A Hard Day’s Knight

HIGH The secret ending is the work of pure unfettered genius.

LOW Wandering around pointlessly in search of the entrance to Stormheim.

WTF The markedly more realistic approach to certain Castlevania moments.

Retro-inspired games aren’t exactly few and far between these days. It’s borderline impossible to hop onto any digital store without all manner of old-school shooters, platformers and pixel art whatnots making themselves known in short order. However, very few of those channel the energy of history’s more experimental titles.

Enter Infernax, which takes the Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest approach of offering a 2D side-scrolling RPG-centric style of design and leverages it to great effect. Players will journey through towns full of quests and equipment upgrades, days will shift into night, and there’s more than a few secrets to uncover along the way.

The story setup is simple — the heroic, handsome and upright Lord Forman (yes, they can be named as players see fit) has returned to his homeland after a stint away in the Crusades, only to find it overcome by a great evil. Zombies are feasting on villagers, villagers are turning into monsters, and a cult full of red-robed lunatics are attempting to start a demon-fueled apocalypse. Time to start slaying these bastards, then!

Armed with a mace and a shield, the player will traverse the 2D world while leaping across platforms and smashing enemies in gory fashion. The assorted abominations tend to be grotesque creatures that burst apart on death, with bosses often showering the screen in blood and bits. These bosses also often have some… ‘graphic’ designs. Let’s just say that certain orifices look like other orifices and leave it at that.

It’s not just straight action here, though — player choice is a big thing in Infernax as well. Almost as soon as the game begins, a choice is given to try and help or slay a villager begging for death, and there are a lot of these decisions  to be found throughout. Should the player attempt to reason with a caged monstrosity or burn it alive? Should they share a drink with shady vagrants, or exile them from the land? I’m glad to mention that these aren’t ‘shades of gray’ choices where everyone gets shafted to some extent and there are no good outcomes, by the way — while doing the right thing might still end up with someone blameless getting an axe in the head, it never feels like a wrong outcome.

Even better, the storyline develops differently depending on how players conduct themselves. Various NPC’s react differently, characters live and die based on player choice, and new sidequests and critical paths make themselves known at appropriate moments. What’s more, an ‘evil’ playthrough offers a completely different set of skills and spells. It doesn’t transform the core experience, but it certainly adds a welcome twist to the proceedings.

During the adventure, players will collect money and experience that can be traded to shopkeepers and shrines for various upgrades. Wizards sell spells, Blacksmiths offer stronger armor and upgraded maces, and experience can be exchanged for more attack power, health or mana. While there are two difficulties available (Classic and Casual) combat should never be overly taxing as long as players update their skills and equipment appropriately throughout.

While the combat’s actually pretty easy, some of the platforming can be a real pain. Casual offers additional checkpoints, but on Classic it’s common to be limping out of the dungeon and then have to take a potentially-lethal leap of faith where it’s impossible to see the floor.

Look, I get it. Old school challenge, mate. It’s a tribute to what the NES were like, innit? Fair enough, but there’s one obvious problem — irritating and unfair design from the olden days remains irritating and unfair now. Of course, these issues can be negated completely through the use of in-game cheat codes offered as an accessibility concession (which is rad!) but it doesn’t change the fact that some parts of Infernax could benefit from a redesign to eliminate the trial-and-error aspect of platforming. As it stands, a number of these sections feel a little too much like ‘gotcha’ moments rather than tests of skill.

Besides the dedication to old-school platform design, something that sets Infernax apart from the retro crowd is its selection of NES-related easter eggs, some of which are incredibly deep cuts that only doddering old fools like myself have a chance of recognizing. For instance, at one point I spotted a fairly innocuous wall. Recognizing it immediately, I trotted over and performed the Red Crystal ritual from Simon’s Quest… then spent the next thirty seconds or so laughing like a maniac, and it’s just one of many including a secret ending that’s damn near mindblowing.

It’s clear that Berzerk Studios put a ton of effort into Infernax, with even the most obscure moments and references often being fleshed out in unexpectedly engaging ways. Aside from a few platforming quibbles and one ‘puzzle’ that felt like a complete waste of my time, Infernax offers up a solid and engaging experience from start to finish. It has a great sense of humor, strong gameplay and it honors the humble ’80s sidescroller adventure genre far more enthusiastically than I ever expected.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Berserk Studio and published by The Arcade Crew. It is currently available on XBO/X/S, PS4/5, Switch and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the XBX. Approximately 18 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed four times. Once on Classic difficulty and three times on Casual. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: The ESRB hadn’t rated this game at the time of review. Expect an M, though, due to gore and nudity. As the developers themselves put it: THIS GAME CONTAINS MATURE THEMES THAT MAY NOT BE SUITABLE FOR EVERYONE, RANGING FROM SAUCY LANGUAGE, ACTS OF VIOLENCE IN THE NAME OF JUSTICE, COPIOUS AMOUNTS OF GORE, AND HALF CLOTHED DEMON PEOPLE OF VARYING DEGREES OF ATTRACTIVENESS. BY INSTALLING THIS GAME YOU HEREBY AGREE THAT YOU ARE COOL WITH THIS. COOL? COOL. They’re not wrong. Enemies burst apart, bosses have genitalia-inspired designs in places, and there’s even some anime-style boobs on display in the ‘evil’ ending which is really quite disappointing to see in this day and age — you’d think they’d put them in earlier and make them more easily accessible.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game does not offer subtitles, but all dialogue is written instead of voiced. The text size cannot be changed. There’s essentially no reliance on sound to succeed in the game, and I’d say that it’s perfectly playable without sound at all times. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.

Darren Forman
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