferno as thrilling as possible, and even though the game is still at least a year away from release, it seems like they have a promising start on things.
The level shown during yesterday's demo served as an introduction to Dante's abilities in the game as he makes his way through the first level of hell, known as Limbo. In the game's narrative, there will be a preceding tutorial level that will come before Limbo, explaining Dante's reasoning for invading hell--he's on the search for his special lady, Beatrice--and also explain how Dante acquires his weapon of choice: a massive scythe. In fact, it's Death's scythe; in the tutorial, you'll guide Dante through his battle with Death, eventually defeating him and taking his weapon for yourself.
As you might expect, that scythe gives Dante--who's considerably beefier and more badass than the medieval Italian poet-philosopher upon which he is based--some incredible abilities. The weapon's long reach will keep smaller enemies at bay, and thanks to a complex combo system that mixes light and heavy attacks and some handy midair jumping abilities, Dante becomes a one-man wrecking machine on his trip through the Nine Circles. During the press demo, we saw producers demonstrate successful midair combo juggles, essentially reducing nasty looking demons into playthings for Dante's scythe.
The scythe isn't Dante's only means of dealing pain. In addition to magical spells you can unleash with the R1 button, Dante has a holy cross he can use to shoot blasts of righteous energy at enemies. He can also tame and mount huge giant demons, which we got to check out in the later portion of the on-hand demo. While crossing the river Archeron on the back of the living ship Charon (an adaptation of the boatman who ferries souls across the river and into hell), Dante encounters a huge monster being controlled by a mounted rider. After dealing with the other enemies on the ground and softening up the big demon, Dante climbs on top of his back and begins to pummel the rider in a QuickTime event that has you pressing buttons in the order they appear on the screen. After you dispatch the rider, the mount is yours and you can then pilot the beast to take care of more enemies by swiping at them, breathing fire, or biting their heads off.
Dante's abilities will be tested to their fullest with an array of enemies that look to get more gruesome as the game progresses. In the Limbo level, we saw skeletal shades, huge demons with massive horns and bigger swords, flying harpy-like creatures, and the aforementioned blade babies. As producers told us, those creepy little kids have at least some grounding in religious history--specifically the belief that even infants would end up in Limbo if they died unbaptized. To be fair, we have yet to locate the doctrine that states they would be reborn with swords for hands, but it's effective in the game nonetheless.
Beyond all the demon slaying and adventuring, Dante's Inferno's narrative will include a sort of moral underpinning most obviously seen in the game's "absolve/punish" mechanic. Periodically, Dante will encounter souls begging to be released from their hellish misery. As Dante, you can choose to either punish or absolve the soul--either choice will result in a QuickTime event that, if you successfully pull it off, will earn you currency you can use to upgrade Dante's weapons and abilities. As producers told us, the path to "absolve" a soul results in a more difficult minigame and a greater haul if you succeed. As they put it, doing the right thing is often more difficult but can result in greater rewards.
Though the game we played was in the early stages, the graphic vision of hell is affecting from the outset. In the backgrounds of the Limbo level, for example, you'll watch as thousands of doomed souls careen over cliffs into whatever punishment awaits them. It's grim stuff, and considering that it's just the first of nine levels, it's a fair bet that things only get worse as you go. That said, the graphics were early--though most of the attack animations were impressive, some of the transitions were rough or nonexistent. Most of the environmental effects were relatively rudimentary as well, though producers did show a clip of a level with more sophisticated environmental effects in place, particularly some impressive wind and fire effects that greatly enhanced the epic doomed atmosphere.
At this early stage in development, Dante's Inferno has a lot of things going for it: great source material, a fantastic, menacing setting, and a hero that is both fun to play as and easy to root for. The main challenge? In short, making sure that Dante's Inferno doesn't come off as yet another God of War third-person action clone. We've still got a long wait before we make the plunge into hell--more than a year, according to producers--and we'll be keeping a close eye on Dante's progress in the coming months.