Games usually don’t ape Castlevania 2. Despite being the first literal example of the “Metroidvania” (i.e. the Metroid-inspired Castlevania games to purists as opposed to the “any game that has item and ability gating” that non-purists constantly refer to), folks tend to shy away from paying tribute to the troubled milestone game. Infernax goes all in, doing its best to evoke that game’s design and structure, although it’s honestly a better game by a fair margin. It doesn’t take long to beat, but it has a surprising amount of replay value, a good amount of depth, and plenty of entertaining gameplay. It has its frustrations, but Infernax is something fans of ’80s action platformers simply need to play.
Infernax drops you into the shoes of the Duke of Upel, Alcedor, who sets out to the region after it’s been assaulted by a wave of demonic undead, courtesy of a rampaging cult. An ominous cathedral lies in wait, locked by five magic seals that need to be dispelled to get in and cut off the flow of evil. However, things aren’t that simple. The game has two notably different routes, which you can easily lock yourself out of, leading to a neutral ending and a need to restart from scratch to see what you missed.
The game’s presentation is firmly rooted in the ’80s, but it doesn’t go for the 8-bit aesthetic. Visually, the game’s sprites and layout are strongly reminiscent of Castlevania 2, but Infernax uses a wider color palette and more detail than the NES could accommodate, looking more like a Master System or even an SNES game. The graphics are detailed, colorful, and do a great job of accompanying the gameplay. There are a lot of neat pieces of art accompanying certain events, such as choices and the start of boss battles. There’s a fair amount of dialogue, which is all well-written, but it sticks to the ’80s style and doesn’t bombard you with paragraph after paragraph.
Into the dungeon
The world of Infernax is divided between the overworld and the game’s castles, which are akin to the keeps that housed Dracula’s organs in Castlevania 2. You need to travel the land and obtain new skills to unlock the way forward. However, there aren’t many secrets that require backtracking with items, as Infernax is not trying to be that sort of a game. Honestly, I thought this was a missed opportunity, even though I understand the design impetus.
Alcedor’s health, mana, and attack are all increased by spending experience gained from slaughtering monsters. While an XP system is fine, I feel like hiding these as upgrades in the world that you could find by using abilities would have been even better. Enemies drop gold, which can also be found in chests, and is the most common reward for completing side quests. There are a fair amount of these quests, and they lead to a surprising amount of unique boss battles, making it very tempting to do everything. Gold is used to purchase upgrades, such as new armor, weapons, permanent extra lives, and spells from wizards and blacksmiths in towns.
The controls and moveset are very much what I wanted from a game such as this. Alcedor fights with a mace, but his trajectory and feel aren’t all that different from your garden variety Belmont. Platforming is tight and extremely responsive, with careful consideration paid to platform placement and enemy spawns. Attacks are similarly reliable. Alcedor doesn’t have much range at first, but the combat is well tuned and the enemies and level design typically flourish in tandem with one another, making gameplay very satisfying most of the time.
While Infernax is mostly exemplary, there are aspects that somewhat irked me. The third castle is the most miserable part of the game, solely because its challenge is heavily reliant on enemies knocking Alcedor backward into pools of water that kill him in one hit. Yes, it’s just like Castlevania. But the series cut that out because, as games got longer, there was no need for them to be padded out with cheap bullshit that forced players to restart more often. On the classic difficulty, this section greatly tried my patience, as the design revels in rage-bait deaths.
Thankfully, most of Infernax is free from these issues. Plus, the aforementioned section isn’t nearly as much of an aggravation on the game’s casual difficulty, which doesn’t actually appear to change damage output or enemy placement at all. It just lets you keep your progress after death by sacrificing some XP and gold, but it, more importantly, adds save points to the castles. This sounds worse than it is. The castles are quite short, and there’s a save point right outside that can be backtracked to — depending on the castle. However, this hits quite differently in regards to the good ending’s final challenge.
The other thing that got on my nerves is the way the story branches. There’s a good route and a bad route. If you just play the game and make choices as you see fit, you can easily get locked out of both of them. I did almost everything the “good” way during my first playthrough, but got locked out of the good end branch because I didn’t hit an invisible good deed threshold. As such, I had no choice but to get the meh ending and start Infernax from the beginning in order to actually see some sort of conclusion.
This is worsened by the fact that some of the moral choices can pull a bit of a bait and switch, as they can have unforeseen consequences. I just barely got locked out of the good route in my initial run solely due to these. As I don’t want to spoil anything major, I’ll give the game’s very first choice as a for instance. In the first minute or two of gameplay, you come across a man that begs you to kill him, as he doesn’t wish to turn into a monster.
If you end him as he wishes, he is spared from that fate. If you don’t, he transforms and you have to fight him. Several of Infernax‘s moral choices have a certain degree of ethical wiggle room, but absolutely everything is treated as pure good or pure evil, which accumulates. From an ethical standpoint, killing him gives him what he wants and spares him from transforming. But, unbeknownst to you, his wife is watching. If you kill him before he turns, you earn bad points and get locked out of a quest later in the game. There is no way for you to know any of this ahead of time outside of simply being told.
It’s not a big deal if you go into the game aware of this binary moral system. But having to restart from scratch just because one quest didn’t unlock after I made a bad choice too many times feels somewhat unnecessary. That being said, Infernax is still fun on a repeated playthrough immediately after your first. I haven’t seen the evil route yet, but I’m going to do it soon. As the good route has a surprising amount of extra stuff (including a larger, more threatening dungeon, complete with Mega Man-esque repeat boss fights), I’m looking forward to seeing what remains.
Don’t ya think I’m a savior? Don’t ya think I could save ya?
As far as difficulty goes, Infernax isn’t all that hard even on the classic difficulty (save for the knockback insta-kills in the third castle, as mentioned). The platforming is generally challenging, but it’s also quite fair as long as you’re patient and paying attention. Almost all of my second playthrough was on classic, until the final good dungeon, where the prospect of having to fight six or seven bosses in one go and having to start back at the beginning if I died was too much for me. I died to one boss by getting knocked into lava and insta-killed and laughed out loud before immediately switching to the lower difficulty, which granted me a new save point that made an enormous difference.
Regardless, the game has surprisingly easy boss battles. They’re mechanically simple and typically very fair. Even the final good boss was pretty breezy, as I beat it on my second try (but I also brought a bunch of potions). Infernax begs to be played more than once, though, plus there’s even a second character to experience (whose mode is so hard that I doubt many will bother). As much as it irked me in spots, I very much enjoyed this game and will be starting another playthrough soon. It also has achievements named after rock and metal songs, which I rather appreciated. No Maiden, though.