While Konami’s iconic Castlevania franchise has usually been met with critical praise and excellent sales, the recent explosion of the Metroidvania genre among indies has brought a new spotlight on this exciting offspring of 2D action platformers. Quebec-based developer, Berzerk Studio’s objective is an 8-bit love letter to the early days of the franchise, delivering an open-ended yet old school game of battles, platforming, and plenty of player agency. This is the XboxEra review for Infernax!
Symphony of the Knight
This 2D single-player title puts the player into the boots of a respected knight, with the unenviable task of stopping a demonic invasion of the kingdom, eradicating enemies across towns, roads, castles, sewers, and so on. As anticipated, this happens in a typical Metroidvania fashion: most areas appear visible from the start, but reaching them may need a skill or move that’s not yet been unlocked, thus requiring plenty of backtracking and revisiting prior areas. Enemies also respawn when revisiting past zones, but at least they keep gifting XP and coins to the player for some favourable farming.
The core gameplay, too, is very reminiscent of action games of old. No, not the violent shootouts of Contra and the likes, but the relatively short-range attacks via swords, mace, and so on, that push back enemies, allowing the player to step back and forth in short-lived encounters that wouldn’t feel too out of place in a fencing competition. Ranged attacks are a rarity, with only a handful of magic attacks allowing for such damage, and in between battles expect a large variety of platforming segments – with classics such as moving platforms, spikes, rotating wheels to balance on, and bottomless pits to avoid.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s NES
The game takes pride in its main sources of inspiration of the NES era, with titles like Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde serving as the main sources of inspiration with their convoluted exploration segments, a day-night segment that changes the monsters roaming the lands, and so on. There’s even a quite hilarious callback to the infamous part in Simon’s Queste where the player, with no hint whatsoever, needs to crouch in a specific corner for about 10 seconds, only to be taken away by a hurricane.
It’s an approach very much reminiscent of Shovel Knight, with which it also shares much of the character progression. Every enemy killed can give the player XP and coins, even after repeated kills, thus offering ways to conveniently farm if one were to find the game a tad difficult and needs an extra hand. And the game can be quite unapologetic at times: not only certain enemies and boss fights can take massive chunks of health away with each hit, but there’s also plenty of pits, lava pools, and even water that, when touched, is instantaneous death. On the normal difficulty, players don’t get more than a few extra lives at any given time, and when they expire, it’s back to the closest save point, which can be various screens back.
Unlike Yacht Club Games’ iconic indie title, however, Infernax feels in many ways more confined by the rules and designs of the era. Many quests feel rather convoluted, making it unclear what needs to be done to progress with the story; this, in turn, leads to a lot of backtracking and plenty of trial and error, since there’s often only a single option to progress. The number of enemies and their placement also often feel rather sadistic and not particularly well designed, as the pushback of a single hit between moving platforms almost automatically results in an unavoidable death. Skills such as a deadly thunderstorm exist to try and clear the screen, but the mana pool is limited, and for the most part, players will need to get close and personal via melee attacks, which is a huge risk at times.
The game is at least rather generous in its item and power management. Players get to unlock stronger and stronger weapons and armors, can continuously increase the maximum health, mana, and base damage via upgrades bought via XP, and there’s also an increasing amount of slots that can be unlocked to hoard regenerating potions, on top of several skills aimed at restoring health or increasing damage resistance. There are even extra lives, that are always reset at save points. Some particularly annoying bosses and the castle that leads to them can be dealt with a lot easier with all this assistance, though the instant death scenarios such as pitfalls and lava remain lethal either way.
Back to where it all began
The game’s campaign, spanning about 8 hours, takes the player throughout several towns, where equipment and skills can be bought at shops, inns can be used for sleeping (which serves both as a regeneration of health and mana and as a time skip from day to night or vice versa), and several NPCs can give outside quests in exchange of loot. Interestingly enough, at various points throughout the campaign, the player gets to choose what to do: whether to kill or spare a mysterious creature, whether to stay loyal to one’s side or make a deal with some bandits, and so on. All these decisions will later impact in-game events and storylines, with even multiple endings that depend on our deeds as a knight.
I do not think that revisiting said story branches is truly worth the effort, however. The game features plenty of backtracking and aimless wandering as is, with the respawning enemies and the save point system that will likely put the player through the same areas plenty of times already. Indeed, before the end credits roll, the game already started losing a bit of steam, with high-precision platform and combat segments that sometimes overstay their welcome, with enemy and trap placements that often feel rather sadistic for no reason at all.
R8 my 8-bit, m8
The game’s visuals deserve a bit of extra praise, however. While mostly staying faithful to the style and possibilities of the 8-bit NES aesthetics, there are a couple things that you really wouldn’t see in that era. Enemies break into dozens of gibs and blood splatters, which can even make the protagonist completely soaked in blood. But most importantly there’s some slightly animated storyboard sequences with highly detailed, yet still 8-bit and relatively low resolution drawings, much reminiscent of the splash screens of games on the NES. The music also feels straight out of that era and style of soundtracks, and while it’s generally pleasant to listen to during combat, there’s not really any standout track I could mention even after many hours in the game.
What often makes or breaks difficult platforming games is the precision of controls and the reliability of the in-game logic. Infernax does present a couple hiccups in these areas, unfortunately. Moving platforms and rotating wheels presented a couple inconsistent landings, coupled with the annoying pushback of enemies, who occasionally seemed to hit me after my weapon quite inexplicably missed them from shockingly low distances. Fortunately, I only encountered such issues a handful of times during my review process.
Infernal, but with an X
Infernax tries and, for the most part, succeeds at replicating what made the classic 8-bit Castlevania titles so beloved, making a conscious decision of ignoring the improvements of the 16-bit era, while also implementing a few more modern progression elements. The result isn’t the most unique game ever, and a handful of design choices left me slightly puzzled, but what matters is that the game is fun, rewarding, and polished enough to appeal both to aging fans of the Metroidvania genre and newcomers alike, albeit the latter group may find the difficulty a tad overwhelming at times.
|Reviewed on||Xbox Series X|
|Release Date||February 14th, 2022|
|Available on||Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Playstation 4|5, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows|
|Publisher||The Arcade Crew, DotEmu|
|Rated||M for Mature|