If you're into modern games with retro style, you've got no shortage of options on Switch. For years now talented younger developers have been channelling nostalgia and affection for the games of their youth into new titles that update classic mechanics and genres with mod-cons and 21st century flair. Games like Shovel Knight might feel like you could have been playing them in the '80s, but there are typically myriad little enhancements and features included that are only possible thanks to modern tech, however brilliantly authentic the game looks and feels.
The very latest game to scratch that delicious retro itch is Infernax from Berzerk Studio, a challenging 2D Metroidvania-style adventure which nods towards such classic NES titles as Zelda II, Ninja Gaiden and Castlevania — quite the touchstones! Having thoroughly enjoyed Berzerk's glorious Just Shapes & Beats, we were eager to see how the developer fared in this very different genre.
The game is out on Valentine's Day and to find out more we recently spoke via email to Berzerk Studio's Mike Ducarme and Hunter Bond. The answers below are compilation responses from both developers.
Nintendo Life: Can you discuss some of the design and creative decisions that brought the team towards Infernax in the early days of the project, as it's a very different style and genre to your last Switch game, Just Shapes & Beats?
In the very beginning, Infernax was actually a small-scale project similar to many of Berzerk’s early games, and was designed as an online Flash game. If you go through Berzerk’s back catalog of games, you’ll see a lot of games that are very arcade and retro game inspired during those times, so since Infernax was actually technically started 12 years ago, a lot of that OG Berzerk Studio DNA is still very present in the final version of the game today.
Just Shapes & Beats though was and still kind of is an outlier in our portfolio. A big factor of it is that Just Shapes & Beats was the brainchild of one of our other founders, Simon “Lachhh” Lachance while Infernax’s creative direction on the other hand is from Etienne, one of the other three original co-founders of Berzerk Studio.
Different brain, different game, same underlying Berzerk DNA.
What were the most influential games, as sources or inspiration or reference, when you started work on the project?
Infernax obviously wears a lot of its inspiration on its sleeve, and in this case we’re talking a lot about Zelda II and Castlevania II. Often when describing the game we’ve called it a Zeldavania, because many of the elements in the game that would cause some to call it a Metroidvania are actually mostly inspired by the second Zelda game for NES.
Other less obvious sources of inspiration were looking at historical sources like accounts directly from documented knights like Jean De Joinville, and historical accounts like the Battle of Agincourt. Obviously Infernax leans very heavily into the supernatural horror of its setting, but when working on things like dialog and characterization we definitely had a lot of conversations around how the fact that the player is controlling the Duke of this land would change the way NPCs interact with them.
Heavy Metal had a large part in the soul of the game, obviously the imagery speaks for itself, but at times the tone of the game and the state of the lands can be quite bleak, and we drew inspiration from things like King Diamond, Mercyful Fate, and other bands whose work fit the feeling we wanted for the game.
The download / Indie scene in particular has a lot of retro-styled pixel art games, did you consider this a challenge or an opportunity in terms of getting Infernax to stand out?
It’s always interesting to answer this one, because technically since Infernax was conceived as an idea and the initial version coded almost 12 years ago, the original design predates many of the games people would think of when talking about the modern retro-art pixel scene. So to that effect, we weren’t concerned about it at all when we started, back then we just wanted to make a kick ass pixel game in Flash, really. But as we’ve wrapped it up I think we’ve come to the place where we’re happy about what we’re making, and know that for the audience who likes it, it’s going to be like we wrote their name on it. Watching other studios from Quebec that we’re close with release such killer games like The Messenger [from Sabotage] in the same space to wide acclaim can definitely be intimidating in a way, but we’re happy to have made what we made, and hope for the people who want what Infernax is, it’ll be received well too.
Infernax was actually technically started 12 years ago, a lot of that OG Berzerk Studio DNA is still very present in the final version of the game today
On this final round of development leading to release, we weren’t so worried about designing the game specifically to stand out, instead focusing on what the game already was and did well, and then bringing as much polish as possible so that all of those aspects felt really good to interact with. The great opportunity with Infernax is that because of the historically mixed feelings towards Zelda II and Castlevania II, it’s pretty fresh soil as opposed to the well-worn path of following one of the more traditionally beloved mainline games from either series.
For those coming into the game fresh, can you outline the gameplay loop between town / village sections and action segments?
Villages are where most of the NPC’s live, and often are both quest hubs and important story locations. This is where you prepare your next adventure, get to know the villagers and their troubles and see if there’s anything for you to do. It’s not just a pit stop between two places where you buy new gear and promptly leave, it’s a part of your journey, of your story.
Your choices during the game can and will have an effect on the state of the villages and the people who inhabit them as the game goes on; they are not just idly walking around while the world burns around them, they are a part of the world just as much as the player.
Choice and consequences are a key part of the game, can you give an example of how a key choice can affect a playthrough?
Each choice piles upon others as the game goes on not only to change the eventual ending the player receives, but to change the playstate itself.
Depending on choices made, a player may have less resources available, or the spells and equipment offered will vary in the play-through based on the choices they’ve made during that playthrough. Some may make the game more difficult, but generally most serve to give differing experiences.
It’s kind of hard to say more without spoiling story moments, in a nutshell, things happen when you do things, or when you don’t do things; you can’t stop the circle of things happening, you can only try to make the things happening happen the way you want them to happen.
In the demo we played pre-release we didn't get to try out the mana / magic elements; can you talk a little about this feature? Are there multiple spells and opportunities to level up this ability?
As with the games that inspired it, especially Zelda II, the magic in the game is both functional in combat, but also at times serves to aid the player in certain tasks in the game. Depending on the path the player chooses, the exact effects and spells available may vary, making for a wider range of playthroughs than if there was a single static set of spells.
The game has a fair amount of gore and 'disgusting' boss designs. How important is that to the tone of the game, and what inspired that approach to the art design?
The Creative Director on the project, Etienne, likes to point to horror films from the '80s and '90s like Evil Dead and Brain Dead specifically for the gross-out aesthetic choices, in addition to in the case of Evil Dead how much it was used to play into the comedy.
Obviously the over-the-top gore and boss designs weigh heavily visually on the tone of the game, but they also play an important role in unifying the horror undertones of the entire game with the lo-fi pixel art. The initial idea behind the whole thing 12 years ago was to make a game that looked like it was straight out of the '80s, but could never have been greenlit, that all played a big part in trying to convey that feeling of “the game that was too bad for the public”.
As an elevator pitch, what can players expect when they play Infernax?
I mean, factually they can expect to play a video game, the video game contains a combination of pixels of a large range of different colors and emits sounds provided an audio output is present.
Joking aside, we tried our best to take what we loved most about the games that inspired us and to make it our own, then dumped a bucketload of pixelated gore over it, for good measure you know!
Hopefully Infernax will make them feel like they are right back in their couch fort sipping on Capri Suns on a Saturday morning, trying to figure out every little secret the game has to offer.
Many thanks to Mike and Hunter. Infernax is out on Switch and other platforms on Monday 14th February, and it's very good.