Questions about what happens after death and, more importantly, how the decisions we make during life might affect our personal outcome have haunted humanity for ages.
Infernium Review [PS4]
Infernium thrusts you into a unique iteration of the darker side of the afterlife that is as punishing as it is lovely to behold. Both open world puzzle and survival horror, the experience runs the gamut from anxiety-inducing to awe-inspiring. In the end, whether you enjoy Infernium will have quite a bit to do with your own level of patience. Though, as we shall see later in this review, a few new additions to the game’s options might open up the experience to those who find themselves prone to rage quitting and would prefer not to break yet another TV.
You play as a wanderer who finds themselves lost inside an unknown realm of surreal beauty. The sky is tinted with the warm oranges and fading blues of an evening sunset. Below, towering cliffs and small pillars of land jut out of blue waters. Later on, you will encounter lands of ice, a realm akin to the surface of the sun, dilapidated towers and towering catacombs. But, be wary. As beautiful as Infernium appears, this realm is anything but friendly. Enemies lurk in dark corners ready to begin a relentless pursuit should you get too close.
Most of the enemies you encounter cannot be damaged or killed. This means that the main difficulty with Infernium is attempting to make calm decisions while being pursued by relentless baddies. Sure, they are slower than you, but only just, sometimes leaving only a few seconds to decide where to go next. Since the world itself is a puzzle, this also means death will likely come often unless you are lucky or highly skilled. There are hand-drawn maps you can find throughout your journey, but I found that trying (and failing) was the only way I became familiar enough with a new area for the map to become meaningful or particularly useful. I don’t think this is a bad thing. The point of Infernium is to discover the world organically. However, you do have limited chances before you reach “permadeath,” and that can add to the overall frustration. Particularly when death and the re-entrance into the game take you through a couple of long loading screens that makes the wait feel even more agonizing.
If you play the game’s normal mode, you have exactly 25 chances to complete the game before you reach a form of permadeath. Reaching permadeath doesn’t exactly mean the game is over, however. You can refill your chances. Your remaining number of attempts are manifested as large, glowing spheres contained in glass that fill the hallway of Purgatory, the area you go each time you die in the game. With each death, a sphere is deprived of its light. But, there are areas around Infernium that can be used to refill these orbs.
The gathering of light plays a major role in Infernium. The landscapes are scattered with small, glowing orbs that can be harvested for various uses. Opening illuminated gates will require a certain amount of gathered light. Stored light appears as a t-shaped symbol on your fingers, beginning with only one, and then earning additional storage as you progress. In the beginning, you can also use this light, as mentioned above, to restore lost chances. You will come across a swirling t-shaped symbol surrounded by a circle of candles. Restoring a candle restores one chance. But be careful, everything you do in Infernium is permanent, including light collection, so be certain not to be overzealous.
Movement in Infernium is simple. From a first-person perspective, you can move about by either walking or warping to a nearby destination. You first begin with a short-distance warp, but can obtain a warp later on that allows you to jump longer distances. You use another button to collect light, use stored light, or interact with objects such as levers used to open certain doors and gates. As you progress further, you will obtain new abilities such as a flashlight that helps you see better in the dark corridors. It can also assist in gameplay, but I won’t spoil that for you.
The story of Infernium is told mostly through notes you will find scrawled across the landscape. You learn more about the lore of the world itself, the meaning of the 25 chances, and why you found yourself there in the first place. Even the not-so-permanent permadeath has a meaning.
It is clear from the get-go that the world and its symbology was well-thought-out by the developer. Even the bare sound effects, the crackling of a fire, the whistling of the wind, and the sudden and stark sound of an enemy encounter fill the world with both beauty and despair, with fear and wonder. But, Infernium is not without its shortcomings.
Infernium never poses what I can describe as unfair challenges, but some of the difficulties stem from lack of direction. The game is indeed non-linear, so wandering about and finding your next location is a part of the overall trial. However, discovering how the different realms connect often feels more like an Easter egg hunt than it does solving a puzzle. You just happen to look in the right direction or turn the correct corner out of many other options. When paired with being pursued by enemies only a few steps behind you, taking that wrong turn only to realize it after the fact can lead to deaths that soon feel more punishing than the exploration feels rewarding.
You will also, on occasion, run across solutions that the game did not prepare you for logically. When you are instructed on how to use your warp ability, you are told it can only be used if the warp indicator touches the ground from what appears to be a certain angle. Nonetheless, early on I had to gain access to an upper level of a tower by what appears to be warping directly through an overhang from underneath. There was no reason to assume this would work. I tried it merely out of lack of any better ideas. Other times, you will be able to warp to higher areas that appear as if they would be set at the wrong angle. Then, other times you discover you cannot warp to places it seems as if you should be able to reach.
Perhaps my only other qualm with Infernium is the text used for the notes you find scrawled across different areas of the scenery. The typeface is difficult to read, even when standing quite close to the screen. I had a friend with me read it to me as I played. He had no issue, but I wear glasses for a reason. I think the other issue is the contrast between the text and the background is sometimes not high enough, making it more difficult to read, at least for me. I am certain I am not the only one. I hope the developer adds a feature where you can read the notes separately after they are located. This would also help because the notes are out of order. While they are short and not terribly difficult to remember, it would be nice to read them sequentially.
I mentioned in the beginning that the developer has taken some steps to remedy the frustration caused by creating a game that requires exploration and often death, but at a high risk and with so few chances. A recent update gives players four additional options: no permadeath, no enemies, slower enemies, and more tutorials. More tutorials will explain things like the light system and how it works. The slower enemies option slows pursuers by 25 percent, allowing you to take more time to make important decisions such as where to go next or how to escape. At the time of writing, these options are only available on Steam, but will soon be available on all platforms.
My time in Infernium can be described as a sort of love/hate relationship. I fell in love with the scenery, with the sound and feel. I hated dying like an idiot only to realize I still didn’t know where to go and I have to try yet again in hopes of using those few seconds a bit more wisely this time. But, overall I found myself addicted to Infernium like an explorer in a new world.
Its darkness and dangers, even the anxiety and frustration that comes along with the feeling of being lost and helpless, was never enough to deter me for long. And I think, if I might venture a guess, that is exactly what the developer was going for. You are in Hell after all; a lovely and dangerous place that beckons to your soul even as it devours you. That is ultimately the nature of real evil, both alluring and consuming. You are in Infernium for a reason, and as the player, you will feel the punishment that is made all the more appropriately perverse by the fact you can’t help but want to keep coming back.