The prayers quell the pain of battle.
Video games feel like an embarrassment of riches right now. There are a ton of new releases demanding our attention, most of which deserve it. It’s never been easier to hop from game to game, sampling until you finally find one you want to commit to. So I decided to install Infernax on Game Pass on a lark, not knowing anything about it besides it looking Castlevania-y. I figured I would maybe hop around for an hour or so to see if it was interesting. This did not happen. I’ve now completed this game 3 times, playing every main route, along with scooping up some extra endings along the way. It’s only March, I know that, but I guarantee this will be a legitimate game of the year contender come December. This is the best retro action game I’ve played in years. The best since Shovel Knight. For me, even better. No hyperbole.
Infernax resembles a lot of things, mostly classic NES games. It’s like Castlevania 2, with its day/night cycle and constant combat with horror critters. It’s like Zelda 2, leveling your side scrolling dude with EXP and sending you back to square one if you bite it in dungeons. It’s even a bit like Faxanadu, with a strong focus on exploration and occasional esoteric solutions to problems. These comparisons are intentional; Infernax invites them, celebrates its inspirations, even going so far as to include a couple of direct nods and references. It’s also better than all of them. It plays smoother, looks better, and is more fully featured. It’s the game all of those were aspiring to be, the culmination of their ideas.
You could probably describe Infernax as a “metroidvania”, but I wouldn’t. The game doesn’t railroad you once you leave the first town, meaning you can take on areas out of order to some extent, but the map is relatively small and most areas don’t connect in that maze-y way the genre tends to opt for. Instead each new area is a separate branch that typically demands a specific traversal tool to access. You will have reason to revisit areas, often utilizing a new spell or tool in your arsenal to complete a quest, but it never demands the constant backtracking most metroidvanias lean on. Instead it focuses on making each area distinct from the next, with unique hazards and challenges, allowing each to shine for its own reason.
Combat is a constant. It’s also mostly on one button aimed via jump or crouch. Not swinging raises your shield which blocks most projectiles, but (once you get an early ability) your swings can reflect them, which creates an interesting choice when enemies start piling up. Early on it’ll be challenging enough just to reflect shots back at individual foes, but by endgame you’ll be comfortable smashing melee enemies while simultaneously returning spears to their senders. It’s decisive, brutal, and quick. Once you mix in the expanding arsenal of spells your options will broaden somewhat but those are more for special occasions. Swing the mace, splat the demons, gore comes out. It’s as straightforward as it is satisfying.
A large portion of that satisfaction is sourced from Infernax‘s presentation. It exists in the same between-zone as the likes of Shovel Knight or Cyber Shadow. Too nice for NES, not quite SNES, nostalgic while doing its own thing, and it works some kind of magic in its niche. Every character and item is expressive and clean, every enemy is distinct, every hitbox matches up to its sprite closely (with the exception of your weapon which is juuuuust a bit generous, a nice touch). This is a horror setting and that comes across at every opportunity. There are some HIDEOUS enemies in this game and I love each and every one of them. Bosses are introduced with massive splashes that show them off in all their gory glory, and finishing them off will shower your sprite in meat juice as their insides become their outsides.
I do need to voice my one notable criticism. For as gloriously grotesque as its bosses are, they’re easy to a fault. Boss patterns typically consist of 2-3 moves and while their hits are painful, they’re also very reactable and in some cases exploitable. I suspect both of these traits are intentional; not much feels better to retro action vets than perfectly avoiding an attack AND being able to apply mace to face at the same time. Levels ramp up their difficulty smoothly but if anything the bosses do the opposite. This means these fights feel more like a reward for getting to the end of a deadly level rather than a final hurdle, a gory spectacle to end each obstacle course on a high, and to the game’s credit it is satisfying! I just found myself wanting a few more big foes who could go toe to toe.
That said this rarely if ever affected my enjoyment, in large part because it’s hard to lose enthusiasm when your head is bobbing involuntarily. From the heroic adventuring songs like A Good Day to Be Alive, to the various pulse pounding combat tracks, to the unique dungeon and town themes (my favorite of which is The Dark Arts), it’s bangers all the way down. There’s so much music that it never has a chance to feel repetitive, and even when your focus shifts to staying alive the tunes ensure that you’ll find yourself immersed in Infernax‘s vile and violent world as you attempt to make it just a little less awful.
Or, and hear me out on this one, make it even worse. The game offers loads of sidequests, many of which have variable outcomes, ALL of which affect the world and your standing in it. Your choices matter, and I know that phrase gets thrown around a lot in video games with crappy binary morality systems, but Infernax‘s take on it works better than most of those combined because there is rarely a “correct” choice. Many quests don’t have a happy ending, only consequences. If you help a butterfly flap its wings in one town somebody will be murdered by thugs in another, that kind of effect. If you play this game blind I can all but guarantee you will not achieve the most-good or most-evil endings on your first playthrough. I sure didn’t, ending up with a good-ish ending that teased far greater threats lurking in the shadows, and that was a major motivator for me to immediately throw myself into another run.
The game warrants additional playthroughs more than most of its ilk because you cannot possibly see all of it in one go. For reference my first playthrough didn’t even reveal half of the game’s enemies in the compendium. As I pushed to complete the extreme alignment routes I was staggered at how much content was hidden there, where many players may not ever see it! Both routes offer spells and upgrades that are uniquely theirs, the good route has the largest dungeon in the game as well as several unique bosses, and the evil route fundamentally overhauls the entire back half of the game. Both contain Infernax‘s most impressive setpieces, biggest battles, and its most climactic moments. The maximum good playthrough was definitely the most satisfying to complete in terms of challenge, but I would be lying if I said the max evil end sequence didn’t feature my favorite monster design in a game loaded with excellent creatures. Everything in Infernax is worth seeing, all of it is worth playing, and there is plenty of it.
This review hasn’t been replete with clever wordplay or analogies because Infernax is as straightforward as it is good. All I want to do is talk about my enjoyment of the game, which was immeasurable. Is that a useful thing for a critic to say? I hope so. When I sit down and focus on the design choices, the sheer amount of detail, the polish on display, I only come away appreciating the game more. I rarely go back to games right after playing them for review, but after I finish writing this I’m going to start another playthrough with the not-so-secret wizard character just to see how much I can abuse his regenerating mana. After so many years of playing the games that it iterates on, it feels like a decisive victory for the genre. Infernax is more than its inspirations, more than its trappings, and more than its competition.
Reviewed on Xbox Game Pass.