Infernium is an odd fit for the Nintendo Switch eShop, a landscape that is becoming increasingly uncharacteristic of Nintendo’s previous online space and corporate culture in general. The eShop is looking less like the backwards mishmash of the Wii era and more like Steam’s little brother, sans the tidal wave of shovelware. In this respect, oddities like Infernium are showing up on Nintendo hardware and it’s still challenging for me to make sense of it. Developed by one man—Carlos Coronado—Infernium bills itself as a survival horror approach to Pac-Man. Figuring out exactly what Mr. Coronado meant by that took me some time, and the results are certainly intriguing, but I’m still not sure if Infernium is my cup of tea.
Infernium asks the question: what if hell wasn’t a cramped smoldering pit you were thrown into, full of fire and boiling oil, but an attractive, expansive, sometimes even beautiful cage of torment for your mind? To that end, there is vanishing little direction in this game. You are given a very brief rundown of what the controls do, and set loose to figure everything else out. There is no story, no frame of reference, no objective, not even a vague hint. Infernium throws you into the deep end and politely hands you a couple bricks. Infernium might be doing its job too well; it might just be my perfect flavor of hell, in the tradition of Dante.
You begin the game by spawning in front of a campfire on a tiny island, one of several islands suspended high above a serene ocean. A refreshing early sunrise is cresting over the horizon in the distance. You can “blink” teleport a brief distance, flip switches, drain energy from glowing orbs, and literally nothing else. It’s kind of nice for the first few minutes, and despite getting a heavy “walking simulator” vibe I was enjoying the scenery. Then I encountered an empty, fluttering, levitating robe on a bridge. It generated discordant music stings and killed me upon contact. I respawned not back at the campfire, but in a shadowy hall filled with suspended orbs of light.
I quickly discovered that by interacting with the fountain in the middle of this hall that I could respawn back at the campfire. The creepy cloak killed me a couple more times, and every time I used that fountain I’d end up back at the campfire. I started to notice a few things. For starters, any switch, elevator or light orb I used stayed used—I needed to call lifts back down, doors remained open, but enemies reset their positions. I also noticed that those giant light orbs in the shadow hall started to wink out, one by one as I kept dying. I counted, and ascertained that there were 25 when I started. After some trial and error I noticed that spiky light orbs were placed in the levels at the point where I last died. Draining these spiky orbs restored the last “life” I depleted in the main hall, but only the last one I used. It’s an insidious kind of attrition, because it’s not always possible to retrieve that last life. It might be sitting right under an enemy, or at the bottom of a fatal drop into the ocean below.
I had to suss all this out via trial and error, and Infernium only gets more punishing the farther you go. As you drain light orbs this gives you the ability to dispel light barriers in other parts of the level, and these stay dispelled, but this also gives enemies the ability to give chase. Infernium is great at instilling a sense of neurotic paranoia; even though enemies return to their starting spots every time you respawn, this forces you to memorize their placements, and any potential life-saving barriers you removed.
I can see where Mr. Coronado was trying to emulate the maze aspects of Pac-Man here, because the deeper you descend into the levels of Infernium, the more the game turns into a sadistic maze. The game is packed with dusty catacombs, caverns and temples. But the appeal of Pac-Man or any arcade maze game is that you have a bird’s eye view of the action; the fun is in evading pincer attacks, the thrill of a hair-raising escape when you’re a split-second away from oblivion. Pac-Man also gives you the limited ability to turn the tables on your enemies. In first person, and with a character that is almost perpetually defenseless, it’s too easy to get turned around and bash right into an enemy you’re running from. I never really felt like I was giving my tormentors the slip, barely escaping to live another day. Infernium just ended up frustrating me in short order.
I know the game is supposed to be diabolical. I know it’s supposed to be unfair, and the creeping permadeath of those rapidly dwindling lives does instill a great sense of mounting dread. But trial and error is something I really can’t stand, especially when it’s dished out in such a cruel, punitive manner. Learning the game’s obtuse, unexplained ropes chewed through so many lives that I felt like I needed to completely restart from the beginning just to have any chance of beating it.
I know I sound like a real game journalist here—impatient, unskilled, whiny, ironically terrible at the job that I’m doing. I’m not going to call Infernium “the Dark Souls” of anything. But in terms of survival horror, I draw the line at unfair and cruel. I don’t mind a game that refuses to pull punches. Alien Isolation is my favorite horror game of all time, because it punished impatience and stupidity while still allowing you to succeed if you focused, paid attention, and developed a smart balance between caution and risk-taking. It was a fairly dynamic gameplay system with an enemy that was engineered to keep you on your toes, to prevent you from falling back on learned behaviors.
Infernium feels like the opposite. It’s all about memorizing patterns. Die, learn mistake, repeat. Memorize level layouts, enemy placements, try again, and by the way, you need to fix all the mistakes you made along the way. Remember that elevator you took up? Enjoy calling it back down for the fifth time. This isn’t scary, it’s just tedious, at least for me. I much prefer the white-knuckle terror of being stalked by the Alien through smoggy, sparking corridors while making off-the-cuff decisions on how to deal with the psychotic androids standing in my way.
And yet, I can see how Infernium could appeal to an old-school survival horror fan. The dwindling lives are like the rapidly depleting ink ribbons in the original Resident Evil. Infernium’s labyrinthine levels recall the winding corridors and deviously mapped floors of the Spencer mansion. Resident Evil had a pretty rough learning curve but once you memorized the map design and enemy placements, you could conquer that game in a couple of hours. Infernium is a brutal mistress the first time through, but it could find appreciation with fans who enjoy learning a game’s every shortcut and exploit.
And I guess that just isn’t me. I prefer a more adrenaline-laced survival horror experience. Infernium is about slow-burn tension. And for a game made by a single guy, it’s damn impressive. Carlos Coronado has made solid use of Unreal 4 here, building levels that are at once airy and light but also intimidating and tortuous. At one point I ran up against an invisible guard dog, represented by relentless barking and a floating chain collar. In any other game I would’ve dismissed it as a cheap cop-out to avoid modeling and animating an actual dog, but here…it brought my already frayed nerves up short.
Infernium is not my kind of horror game. I must admit that I didn’t enjoy playing it much at all. But it’s well made, solidly executed and I’m not surprised that it’s already found a dedicated cult following on Steam. Just don’t pick it up on Switch unless you’re sure that you are one of those kind of gamers.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.
I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Columbus, Ohio with my fiancee and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do.View Profile