I'm currently making my way through the end of Dante's Inferno on the PlayStation Portable (PSP) and I find myself enjoying the port much more than I thought I would. As a portable conversion of the PlayStation 3 (PS3) and 360 title, the PSP game impresses: There are audio problems in the CG sequences and some formerly playable sequences (none of them too important or sizable) have been changed to pre-rendered film, but on the whole it's about as detailed and playable a port of a full-sized, current-generation game as one could hope for. Is it as good as God of War: Chains of Olympus? No. But neither were the full-sized versions. And comparing Dante's Inferno's gameplay to the majesty of God of War I or II is even more fruitless.
So aside from an adept conversion, what's to like about Dante's Inferno? Quite simply, I have never played an action title so joyfully, deliberately, unabashedly derivative. You must be a fan of the God of War series to like this game, perhaps to even understand this game and where it's coming from.
In fact, I'd argue that Dante's Inferno is the first true piece of big budget video game fan fiction. And no, I'm not talking about the developers being fans of the game's poetic namesake. The Inferno by Dante Alighieri was a particularly allegorical piece of religious zealotry, and beautiful as some of the writing was, it was meant simply to reaffirm the Christian faith by providing detailed characterizations of the sort of "sins" strictly condemned by Catholic orthodoxy for the past 1,500 years.
While the game adaptation borrows the religious trappings, some of the poem's more iconic elements (namely Virgil and the nine circles of Hell), and it even quotes from the source during loading screens, there is very little of the fervently pro-Christian (and arguably racist, even in the unwitting sense) literature here. Instead, Dante's Inferno is a game about one's faith being shaken, although that description probably gives the loosely constructed narrative a little more credit than is due. Whereas the poem relished in piety and jeremiad, the game wears disgust and perversion on its sleeve in order to tell an even more straightforward tale of moral decrepitude. It wants you to feel as uneasy as you do exhilarated while playing, sort of like an interactive version of the film Caligula.
More to the point, Dante's Inferno is meant to evoke the feelings of being a pissed-off badass who recklessly swings around a gigantic blade. It's all about scale and spectacle, and it provides very little of the introspection necessary to make a truly substantial connection with the allegory and mythology on which it is based. Sound familiar?
Dante's Inferno is an unofficial sequel to Sony's God of War, a what-if scenario that casts Kratos as a pissed-off knight during the crusade. The similarities go far beyond the gameplay: Both properties feature heroes who have made some kind of family-damning mistake; both games are about revenge; both have the player facing off against mammoth, oft-naked, and naughty mythological figures; and both games are excessively gory.
These are carnivalesque, bawdy re-appropriations of myth in service to excitement and action. And if God of War is essentially interactive fan fiction that rewrites the myths of ancient Greece, then Dante's Inferno is fan fiction of a second order. It strips God of War down to its most essential gameplay, story, and aesthetic qualities and adds only the thinnest coat of new paint. This isn't merely influence, in the same way Fighter's History and several other clones were "influenced" by Street Fighter 2's success in the early '90s. Kratos and the re-imagined Dante (no longer a poet but rather a disillusioned former crusader) might as well exist in the same universe. It would certainly be an easier fit than Kratos' presence in Soul Calibur: Broken Destiny or the random crossovers in Capcom's Versus series. The only thing separating the two universes is the mythology on which they are based, even if the narrative threads remain largely the same.
Because Dante is derivative, it is incapable of achieving the same level of greatness as God of War, but I get the feeling that's not quite what Visceral was aiming for. Instead, it seems they made a game BY God of War fans FOR God of War fans, and I find it hard to imagine how those unaware of God of War could find Dante as concurrently fun, nonsensical, and self-effacing as I do. Visceral did not set out to make a particularly satirical or self-aware game, but they did make one that lets its Xerox flag fly. Sequences that in other games would require additional build-up or exposition are here just left to float aimlessly amidst a sea of God of War references (e.g., killing a big baddie from the inside), and certainly Visceral recognized early on that Dante could never compare favorably.
What it does instead is rely on Sony's mainstay for positive reinforcement. If you had fun with God of War, then some of your experiences with Dante's Inferno will most likely be helped, not hindered, by the overwhelming sense of familiarity. The game doesn't just hang onto God of War's coattails; it feasts upon them.
None of this could possibly work, however, unless Dante's Inferno was produced with ample polish and precision. It all feels that much more contrived for being a calculated exercise in imitation, but the calculation itself is generally on-target. I, for one, enjoy the creativity of the enemy designs and literal presentation of the poem's metaphors, even if the underlying product is anything but creative. And that, in a nutshell, pretty much says why I'm enjoying Dante as video game oxymoron: a creative copy. After all, I, too, am a big fan of God of War. I certainly understand where Visceral is coming from, even if they set the bar low.