- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 18, 2010

Superhero and cartoon characters are integral parts of the electronic entertainment industry. With this in mind, I salute the meld of pop-culture character and video game with a look at Dante’s Inferno: Divine Edition (from Electronic Arts, reviewed for PlayStation 3, rated M for mature, $59.99).

A loose adaptation of the first part of Dante Alighieri’s epic poem “The Divine Comedy” comes to visceral and virtual life in this third-person action game. A single player battles through the nine levels of hell to rescue his true love - constantly reminding himself that he is not playing God of War.

What’s the Story? From the game manual: Outside the city walls of Acre, Dante finds himself traveling in a dark forest. For him, the clear path has been lost, and only visions of slaughter and war can be seen clearly.

The darkness has taken his Beatrice where no living man may go, and Dante is faced with the impossible task of reclaiming his love from the farthest reaches of hell itself. With the help of a poet and the fire in his heart, Dante begins the descent.

Play the role: Controlling a veteran warrior, Dante, from the third crusade, a player must travel through the circular levels of Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence, Fraud and Treachery to confront Lucifer and rescue his beloved.

With the Roman poet Virgil as a guide, Dante descends into realms of unimaginable horror to fight ghastly remnants of humanity and encounter well-known historical figures such as Pontius Pilot, Orpheus, Electra, Marc Antony and Cleopatra, whom he can absolve or damn for eternity.

Get to the action: Wielding Death’s scythe, the player uses hack-and-slash combat mechanics to cut his way through the hordes of hell.

Mixed with the attacks is a balance of environmental puzzles, multicolored orbs to be collected, platforming (climbing, swinging and jumping) and memorable boss battles highlighted by grand controller sequencing kills to traverse the lively terrain of the underworld.

Starting with an exhausting fight with Death, the game gets satisfyingly more difficult as creatures such as the Third Choir of Fallen Angels, exploding demons, gross gluttons and ferocious Gorger Worms relentlessly assault Dante.

Our hero eventually wields magic powers such as a Lust Storm, but his use of the scythe is always the most devastating and multifunctional.

Once Dante grabs minions or severely weakens larger enemies, he has the option to punish or absolve them, both of which add experience points to his totals so his holy and unholy powers can be upgraded.

Memorable moments (in no particular order): Defending against unbaptized babies with razorlike, serrated talons for arms as they attack Dante; climbing a crumbling wall while atop an Asteria Beast; passing 10 thumb-blistering battles to get past the eighth level of hell; taking an entrails-enriched jaunt through gluttony; gutting a demon embedded in a door to open the door; and enduring an eye-popping, skull-splattering encounter with the serpentine King Minos.

Violent encounters: You’re in hell. What did you expect, Legend of Zelda? Dante is so bad that you watch him sew a cloth cross to his chest minutes into the game. The mature gamer willing to enter hell is greeted by spurting blood, vivisections, impaling and exposure to so much nightmare-inducing torture that even Pinhead could barely stand it.

The game is not for the squeamish, weak of mind or devoutly religious, as the action and constant barrage of screaming, moaning and cackling amid piles of disfigured bodies shakes a player’s desire to want to continue in this virtual madhouse.

Note: Nudity is mixed with the action, as Beatrice is always naked, and the souls of the damned do not have access to a Filene’s Basement. Also, a visit to the circle of Lust is disturbingly uncomfortable to play through as female enemies’ body parts are exploited to a grisly degree.

Read all about it: I strongly recommend taking the time to appreciate the original, and after you’ve read the classic literature, try DC Comics’ six-part comic-book series based on the game. Dante’s Inferno ($3.99 each) features museum-quality art from Diego Latorre.

Pixel-popping scale: 8.5 out of 10. A lavishly produced experience shines through a variety of mixed media that feature hyperrealistic cut scenes and more traditional animation styled from a Mike Mignola-drawn universe.

The haunting beauty, however, often is hampered by murky, difficult-to-discern combat environments. I understand hell is a dark place, but developers spent too much time creating ghoulish gateways obviously inspired by Gustave Dore not to have them be seen in detail.

Extras and unlockables: The Divine Edition, exclusive to PlayStation 3, includes Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s complete translation of the poem in a text reader. Also included are the complete soundtrack, a digital art book and a code to unlock and download a new level, costume and weapon this spring.

Those looking for further education might check out the in-game encyclopedia, which briefly explains many of the lead historical characters seen in the game. Watch a 10-minute documentary on Dante Alighieri or read a detailed text timeline of his life.

Multiplayer: Players can expect a paid, downloadable pack available in April called Trials of San Lucia that will offer a cooperative mode.

What’s it worth? Before forcing the development team for Dante’s Inferno to spend eternity in video-game purgatory for daring to blaspheme with its thudding imitation of the mighty God of War franchise, I beg you to overlook the obvious comparisons and really embrace some of the artistry taking place on the screen.

Yes, unfortunately, Dante’s Inferno is more a visual statement than an innovative action game. If it had come out last year, before Darksiders, Bayonetta and the impending God of War III, one might be more forgiving. Still, I found enough excitement that the very mature gamer (have I stressed that enough?) will gladly abandon all hope and take a virtual journey into the netherworld.

* Send e-mail to jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com.

• Joseph Szadkowski can be reached at jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com.

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