Infernax

Infernax is an 8-bit 2D Metroidvania with platforming elements and dark themes that feed into a morality system. The retro graphics, music, and gameplay remind me of Shovel Knight, except that Infernax is the opposite of Shovel Knight’s brand of quirky wholesome family fun. There’s a lot of blood and creatively disturbing imagery, but the uniquely upsetting aspect of this game is its sidequests, which force you to make distinctly unpleasant choices.

You play as Alcedor, a duke who has returned to his homeland after serving as a knight in the Holy War only to find it overrun with the undead. Your job is to infiltrate the five demon strongholds and thereby break the magical seal on your own castle, which is occupied by the big boss demon (or something to that effect). You navigate the 2D overworld with the various skills that you pick up in the 2D dungeons, and along the way you accumulate experience points and money that you can use to upgrade your abilities and equipment.

Infernax bills itself as having a “tough-as-nails” level of difficulty, but it’s not actually that hard until you get to the end, where the platforming is a bit too precision-oriented for the game mechanics. If you prefer, you can get around this difficulty by using Game Genie style cheat codes (these ones right here) on a menu that’s available at every save point. Again, I don’t think the game is difficult enough to warrant cheat codes, but using this system to access a double-jump ability can really help you out toward the end of the game, where failure at the platforming segments is unduly punished.

By the way – I should clarify what I mean when I say that this game “isn’t that difficult.” I’m not bragging about my skill as a gamer. I’m a shitty gamer, and I have no skill. I am in fact very bad at games. When I say that Infernax isn’t that difficult, I mean that it’s not difficult for someone like me, which in turn means that the game should be accessible to most players even without the use of cheat codes. If you can handle Shovel Knight and the Super Mario games, you can definitely handle Infernax. I think it’s important to be realistic and accurate about the difficulty level of a game like this, because perhaps not everyone is looking for a super hyper mega challenge. Maybe some people just want to stroll around a horror-themed digital theme park while fighting skeletons and zombies, and that’s cool. Infernax lets you turn the cheat codes on and off at any point you like and doesn’t penalize you for using them, and it offers a decent but not impossible challenge to anyone who wants to play the game straight.

The parts where you might need to use a walkthrough – or at least abuse the save feature to reset the game – are when Infernax asks you to make a binary choice. This choice is usually between showing mercy to monsters or outright killing them. The key to these choices is presented to the player at the very beginning of the game, when you have to choose whether to spare someone who has been possessed by a demon. If you’re a decent person and choose to spare him, he kills several people and forces you to kill him anyway.

In order to get the “ultimate good” ending, you have to continue to choose to kill monsters. This isn’t always easy. Later in the game, for example, a town under siege has trapped another possessed person in a cage. The townspeople say that the possessed man has killed people, and that he needs to be put to death. Seeing an angry mob with torches surrounding a seemingly defenseless person in a small cage isn’t great. If you let him go, however, he kills everyone. Should you allow the townspeople to set the possessed man on fire, it takes a long time for him to burn, and he screams and thrashes in pain the entire time. If you attack him to put him out of his misery, that takes a disturbingly long time as well, and you’re covered in blood and gore by the time he dies.

This violence is somewhat mitigated by the 8-bit pixel graphics, which add a layer of campiness to the grimdark world. What Infernax celebrates isn’t just the visuals and gameplay of 8-bit games, but also their unironic and unapologetic violence. Infernax leans into this goriness by having its overworld enemies attack and kill soldiers right in front of you. You can save some of these people, but most become zombie food and then disappear forever. Sometimes you’re forced to kill other humans, which can be bloody business as well. If you like, you can aim for the “ultimate evil” ending and kill other humans by choice in all sorts of fun and interesting ways.

Infernax delights in violence for the sake of violence. It’s not that deep, but it’s quite fun. Even as they’ve created a dungeon whose theme is literally “piles of dead babies,” the developers are sensitive to the needs of a diversity of players and allow you to customize the level of difficulty to suit your preferences. In addition, there are multiple guides online that will help you unlock all the various silly bonuses the game has to offer, from letting you run around with a machine gun to giving you free rein to drive around on a motorcycle.

If you’re bad at games like I am, Infernax takes about ten to fifteen hours to finish without cheat codes. If you’re good at games – or if you use cheat codes – it might take about five hours to finish, which makes the prospect of exploring multiple morality paths more intriguing. Overall, I spent about twenty hours in ultraviolent medieval zombie demon hell, and I regret nothing.

Blasphemous

Blasphemous is an ultraviolent 2D Metroidvania with gorgeous 16-bit pixel art and limited but fluid animation. It describes itself as “fast-paced and punishing,” but it’s not really either of those things. The game’s focus is more on strategic combat than on platforming or quick reflexes, and your character moves at a fairly sedate speed. To me at least, the pace feels perfect, both from moment to moment and from one area of the map to the next. In terms of “punishing,” this is how I’d rate Blasphemous on a scale of “this game wants you to feel pain”:

6 – Guacamelee
7 – Blasphemous
8 – Shovel Knight
9 – Hollow Knight
10 – Rain World

In other words, Blasphemous is moderately punishing, but probably not at a level where you’ll give up at the beginning or rage quit in the middle. Granted, Blasphemous makes no attempt to be accessible, and it’s much easier if you use a walkthrough to access the health upgrades in the early part of the game, which are hidden so well (behind unmarked walls, under floors that only break if you jump on a specific spot from a great height, and so on) that you’d never find them unless you already knew where they were. Thankfully, once you get about two hours into the game, you start to understand how it works and don’t really need a walkthrough unless you’re a completionist.

Blasphemous has everything that I love about the Metroidvania genre, and it was worth my time just for the gameplay. The combat is engaging, the area-specific challenges are interesting, and the way in which the areas all eventually connect to each other is on par with Hollow Knight in terms of clever map design. If you enjoy indulging in a bit of exploration and backtracking, it will take about twenty hours to finish Blasphemous with near-perfect completion.

What really got me into Blasphemous is its atmosphere. Everything is compared to Dark Souls these days, but Blasphemous really is Dark Souls in 2D. The level of violence is incredible, and the game gets creative with its brutality. The architecture is similarly brutal and creative. Each area has its own unique character, and the background graphics are beyond fantastic. As for the story, it’s essentially this: You were dead, but now you’re undead for reasons that are unclear; and something bad happened to the world, but we’re not going to tell you what that was. Each collectible item has its own lore, all of which is disturbing.

I never felt as though Blasphemous is just trying to be awful for the sake of shock value, though. As you might guess from the title, it’s based on Spanish Catholicism, and it takes the themes and imagery of Catholicism to their logical extreme. If you’ve ever made a joke about how Catholicism is all about the fetishization of punishment and the worship of death, this game takes that joke seriously. At the same time, it’s so sincere and culturally specific that it never feels disrespectful. I was actually so impressed and curious about the lore and imagery that I looked up a few of the real-world cultural references online, and now I have a greater appreciation for Catholicism. No joke!

( I should say that this game probably isn’t for genuinely religious people, though. It is very literally blasphemous. It also contains all sorts of casual graphic and textual references to real-world torture and hate crimes committed by the church, which perhaps some people might not want to see. Honestly I can’t believe I played this game on a Nintendo console, what a time we live in. )

My favorite part of Blasphemous is its OST, which suits the tone and atmosphere of the game perfectly. About a third of the tracks suffer from dramatic moody bitch disorder, and I can’t remember where they play in the actual game, but most of the OST is mellow acoustic Spanish guitar. Que las Campanas me Doblen is a good representative track, and I really like Y Yo Fuego Te Daré, which manages to be both chill and epic at the same time. A track called Arpegios en Ocre plays in an area called “The Desecrated Cistern,” and it really makes you feel as though you’re exploring a cavernous underground space with a vaulted ceiling. I think the OST holds up well on its own as lo-fi Flamenco beats to chill to, but it’s also a gorgeous backdrop to the game and its ruined world.