Hello Castlevania, my old friend. It’s that time again, the annual ‘Vania marathon; looks like Lord… Alcedor is going to grab his trusty… mace, to take on… Paimon? Wait, this isn’t Simon’s Quest! I must have had all my Xbox cartridges magically swapped out when I angered that genie last weekend. Still, this Infernax business doesn’t look half bad; platforming, hardcore difficulty, intense gore and enemies that belong on a heavy metal album cover; what a wonderful night to have a curse!
Anybody who knows me will be able to tell you three things about me: I love heavy metal, I love rock hard retro games and I don’t think Simon’s Quest was a bad game at all. After about ten minutes of Infernax it was clear to me that the people over at Berzerk Studio and I are probably on the same page.
The game is a thoroughly old-school Metroidvania throwback and within seconds of booting it up (Classic Difficulty all the way, please) you’re thrown into a world of 2D pixel platforming goodness, smashing zombies in the face with your mace while a pumping chiptune soundtrack assaults your ears with a sonic tang and a NES authenticity that few composers manage to properly capture.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this sounds a bit familiar; a lot of indie games in recent years have received praise for their attempts to soulfully capture the essence of late-80s gaming, and some have done so remarkably well, but Infernax deserves the praise heaping on it for how masterfully it pulls it off and so I have grabbed my trusty praise shovel and am about to being heaping.
Some games are a slow burn that gradually introduce mechanics and subtly tease their lore while gracefully building atmosphere (yes, Elden Ring is amazing), others start by having a hunchback explode into gibs before turning into what can only be described as the lovechild of Clive Barker and Stuart Gordon and then making you fight the monstrosity while its wife watches you bash it to death. Infernax is the latter, and it’s exactly this immediate quality that makes the game so good; a platformer with the soul of Castlevania and the heart of DOOM, if this is your kind of thing it will suck you in instantly. What initially feels like a fairly standard retro-throwback platformer, though, quickly shows that, while it wears its influences on its sleeves, it keeps a host of nifty tricks hidden up them.
Yes, the cutscenes feel very Ninja Gaiden influenced, yes the enemy and level design feel very Castlevania-y and yes, the towns and some of the mechanics are certainly reminiscent of Zelda II, but the game never feels derivative. In fact, Infernax feels like a game that understands Simon’s Quest better than Konami did at the time.
The formula is similar; overworld areas, interspersed with towns and dungeons, a series of items to collect to unlock a path to the Big Evil, but the execution is overall better – there are actual bosses, for one, nothing important to progression is hidden due to obscure, badly translated hints, and the game has a difficulty level more reminiscent of the first Castlevania. With the addition of quality-of-life changes that have helped the popularity of the Metroidvania formula over the years, Infernax feels a lot like the game Konami would have made, had the genre existed properly back in 1987.
Infernax is not all ‘80s throwbacks and NES stylings, though. There’s a distinctly modern feel to the game’s dark religious tone (something that Nintendo would certainly not have allowed back in the day) which brings to mind the excellent Blasphemous, and the sidequests are easy to track and add an extra layer of depth to the exploration, sometimes taking you off your intended path, leading to you tackling bosses and dungeons in an order different than you may have intended.
What’s surprising is that, despite the usual Metroidvania roadblocks, where you need to toddle off and learn a new skill to pass an obstacle, Infernax felt like it let you explore the world surprisingly freely, tackling certain bosses and dungeons in any order. As you go about your business you will find morality-based choices to make with certain NPCs, many of which are never quite as black and white as they initially seem, leading to surprising consequences and unexpected depth to your actions. Sometimes playing the righteous hero may lead to unintended consequences later down the line, but there are several different endings, depending on how naughty or nice you’ve been, and the rewards are often worth chasing, as the dungeons are all pretty challenging and the extra XP and gold can help to reduce some of that old-school difficulty.
It would not do to discuss Infernax without raving about the music for a bit. All too often chiptune soundtracks have authentic sounding NES MIDI soundfonts but lack the restraint required to use them to their fullest potential. I am willing to contradict Yngwie Malmsteen once ,and only once, and that is to say that when it comes to MIDI music less truly is more. Infernax’s composer understands this. The soundtrack is brought to us courtesy of the immensely talented FamilyJules, who has honed his video game chops by covering tons of classic soundtracks on his YouTube channel, and crucially for a game like Infernax, the man seems to understand that Castlevania’s amazing soundtracks always felt like a perfect infusion of baroque and romantic era classical and shred guitar. While Infernax never quite hits the dizzying heights of a piece like Bloody Tears or Vampire Slayer, there’s a brilliant mix of classical drama and heavy metal thunder that gives the game an electrifying flair that really gets you pumped to go rip and tear your way through hordes of demons.
Infernax is a game developed by a team that clearly has a massive amount of love and respect for the classics, but who have the confidence to step in and tweak those small flaws that have led to the likes of Simon’s Quest and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link being unfairly pilloried over the years. If you can’t get enough of retro throwback platformers, love violent dark fantasy, or think that Holy Diver had the coolest album cover ever (you’re right) you owe it to yourself to buy a copy of Infernax.
Infernax can be downloaded from the Xbox Store