Arriving at the offices of Electronic Arts NZ for a Dante's Inferno video conference, I wasn't quite sure what to expect.
There's been little discussion around this new venture for EA's Redwood Shores studio, other than the obvious association with the medieval text known as The Divine Comedy.
Written by Florentine poet Dante Alighieri in the early 14th century, this remarkable work of literature formed the basis for the medieval worldview of the afterlife, and painted a pretty grim picture of what lied in wait for those who strayed from the path of good. Hell, as depicted by Dante, consisted of nine concentric circles, each worse the one one preceding it, where sinners would be punished according to their particular sin. For all eternity. Which, in the words of Rowan Atkinson, is "a heck of a long time".
Our first glimpse of gameplay through the video link consisted of Dante aboard a boat, sporting a scythe large enough to make the Grim Reaper blush. We learn from our EA representative that Dante's love interest Beatrice has been kidnapped by none other than Lucifer himself, and Dante has taken it upon himself to rescue her and therefore prevent her impeding marriage to the Dark Lord. We're told that Lucifer has a much bigger role in the game than in the actual poem.
As various minions of the underworld charge at Dante, he repels them with large area of effect spells, and performs leaping attacks reminiscent of the Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden series. The scythe is his primary weapon, but we also learn that he will carry a cross as a secondary weapon, and it'll be responsible for his holy and magic powers as he travels through Hell. It's also upgradeable.
Although Dante's Inferno isn't focused on the traditional level grind RPG action you would normally associate with a medieval combat game, there is a currency and an upgrade path. Nothing has been finalised, however we do know that souls will form the basis of the economy within the game, and EA have stated that the souls will be earned in "interesting ways". The upgrade path will consist of offensive and defensive improvements too.
We did manage to see a quick boss fight, and despite the people who made the game dying with concerning regularity (prompting a loading screen with "without hope, we live in desire" to be displayed each time), Dante finally managed to dispatch the rider of a large demonic creature that wouldn't look out of place on Diablo II's Arreat Plateau. Upon his victory, he was able to take control of this beast, and while perched atop he could instruct the creature to walk around the level and even climb a large cliff. It was explained to us at this point that these sorts of interactions with the minions of Hell would be a central theme.
Our demonstration ended at this point, but it was explained that the core focus of Dante's Inferno was to produced an incredibly fast-paced action title that runs at sixty frames per second. Dante Alighieri's imagination provided a fertile ground for this game, and allowed the developers to explore medieval fantasy themes from a whole new angle. The Dead Space developers actually sit next to the Dante's Inferno team, so it's expected that their experience will assist greatly with the finished result.
We put some questions to Dante's producer Jonathan Knight to see what other details we could discover - these are reproduced below. It's early days yet, although one thing is certain; had Dante been alive today to see his life's work recreated by pulses of electricity moving through millions of silicon particles in order to produce detailed light images, he may well have added another level in Hell to accommodate practitioners of such devilish witchcraft.
GP: Will the gameplay be familiar to fans of Dead Space, or are you taking a new direction?
JK: Dante’s Inferno is actually a pretty different game from Dead Space in terms of genre and gameplay. Whereas Dead Space is a survival horror game, Dante’s Inferno is a straight up action game with melee combat and a highly cinematic presentation. What fans of Dead Space can expect, however, is the same commitment to quality, polish, and artistic sensibility that we saw with Dead Space. The teams sit right next to each other, and share all those same values, resources, technology, and in some cases people.
GP: The Divine Comedy is full of fairly weighty religious concepts, how have you handled relaying these without turning moderate people away?
JK: The poem is primarily a work of fiction, which deals with the dogma of the time, but isn’t particularly preachy (other than, “don’t commit mortal sins!”). The game is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the fiction (with a few key changes), and as such doesn’t take a particularly point of view. It’s not a “religious” game. It’s an action game about a guy’s journey through the medieval vision of Hell, and we’re really just dealing with the setting and characters, as Dante imagined them in this 700 year-old work, rather than trying to make some kind of statement.
GP: We’ve seen some imaginative creatures in the two trailers released so far, have these been lifted directly from contemporary art, or are they of your own design?
JK: All the visuals and creature design are custom and unique to the game. We’ve had the great fortune to work with some incredible concept artists and visual designers. Notably, one of the first guys we called was Wayne Barlowe, whose series of paintings called “Barlowe’s Inferno” have helped shape the 20th century vision of Hell. Wayne is also incredibly well known for his creature design in Hellboy and Hellboy II, Harry Potter, and many other films and games. He’s one of the most imaginative concept artists working today, and has spent over ten years thinking about Hellish stuff. So he was a perfect partner for us, and I’m thrilled that he has helped design many of the characters and creatures in the game. Additionally, we have an amazing team of concept artists internally at the studio who are bringing their incredible imagination to the project.
GP: Are you introducing any new concepts to make this title stand out, or are you counting on the unique source material to provide a point of differentiation?
JK: This is a third-person melee action game, with a strong cinematic through line. What makes it unique is the following:
[*]Story: it’s a twist on one of the great works of literature, and deals with one man’s journey through the Christian medieval Hell;[/*]
[*]The nine circles of Hell will provide a huge variety of unique environments and characters, with surprises at every stage;[/*]
[*]Dante fights with a combination of Death’s Scythe and Beatrice’s Holy Cross, creating a unique combat system; and the Cross is also used to either Absolve or Punish the damned (player choice);[/*]
[*]Dante can tame and control the giant beasts of Hell; and[/*]
[*]The game will run at a consistent 60 frames per second.[/*]
All of these elements, together with the polish and attention to detail that the Dead Space studio is known for, will make for a tremendously entertaining and unique experience.
GP: Will we see a PC release?
JK: The only confirmed platforms at this time are Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
GP: Some criticized Dead Space for not being scary enough, particularly as it was promoted as a thriller. With this in mind, should we be afraid of Dante’s Inferno?
JK: Man, you must have had a messed up childhood if you weren’t scared by Dead Space! In any event, our goal with Dante’s Inferno isn’t to scare people; it’s not a horror game. The goal is to thrill and entertain, to create an atmosphere that feels like a true journey through Dante’s Hell… an interactive version of the literature. And of course it should be really fun to play. For me, the combat and gameplay are more important than anything else.
GP: Is there any multiplayer planned?
JK: Dante’s Inferno is a focused single-player, story-driven experience.
GP: We understand there will be QTE’s – just how frequent are these, and how much of an effect on gameplay will they have?
JK: That’s part of the design that’s still being worked on.
GP: Can you give us an idea about one of the most exciting events in the game that you’ve worked on so far?
JK: Every level so far has been exciting, and they all have great moments in them. We’ll be talking about the various levels and circles of Hell throughout the year, so stay tuned for details!
GP: Have you faced any challenges in creating a new IP with the current economic environment?
JK: Sure, new IP is a risky undertaking, particularly in a climate where people have fewer dollars to spend on entertainment. So it has been extremely important for me to accomplish two things: One, make a game that is incredibly fun to play, based upon a work of literature that has built-in interest around the world; and two, commit to the same level of quality and polish that we achieved with Dead Space. Together, these two things, above all else, will give gamers the confidence that Dante’s Inferno should be in their very short “must have” list when it comes out.
Our thanks to Electronic Arts NZ and EA Redwood Shores for this interview!