Movies achieve the “so bad it’s good” moniker all the time; the proof of that is in cult classics like The Room, Xanadu, Super Mario Bros., Mac and Me, Manos: The Hands of Fate… and so on. It’s fun to rib on a goofy movie with friends, maybe while inebriated, if that’s your thing, since watching a movie is usually a more passive activity. Video games, on the other hand, tend to require input and even skill, and more often than not, a bad video game gets its reputation due to unfair difficulty and bad design. The frustration of playing a bad game makes it hard for any of them to qualify as “so bad it’s good.” And yet, I have found the perfect contender for that description, and it’s even on Xbox Game Pass. It’s a 2010 third-person action game by Visceral Games called Dante’s Inferno, based on Dante Alighieri’s epic poem, according to the loosest possible interpretation of the words “based on.”
The main reason I recommend Dante’s Inferno, despite its laughable plot and setting, is that the combat still feels damn good, even after all these years. Its scythe-swinging hero and religious themes make it look like a pitch-perfect God of War knockoff. (Its lead combat designer, Vincent Napoli, left Visceral Games in 2010 to work on God of War games for Sony Santa Monica until 2018.) It even feels like a God of War. In fact, stringing together combos as Dante feels more satisfying and fluid to me than even the modern-day God of War reboots — which is why I’m almost sad that this game never got a sequel. Instead, it’s gone down in history as the black sheep creation of Visceral Games, the studio better known for the Dead Space franchise.
It’s probably for the best that this game never got a sequel, because the plot is completely unhinged. I mean, I get that the premise of hell’s various circles seems tailor-made for video game levels (Hades did something similar, and quite well).
But Dante’s Inferno takes some extreme liberties with its source material, which are significantly funnier if you’re familiar with the original poem. If you haven’t read it, here’s the gist: The Divine Comedy is about Alighieri’s self-insert character (who’s named Dante) going on a guided tour through hell, purgatory, and heaven. Why does he get to go on this tour in the first place? It’s not really important; the setting is just an excuse for the writer to make social commentary about various contemporary political and religious figures. He also gets to wax poetic about a crush he has on a dead idealized woman named Beatrice (she shows up for the heaven tour), and he hangs out with the ancient Roman poet Virgil, who serves as tour guide for Inferno and Purgatorio (but can’t go to heaven because he’s a pagan).
The video game makes more than a few changes to this plot. The protagonist is still named Dante, but now he’s a mega-muscular Templar knight fresh off fighting in the Crusades. Beatrice is still dead, but in this universe, she was Dante’s wife — and she didn’t get to go to heaven. Instead, she’s in hell, all because she made a deal with the devil (something you’re generally not supposed to do). Prior to the events of Dante’s Inferno, Beatrice agreed to a bet with Lucifer that Dante wouldn’t cheat on her while he was away fighting. Not only did he cheat on her, he did so with a war-captive Muslim woman, who offered herself to Dante in exchange for the life of a man, who turned out to be her husband. That husband tracks down Beatrice and stabs her in the back, which sounds like a bad day for Beatrice until you remember she already made a bet with Lucifer that her husband definitely wouldn’t cheat on her. Virgil is also in the game, and he’s exactly the same.
These drastic changes to one of the most iconic poems of all time are hilarious enough, but Dante’s Inferno is just getting started.
Rather than walk around the afterlife making pithy observations, this version of Dante carries a scythe that he uses to rip and tear through the naked bodies of demons and the damned. “The damned” includes numerous knife-wielding babies, who I guess are there because of original sin? The “Gluttony” level involves inhumane depictions of fat people, who are depicted as inherently evil (they should have known better than to inherit the genetic proclivity toward carrying more weight), and the “Lust” level is stuffed with genital-inspired architecture and naked lady demons whose attacks are not sexual so much as just unsettling. Speaking of unsettling: There’s a boss fight against a towering, naked Cleopatra, whose nipples open up like mouths with wagging tongues inside. You know, just in case you were excited about seeing boobs? Cleopatra’s boobs are going to make you feel bad for ever feeling excited about boobs in the first place.
Dante also meets plenty of people in hell who he can, for some reason, pardon and send to heaven. It’s not clear why Dante has this ability, nor why the absolution of these lost souls involves a rhythm-based minigame where circle-shaped “sins” fly toward a cross at the center of the screen. This minigame sucks. And yet, I was still happy to do it for the sake of pardoning Tiresias, who had been condemned to hell for gender variance.
The game comes pretty close to being an equal-opportunity offender. Even the straight white male protagonist is depicted as a total jagoff, both for cheating on his loving wife and for participating in the Crusades (which the game depicts as unethical and anything but righteous). Beatrice manages to be both virtuous damsel in distress and Satan’s consort, and in the latter role, it’s an open question as to whether she’s kinda enjoying it. If I had to pick somebody in this game who comes off the best, it would probably be Virgil. I mean, that dude is just vibing.
I downloaded Dante’s Inferno on Xbox Game Pass as a joke, after spending years wondering what could possibly happen in a game based on The Divine Comedy. I didn’t expect to spend the entire game having a great time with the combat, as well as laughing out loud at the complete absurdity of its super-edgy 2010 video game machismo. It’s a glimpse into a different time — one that I’m glad video games have left behind, not least because I never want to see a tongue come out of a massive nipple again. If you can manage not to throw up, then you’ll laugh — and you’ll even learn some history. By which I mean, history about what B-games of the early aughts were like. Not any history whatsoever about The Divine Comedy.