Date: February 14, 2022
Since Valentine’s day is a made-up, materialistic holiday, it seems a particularly appropriate day to tell you about something else you should buy that involves lots of red, hearts, and is totally made up — Infernax, from Berzerk Studio. These guys clearly loved their NES (they’ve told us as much) and Infernax is without a doubt a well-crafted
love letter Valentine’s card to classic gaming. At least on the surface, it’s exactly what you’d expect by looking at it. You’re a knight, returning home from a crusade to find everything’s all donked up by evil magic. Naturally, it’s up to you to fix it by bashing a series of bad guys with your mace.
All the standard old-school 2D platformer rules are in effect: you can only swing your mace sideways, so you’ll have to jump or crouch to attack high and low until you get some magic. Falling into water, lava, or acid is insta-death, enemies respawn every time you re-enter an area, and the boss dungeons are the only objectives marked on your map. Additionally, there’s no fast travel, and you’ll constantly find yourself at a dead-end that obviously requires a double jump or some other new ability to continue. Drawing on inspiration from classics like Metroid 2 and Castlevania 2, as well as titles I’ve never heard of like Forbidden Forest, Infernax manages to capture the feeling of those old titles while still including many of the modern conveniences of gaming — but only if you want them.
In its first major divergence from the titles that inspired it, Infernax allows you to pick from Casual or Hardcore restart each time you die. Picking Hardcore restarts you at the last checkpoint — which is almost always right outside of the dungeon you died in — and you’ll lose anything you gained since the last time you saved. You can also choose Casual Restart, which lets you keep a good chunk of the gold and XP you earned. However, this prevents you from ever picking Hardcore Restart again — you’re a casual for the rest of the playthrough. Considering this also adds an extra checkpoint inside each dungeon, it’s totally worth it if you’re as bad at platforming as I am.
Speaking of XP and checkpoints, there is another way Infernax takes lessons from the present. You can spend XP at any checkpoint to raise your maximum HP or mana, or increase your damage. These upgrades all feel meaningful: each HP and mana upgrade is a significant increase to your total, while the damage upgrades always serve as breakpoints — it takes 1 less hit to kill almost every enemy each time you level your damage. This system is simple and effective, and it felt great to level up and immediately feel the impact of my newfound power. The same goes for new spells and abilities, which all feel useful, powerful, and satisfying to use.
Those damage upgrades feel especially important given how many times you have to kill each enemy. No newfangled “resting resets all enemies” like wanna-be hard games like Dark Souls; in Infernax, every time you enter an area, all the enemies are back and ready for action. However, since your character gets pretty dang powerful by the end of the game, it’s actually kind of fun to smash your way through foes that took your life a few hours back — at least the first few times. The backtracking got tiresome after a bit, but then I’ve never been a big fan of how most metroidvanias don’t let you zoom around the map somehow. I rarely died while backtracking, which was relieving but also made it feel like even more of a time sink.
The backtracking wouldn’t have felt so bad if the game’s art design wasn’t so true to Infernax’s old-school roots. While the attention to detail and overall aesthetic in the game’s various dungeons is excellent, the tilesets used for the outdoor areas leave a lot to be desired, and I got pretty sick of staring at the same hideous bricks and stones. The music felt much the same, in that it was fun and retro at first, but eventually I got tired of it.
Still, besides those minor complaints, I enjoyed pretty much everything else about Infernax. The platforming and enemies all feel challenging but fair (though I had to turn on casual mode pretty quickly). The controls are smooth and responsive. The bosses are all uniquely disgusting, though I found them significantly less challenging than the dungeon that precedes them — perhaps they’re also tuned down for casual mode, but they tended to die before I got to see their moveset more than once or twice. Despite how little I saw of them, they were all memorable, with cool attacks that were thematic and fun to avoid. The game also features a number of set-piece narrative scenes that wouldn’t feel out of place in any modern title.
In another nod to more modern design tropes, Infernax features multi-step quests and a number of binary moral choices throughout the game. The quests all have good rewards, and the moral choices often have unexpected consequences. Instead of merely contributing to what ending you get, you’ll run into related events later that change depending on your choices. I found the decisions and their results fairly interesting compared to most games that involve moral choices, and I’m honestly excited to go back through the game and see how the other options turn out. Like the boring normie I am, I did a “Good” playthrough, and I’m excited to see if being evil is even more rewarding than playing the White Knight.
There’s also apparently a lot of stuff you can miss in your first playthrough. Again, it’s unclear whether this was because I was on casual mode or not, but I managed to only fill out 44% of my bestiary while completing the game. I could have sworn I saw most of the map, but from what I could glean from the in-game Library, I didn’t see half of the game’s major bosses. In retrospect, there were a number of questlines I didn’t finish, and one or two double-jump-gated dead ends that I never went back and checked. Clearly, Infernax is a game that needs to be played multiple times if you want to see everything it has to offer.
I’ve always found the nostalgia-bait games appealing at first, and then put them down after a few too many deaths-by-lava. But thanks to its clever blend of modern mechanics and old-school design, Infernax managed to hold my attention all the way to the final boss (or at least what I think was the final boss). It’s the kind of indie game that makes me so grateful we’ve got publishers like The Arcade Crew helping get awesome indie games made.
For less than the cost of a pasta dinner for two, you can grab Infernax on Steam starting February 14th!
Have strong opinions on Valentine’s Day? How about 2D retro platformers? Let us know in the comments!