The eShop is not short of retro-styled titles that show due reverence to iconic games of the 8- and 16-bit eras. From feisty ninjas in the likes of The Messenger and Cyber Shadow, to high profile efforts like Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon and its sequel, there are plenty of titles that are both throwbacks and very modern takes on genre classics. Another aiming to make its mark soon is Infernax, launching on Valentine's Day (14th February).
This retro-styled tribute has notable pedigree — it's been developed by Berzerk Studio, which brought us the outstanding Just Shapes & Beats. The publisher is The Arcade Crew, too, the Dotemu subsidiary that has helped deliver the likes of Blazing Chrome.
We stepped into a short-ish PC demo of Infernax with confidence, then, but this particular game's influences would potentially be enough to make one take pause. It's drawing from classics, but games that are arguably more famous for being outliers in their famous franchises. Yes, if you were to compare Infernax to 25-30-year-old games, you'd say it shares aspects of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, titles that are skipped over by many when talking about the greats in their respective IPs. These games have devoted fans and have been subjects of reappraisal post-Dark Souls, but they rarely get near the top of 'best of' lists.
To rewind a little, Infernax sets its scene in a familiar way for the new-retro Indie scene. Pulsing chiptune sounds and pixel art tell a tale of a Knight psychologically exhausted after years of war in the Crusades. This 12-13th Century setting sets us up for some medieval battling and locations, before diving off into the familiar tropes of evil sweeping the land in the form of zombies, floating eyeballs and grotesque monsters. So far, so very late '80s.
The initial play draws the most from 8-bit Castlevania, as you walk, jump and bash your way along with a basic horizontal attack. Zombies, annoying little hunchbacked things, eyeballs, scuttling giant bugs; it's all familiar but stylishly delivered. You get an early sense of the game not being overly forgiving, either, with hits taking 2 points off your health bar for extra cruelty. It's clear the developers want players of all types to have fun though, with a 'Casual' setting that gives you restarts with little cost, or a 'hardcore' option that puts you back and makes you re-earn your drops. Whichever way you go, the deceptively simple early screens should absolutely not allow you to relax; the game over screen is never far away.
It's brilliantly put together in this early part, utilising the pixel-based stylings to excellent effect as a brutish monster quite literally batters at the town gate.
After a relatively short amount of monster bashing you arrive in a village, which is where it starts feeling a bit Zelda II, which is a theme we'll get back to later. After a short while doors open up and some characters interact, though in this build — which was emphasized as 'super early' and from last year — not many villagers had much to say. The opening is also pretty linear, too, as you stumble across the town's existential fight for survival against an onslaught of monsters. It's brilliantly put together in this early part, utilising its pixel art to excellent effect as a brutish monster quite literally batters at the town gate.
The demo then introduced the first of three boss fights we played; as this boss was the first of the game it was simple, but the small touches started to shine through. Soldiers fighting alongside you get brutally splatted during the fight, and the monster itself is a hideous creation that is rather gross in the best possible way. The opening 30-45 minutes becomes a quest to hunt this beast down, but the story is both simple and well-told. Brave soldiers go ahead to start the fight, only for you to encounter their bodies and even their brutal murders as you progress. Animation and artwork is top notch, and you soon realise that this is no game for children.
Our demo eventually took us into a dungeon, too, which is where a little more Zelda II influence shone through. We had to track down a few keys and started to meet trickier enemies. Some threw spears — your character does auto-block when not moving — while others had the classic arching axe throws. Then there were foes with shields that required a bit more strategy and patience to defeat. Ideas borrowed from a long-gone age of gaming, but delivered with modern polish and skill.
Though screens don't do it justice (check out the new release date reveal trailer at the top of the page to see the game in action), it also looks and sounds great in this PC build — though frankly, we'd be surprised if the presentation isn't equally good on Switch considering the art style. The music is authentically punchy with its old-school sound samples, and the developers — like many others — have found a good balance between mimicking retro visuals while incorporating modern techniques to suit modern displays and sensibilities.
There's plenty of charm and humour, too. Each death, for example, is gratuitous, as the screen transitions to red and the victorious enemy brutalises your corpse in shadow. Enemy designs are also excellent, and the second boss we encountered was even more revolting than the first, with the developers clearly having fun in their efforts to emphasize the violence and depraved design that lingers in some classic games.
Unfortunately, considering we were enjoying its atmosphere so much, the demo was short. We didn't get to see many of the 'choice' elements of the game play out, nor dive into the mana/magic aspects of our hero's arsenal. We did a few basic level-ups, tackled some foes that felt familiar yet slightly different from the sources of inspiration, and saw a lot of pixelated gore.
We can't wait to see more.
Infernax releases on Switch eShop on 14th February.