Ion Fury doesn’t just love 2.5D ‘90s shooters, it is a 2.5D ‘90s shooter. Developed by Voidpoint, a studio made up of veteran Build modders (the same engine used to create Duke Nukem all those years ago) and published by none other than 3D Realms, Ion Fury has all the hallmarks of a nostalgic killing spree down memory lane. Following hot the heels of similar retro-inspired shooters such as Dusk, Amid Evil and John Romero’s recent SIGIL, this indie FPS revels in the speed and carnage of its roots, offering up ten-ish hours of relentless action and exploration.
The game formerly known as Ion Maiden (you can guess which band sued the developers into oblivion) is technically a prequel, serving as an origin story of sorts for Shelly ‘Bombshell’ Harrison, last seen in the forgettable top-down shooter Bombshell from 2016. The good news is Ion Fury is a far more memorable experience, mainly because the studio clearly adores the era from which this shooter draws its inspirations, utilising its deep knowledge of the Build Engine to pack in as much detail as possible into every pixel. From neon-drenched streets to smoky bars and arcades, Neo DC – the game's setting – drips with personality.
Ion Fury does feature a handful of modern improvements, such as automatic save points, headshots and the ability to play the game in a quality higher than painfully small ‘90s resolutions, but it’s still a refreshingly old school game. Whether you’re a ‘rush in, guns blazing’ type of player or someone who prefers to pop out of cover to headshot a grenade launcher-toting enemy with your revolver, Ion Fury will not hold your hand, even on the lowest of difficulties. This is a game made with the old corridor shooter way of thinking: learn your patterns, make your shots count and look high and low for health, armour and ammo.
There is some story there, but much like the misogynistic adventures of the Duke himself, it’s the action and the level design that do most of the talking. Levels twist back on each other, revealing new shortcuts and secret rooms, leading to backtracking that feels natural as you find new key cards to unlock new doors, collecting health, armour and ammunition as you go. Ion Fury isn’t particularly daring with its puzzles – it really does just boil down to opening new doors to continue through the level – and you're soon left hoping for something more than the environmental conundrums of old.
Voidpoint has really pushed this version of the Build Engine to its limit, and while every enemy is effectively a walking cardboard cutout, there are little touches that really sell the whole experience, like the impressive fire effects – such as how you can set enemies aflame with incendiary rounds in a high-powered SMG – and how hitting an enemy with a shotgun shell up close will stagger them and force them back a few steps.
Despite being set in a dystopian world complete with neon-drenched cityscapes and gun-toting androids, Ion Fury’s arsenal weapons are oddly fun to wield, but ultimately end up feeling rather uninspired. There’s your usual raft of pistols, shotguns and SMGs, but after three decades of powerful shotguns, you’re left wanting something a little more creative. Each one does have an alternate firing mode, but the likes of Ratchet & Clank and Borderlands have made us connoisseurs of the boomstick variety, and you end up wishing Voidpoint had looked to the likes of Turok rather than Duke Nukem for its inspiration.
Some weapons are also so overpowered you’re unlikely to put them down in favour of the new guns you gradually unlock as you explore the game’s brief campaign. The shotgun, which you unlock with the first half-hour of the game, is so powerful in terms of range and accuracy that you can practically snipe distant enemies with a well-placed slug. It’s fun and empowering for the player, but it sort of defeats the point of utilising different weapons for different enemies and scenarios.
For all the fun that the levels themselves pose, the main boss fights that close each chapter definitely aren’t as enjoyable. Their respective patterns aren’t particularly tough to discern, but it’s the way each one throws an endless stream of enemies that makes these encounters far less palatable. Even manual saving is rendered pointless in these bullet hell-esque showdowns and most of the time you’re left wanting them to end so you can get back to the far more rewarding gunplay of the main game.
If you’re looking for a retro shooter that isn’t actually a 25-year-old port of a N64 game, then Ion Fury is the time-travelling love letter from the past you’ve been waiting for. While its weapons and boss fights won’t leave much of an imprint on your memory, the speed and intensity of its gunfights and the intricacy of its level designs more than make up for it. If you want to be punished and rewarded by the shooter principles of old, this is the new/old FPS for you.