Review – Infernax
One of the hardest things for a game to create is the experience of gaming as a kid. Many of the players who got their footing in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras are now fully grown adults, potentially with the income to get all the games to their heart’s desire but not the time nor necessarily the drive. Developers, big and small, have sought to connect to the market that’s nostalgic for the days of pixel art and limited directional control, and it’s been a hit or miss sort of market.
Shovel Knight and Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon have done amazing jobs of replicating the environment, but the feeling isn’t the same, at least not for me. I think it’s because my childhood was able to overlook some of the flaws (less responsive controls, wonky targeting, STUPID difficulty) in ways that my adulthood doesn’t. So when another retro-inspired 2D sidescroller shows up, making promises of throwbacks and capturing that same feeling of the NES days, I’m skeptical at best. Still, I downloaded Infernax, the Kickstarter title from Berzerk Studios, and got ready to smirk my way through.
I was wrong. I was so deliciously, joyously wrong.
Infernax is the tale of a knight, whom you can name whatever, that returns to his homeland only to find it totally overridden with evil and corruption. He’s immediately beset by horror, watching villagers transform into monsters and seeing a vile abomination storm his castle gates and murdering soldiers without a second thought. The cardinal at the local cathedral, who has become some kind of leader in your absence, beseeches you to help out.
A quick scuffle later and a whole “chase the monster as a mob” bit later, we find that the true evil is locked away inside a castle, sealed by five orbs that the cardinal conveniently forgot about when he asked for your help earlier. Thoroughly annoyed but still trying to do good, you head out to find the five seals, destroy them and finally end the evil that plagues the land. Oh, and, if you get a chance, run like eight or twenty errands for the people around you.
From what I’ve gleaned, the developers of Infernax were heavily influenced by the classic NES title Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest, and it shows in a big way. With Infernax, there is a clear endpoint but not necessarily a clear way to get there. Set as a pixel art side-scrolling metrovania, you have to gradually flush out the map to see where you can go and, on occasion, find out the hard way that you can get to some places.
For a great example, the cardinal sets everyone on this massive chase to destroy the monster that attacked your village and then disappears towards the west. I followed, but then the cardinal wasn’t in the next couple of screens, and I went south when, apparently, I should have kept going west. The result was stumbling into a cemetery, doing some batshit jumps, clearing out a castle and even defeating an evil boss, freeing one of the seals before the cardinal even mentioned those existed. The way forward isn’t always clear, and, as it turns out, it can be totally up to you to decide how the events are going to play out.
Right from the start, Infernax charmed the hell out of me with excellent pixel artwork that was intentionally crude at moments and fantastically detailed at others. The portraits of the NPCs and our hero are clean and well drawn, and the brief cutscenes when you encounter a boss or significant fight are, to put it bluntly, terrifying. There was so much that went into making this game look amazing while keeping within the parameters of trying to mimic that NES feel that you can feel 8-bit oozing out the sides, begging to just overflow all over your monitor. The way your character gets gradually covered in blood as you slaughter waves of zombies, ghouls, floating eyeballs, asshole imps and any number of other monsters is glorious, and, naturally, it all gets cleaned up when you finally hit a save point.
When some developers set out to craft a retro-inspired game, they think the word “hard” and then immediately fuck it up by misinterpreting what the NES was like. There were shitty controls, sure, but a lot of that had to do with shitty developers trying to make a fast buck on the biggest selling console at the time. Contra is famously difficult, but it also had very floaty jumps that made the game harder than it had to be, and this was fixed by the time we got around to Super C.
If you then decide that you need to make your game difficult by having it be difficult to play, you’re just recreating frustration, not enjoyment. Berzerk Studios, bless them, understood this and make a tough game that handles like a new car. Infernax lets you get your feet wet by gradually turning up the heat as you move forward. The first few big fights are hard, but you can learn them and get through them in two, maybe three tries. The first couple castle/dungeons are tricky to navigate if you refuse to learn from your mistakes. Landing in water: dead. Landing in lava: dead. Falling in an endless pit: dead. They’re simple rules, and you adapt to what each castle is asking quickly.
Now, does it get hard as balls? You goddamn better believe it. It’s the penultimate dungeon, not the final one, that made me nearly quit in frustration with Infernax, but I pushed through and I goddamn did it. When people talk about games like Silver Surfer or Superman 64, these are games that are hobbled by janky, disheveled coding. Here, with Infernax, you learn that you don’t need to be pinpoint precision accurate, but there is a way to do things and doing them wrong ends in your death.
Are you going to be mad if you didn’t pick up the extra lives in Kastski and Arkos? Yes, you sure are, so take advantage of the game’s great design and snatch the cash to pick them up. If you die before finishing the castle, you’re going to have to do it all again, so at least grab the extra lives so you can get your ass out and save before getting murdered by those godawful teleporting bastards in Kastka Palace.
Infernax’s leveling system is a tried-and-true methodology of getting XP from killing enemies and, when the time is right, purchasing an upgrade to strength, your health bar or your mana bar. You can get through the game without maxing out a single stat: I don’t doubt some fool is trying to beat the game right now without doing a single upgrade. The XP system is wonderful for people who don’t mind a bit of repetition, because you can quickly grind out a lot of XP in the right places, which also means getting a bit of gold, and then purchasing both new spells and armor from the right shops. In any case, I made sure everything was at least at 3s before I went into the second castle, and that made the whole thing quite a breeze for me. It also helped with some quests that were seemingly overwhelming before I had my glow up.
Alright, quest work and alignment time. I haven’t played Infernax to the bone just yet, but the way the game adapts and learns from your choices is fascinating and incredibly complex. Right at the beginning, for example, there’s a dude who asks you to kill him because he’s about to become a demon. Flash decision: murder him or try to talk to him? If you kill him, he’s incredibly grateful, but his wife, who saw you stab her husband, is pissed and won’t talk to you ever again. If you try and help him, though, he becomes a mini boss that you have to defeat, but then his wife later sends you on a quest to defeat true evil and, if you can do it, the cash reward is quite lucrative.
Additionally, certain NPCs will only task you with quests if your alignment is leaning one way or another to a certain degree. Do enough good deeds and some of those knights will ask you to do errands for serious payout. Be enough of an evil dickhead and the doomsday cult might just find work for you afterall. There are multiple endings that I haven’t found yet, but I plan to because it’s just that good.
Lastly, in the technical department, I have to give a massive nod to the Game Master system, which is a clear Game Genie inspiration baked into the game. The ability to input codes that you learn from finishing the game (or crawling in the Steam forums) is a fun and exciting element that really emulated the better parts of the NES heydays. No one needs these codes, no one should expect that they can finish the game only with these codes, but, damn, they’re fun to use.
Warning for Switch owners: if you turn on the ultra gore mode where there’s just untold carnage on the screen, it will start to slow down, so I recommend skipping it for now. If you figure out the code for a jetpack, though, get ready for a whole new world of wildly unbalanced gameplay and probably getting murdered because you flew someplace you shouldn’t be yet.
My one and only serious gripe is the end boss. Besides being terrifically difficult in terms of getting hit (dude knocks like 4-5 health points at a time), it’s very anticlimactic, at least for the first run. You don’t even know you’re at the final boss until the end credits roll, which I think is a misdirection problem. Every other dungeon was huge and took up a ton of time to explore, and this castle only has two screens and then the BBEG is right there? We need better warning. Though the music probably should have clued me in, but I took it for granted because the Infernax soundtrack is awesome top to bottom. Seriously, I need this on Bandcamp.
What I loved the most was that Infernax did something that almost no retro-inspired game has done up to this point: it took me back. It made me appreciate and get excited over the exploration and discovery like no other game has in decades. It didn’t just look like a game from my childhood, it felt that way, and it drove me to keep going forward, to find out more, to see what I could do and even if I had the power to do it.
There was love and polish put into this game, and I realize it took years to be released, but it’s such a treat that I can barely stand it. I have two save files going and I’m about to start a third to see if I can be a real evil character, because I bet that’s going to be fun. If you were enthralled by the NES as a younger person, this is where you can recapture that magic. This is the game I wish I had played as a kid, because it sits perfectly with my memories of the games that inspired it. Don’t take my word for it: go see what NES games could have been like with better time and dedication. Berzerk Studios nailed it.
Tight pixel art combined with gorgeous murals of disgusting monsters, a true extreme of emotions.
Difficult but fair; players with even a smidge of interest in metroidvanias will be enthralled by the game.
Dynamic and orchestral, this is a chiptuned soundtrack that was orchestrated and then squeezed down for the best possible feeling.
I haven’t enjoyed a game this much in a long, long time.
Final Verdict: 9.5
Infernax is available now on Nintendo Switch, PC, XBox One X/S, and PS 4/5.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch
A copy of Infernax was provided by the publisher.