(If everything went well this article would have ran a good while ago, but my computer went down and took my article with it. Apologies to the kind folks at EA who set up this great event and a big thank you for their patience.)

Recently EA invited me back to their Redwood Shores studios to check out one of the first games under the brand new Visceral Games banner- Dante’s Inferno. Jonathan Knight’s project has brought together a ton of talented developers, people who have worked on everything from Metroid Prime to Half Life 2 to God of War, and reunited a good chunk of the Dead Space dev team to create it. EA is very serious about this game and clearly believes in it, because they’re going all out with the adaptation.

But let’s get one thing out of the way first- don’t expect an accurate adaptation of the poem. In fact, fans of Dante’s classic will likely have a heart attack when they find out what’s happened to the story.

As executive producer Jonathan Knight aptly points out- Dante’s hardly a great video game protagonist. He spends his time being led by the hand by Virgil, walking and talking and occasionally fainting when his fear overcomes him. Not a very interesting character to play. Course this might lead some to ask why it should even be attempted in the first place, but the setting and name is obviously too strong. So how to change Dante into a proper video game character? Turn him into a crusader, a badass knight who has sinned in his life and who has defied Death himself, besting him in battle and taking his enormous scythe for his own. Also, make Beatrice the usual damsel in distress- one that Lucifer himself has taken away. Yes, Satan will be the final boss in the game, presumably no longer stuck in ice of his own making. Virgil appears infrequently to give you tips and various items but for the most part you’re on your own.

While this sounds about as far off as you can get from the poem (and Aligheri’s probably doing backflips around his circle in hell), the design and look of hell has been followed pretty faithfully. Of course, perhaps in the poem unbaptized babies in Limbo didn’t have blades for arms and attack Dante en masse (not a joke!), but almost all the creatures and demons have been described in the poem. The characters were also designed by Wayne Barlowe, an artist already famous for his interpretations of Inferno. They let him go nuts and pump out all sorts of varied designs, including a few that were too much even for the Dante’s Inferno team. (Let’s just say that some of his concepts for creatures in the second circle of hell, sins of carnal lust, went a little too far…) It’s obvious though that the visual style is possibly the greatest thing the game has going for it. They’re taking full advantage of the source material and the creature designs are fairly awesome.

After a presentation by Jonathan Knight where he explained his vision for the game, we got a chance to be among the first people in the world to try out the E3 demo (on PS3 dev kits, for once!). This wasn’t a solid level, it’s more of a “greatest hits” package that shows off a few boss fights and battles.

When you get your hands on the controller the first thing you will realize is how similar this game is to God of War. It’s unavoidable, as it’s got almost all the same button presses, down to the right analog stick which is used for dodging. Square is for light attacks, triangle for heavy, and the circle lets Dante wield his cross. Yes, Beatrice has apparently given him a cross which works basically as a long range weapon ala Devil May Cry. L2 is a modifier, allowing you to perform various special attacks, and R2 grabs smaller enemies. L1 is used for magic but they didn’t have that feature available to us. You can upgrade weapons and get new moves by killing enemies, much as you’d expect.

The demo started off with you aboard a boat on the river of Acheron. Here the twisted designs of the creatures quickly becomes apparent as Charon, the demon who ferries all the souls to hell, has been reimagined as a boat. No, seriously- it’s a gigantic demon-boat with a demonic head at the prow, and as you board a swarm of creatures attack you. The smaller ones are more easily dispatched but there are a couple of larger, tougher enemies that can only be killed by whittling down their health and then engaging them with a quicktime event. After they’re successfully weakened a symbol flashing “R2″ will pop up above them, and after you grab them you’ll jump on their back and behead them with your scythe by hitting circle.
The combat is just as fluid as you’d hope, fast paced and with a ton of combos and moves. My only complaint was the near-useless cross, but that could be because I hadn’t figured out that combos that included it. It just felt too weak an attack even though you can charge it up for a stronger blast, and rather than shooting at far away enemies I found it easier to run up and engage them with combos. Of course, remember that this was a pre-alpha build and everything can and will be tweaked in the months to come.

After fighting off a few waves of enemies a gigantic minotaur appears over the side, one who is controlled by a smaller demon who sits upon the beast’s back with reigns in his hands. He has a few big attacks but it’s easy enough to dodge under his legs and keep a steady combo stream hitting him, and soon he stumbles down, allowing you to grab him with R2. A few button presses later and you’ve killed the driver of the beast, and grabbed the reigns for yourself. Now in full control of the beast, you can use his powerful attacks to smash, burn, and even eat any hapless foes in your way.

Clearing them all out, a symbol appears on the back of Charon’s skull, and when you walk over to it and initiate yet another QTE you have you minotaur tear his head right off, as blood spews everywhere and he lets out an unearthly scream. You then pitch it off into the darkness.

But one thing you forgot- you need that ship to steer! You crash into a wall and end up hanging onto a structure of some sort that’s falling apart, forcing you to jump and climb, but alas just as you get to the top the beast falls off and you’re back on your own two feet again.

Next, a later section of the game, one that skips Limbo. You start off on a cliff, and here it shows off just one instance of descent. Since you’re heading to the very center of the earth, layer by layer, there’s a big emphasis on your descent, and Dante will employ different methods to give you a sense of truly going deeper and deeper into hell. Here you simply scale down a cliff face (made up of writhing and screaming souls!) and get a little hint of problems to come, as you can see King Minos in the background judging everyone before him and casting them into hell.

At the bottom lies a fountain that allows you to heal yourself, as evidenced by the green mist floating off it. Grab it and jam on circle and you’re back to full health. (Yes, there are red and green orbs in this game.) You then smash through a couple of walls before getting into a boss battle with Midas.

This isn’t the full battle from the game, just about two thirds of it. He’s a massive demon, easily standing four times your size, and he has a bunch of attacks. He first tries to stab you with his tail (yes, the very one he wraps around the spike to determine which circle of hell you belong) that slams out of the ground. It’s fairly easy to avoid if you keep moving, and soon he’ll start trying to smash you. He can’t see, of course (justice is blind) but if he hits you he’ll do some serious damage. After a bit he’ll try to do a big attack that you can avoid by hitting R1 and grabbing the side of his little court. After missing he’ll be vulnerable to a quick time event in which you stab his arm and then his eye, causing him to reel back and expose his stomach, which is his weak spot. Hit him enough times there and you’ll take down the big blind bastard.

The last section was a quick look at the River Styx. Before it you see a soul writhing in pain, and can choose to absolve or punish him. The demo only allowed you to absolve, but this is the developer’s version of a karma system. The people you run across will be people from Dante’s life, and the choices you make will likely affect the rest of the game. Not much has been revealed about this, however.

Jumping on a platform to cross the River Styx makes for a creepy ride. The “water” around you is dark green and bubbling, with statues peeking out from beneath the water. Winged beasts fly in the air and start attacking you, and you’ll fight them off until coming to the other side of the river. Time for a surprise- it turns out that the platform you were standing on was actually the top of a massive creature’s head, and he rears out of the disgusting fluid of the river and makes his way towards land. This is where our demo ended.

It’s always weird to play a game this early in development. Later on in the day we were shown an updated version of the last level from the demo, and the difference was immediately obvious. The graphics looked ten times better already, the HUD was changed- it’s a bit unfair for me to even talk about the demo I played when it’s going to go through significant changes. We even had a little Q&A session with the dev team where we talked a bit about what we liked and what we didn’t. The one point I felt compelled to make was that I didn’t want another black and white karma system in my game. If I was going to punish or absolve people I want to have a damn good reason for it, and it felt too tacked on as it was. I want to be made to feel guilty for acting like a horrible person, much like with the Little Sisters in Bioshock.

Their biggest hurdle will be in convincing people to pick it up over God of War 3, especially since the layman won’t be able to see much of a difference between the two. But regardless, it’s obvious that this will still be a fun game, something that all buttonmashers will love. Hopefully they can find their gimmick that sets it apart from their competitors.

We’re all hopefully going to be back for another Community Day much later on in the year, which should prove to be very interesting- we’ll get to see how the game is shaping up and what they’ve changed and improved upon in the months.

Make sure to check out DantesInferno.com for dev diaries, trailers and more.