Burn, Baby, Burn
Developer: Carlos Coronado
Publisher: Carlos Coronado
Available for: PC, PS4, Nintendo Switch
Reviewed on: PC (Review code provided)
It starts with a scream of tyres and a grinding of metal. Something isn’t right. Are you dead? You wake up in a unfamiliar landscape full of towering plateaus, crumbing castles and strange glowing orbs of light. A scant few tutorials tell you some basic movement mechanics involving teleportation but, after that, you’re on your own. You explore. You discover that you can absorb the light globes. And then you find a red robed figure on a rope bridge. Is this an ally? You quickly realise it is not. And then you die.
Infernium is a tough game to pidgeonhole. Billed as a survival horror take on Pac-Man this is really a dramatic oversimplification. There are certainly echoes of these things in the mix, but there is also a touch of Dark Souls in the way the world is built, a little bit of Myst in the puzzles that require you to piece together clues from the environment, and a touch of the concept of the “walking simulator”, that similarly hard to pidgeonhole genre slapped on games like Gone Home and Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, which encourages the player to expose a narrative by exploring the environment that they’re in. Visually the game takes cues from expressionism and surrealism with floating buildings, unnatural angles and objects that feel decidedly out of place. A veritable smorgasbord of influences, then.
But Infernium is not just tough to place, genre wise – it’s also plain tough. You wander these bizarre environments, using one button to teleport you a short distance and another to suck in the orbs of light that seem to be growing from the landscape. There’s no UI – absorbing light makes a strange symbol that looks a little like a nail glow on the index finger of your right hand. You meet the aforementioned red robed ghosts, standing eerily still until you get too close at which point they, in the style of Pac-Man, relentlessly pursue you. And I do mean relentlessly. Once they’ve spotted you, ghosts will chase you around the world until they are either trapped by a wall, a door, a gap in the floor or, in rare circumstances, a line of red dust on the floor, or until they catch and kill you with a one-hit insta-death. These pursuits form micro puzzles of their own and the environments are set up to allow you to weave in and out of corridors, leading the ghosts into areas where they cannot follow, however they also feel frequently cruel and unforgiving. There is certainly a comparison to be had with Dark Souls in the nature of learning the environment to make encounters easier, but whereas in the Souls games there is always a way around most opponents, the ghosts of Infernium are so relentless to follow you through huge chunks of the level, that simply getting away can be a draining experience. Add to that a permadeath system which gives you a limited number of lives (albeit a number that can be regained at certain points) and each death feels meaningful, but not always fair.
It’s a shame when you spend most of your time afraid to turn corners or take in the world around you, because Infernium is frequently quite stunning. It’s impossible structures lend it an other-worldly feel that you don’t often get from modern big budget games – seeing the Floating Castle for the first time, for example, is both mesmerising and unsettling. The remnants of our world that you find along the way adds a strange sense of discovery to the proceedings – oxygen tanks, maps of the locations drawn with key areas marked out for you to study before you venture in evoke a sense that you’re not the first visitor to this place, something only enhanced by the written accounts of these explorers which you will find peppering the walls of the world. The diaristic style of these writings lend the story a gothic quality, akin to the works of Stoker, Shelley or Lovecraft, and weave an eerie tale which ties into the world around you. Just as these friends have their own adventure of discover, so is your adventure full of discoveries. You’re not told, for example, that the light orbs you absorb are useless once the meter on your hand is full. They don’t regenerate, so absorbing more light than you need is wasteful, as you need to use it to open doors and progress through the world. You’re also not told explicitly where to go, either. Infernium is full of superb world design, encouraging you to explore, and the way the world interlinks makes you want to simply walk its pathways without fear of death. Fortunately, that’s something that’s entirely possible.
Infernium comes with a number of “accessibility” options designed to allow players to customize the game to their liking. Perhaps they want to make enemies slower, or even turn them off altogether. Maybe they want more tutorials or don’t want the permadeath mechanic. While using these is not the intended way to play, it’s testament to the world of Infernium that these don’t actually feel like cheats. Turning off the enemies feels like a perfectly viable way of experiencing the game as it keeps the environmental puzzles anf story intact. You still have to watch how much light you harvest, for example, and you can still die from falls, but you’re free to explore the world and story without fear of pursuit. Fantastically these options can all be set at will on any save, so you could, for example, turn off enemies briefly to help you progress, before turning them back on for more of a challenge. On PC there is an added layer to this as developer Carlos Coronado has built the game with modding in mind. He’s already added a number of mods to the games Steam Workshop and there are a few community developed ones cropping up as well. From new graphics modes, to new ways to play and even completely new environments and micro-challenges, it seems like Infernium could become a great playground on PC.
And credit needs to be given to Carlos Coronado. A sole developer with a fantastic vision, the world building alone in Infernium is stunning as is, but the mechanics and thoughts that have gone into the puzzles put many large team AAA titles to shame. Infernium is clearly an indie game complete with low key presentation, rough edges and the occasional glitch (many of which the developer has left in to encourage speedrunning), but there is a hell of a vision here that needs to be celebrated. And through Coronado’s interaction with the gaming community, Infernium seems to be building up quite the cult following, from those who are building new things for it, to those who are taking it upon themselves to map out that which exists, to make sense of the story the game contains and understand more about the world it presents.
Infernium might not be to everyone’s tastes but it’s certainly something new and, for those willing to brave it’s hostile environment, hugely rewarding.
Often cruel, frequently captivating, and wildly esoteric, Infernium is an unforgettable and original interactive experience.