Traditionally, games about games have always been a bit divisive. Some think that they stand on the shoulders of giants, contributing little and coasting on nostalgia. Others see games trying to deconstruct what came before, using the context of the present to find new ways to tackle the past. StarBlade's Nefarious is a bit of both, featuring callbacks to all manner of 16-bit classics while also bringing something new to the table by flipping the script. As the name would suggest, this game casts you in the role of a dastardly antagonist, and each level ends with you mounting into some overcomplicated contraption to stomp out a hero. It's a great setup, and the game sticks the landing more often than not, leading to an experience that's definitely worth a second look despite its shortcomings.
Crow is a knight in purple armor, leading an army of minions in terrorizing Macro City and kidnapping the beautiful Princess
Peach Mayapple. Yearning for new horizons, our dastardly hero leads his army across borders, finding new princesses to kidnap in order to complete his royalty powered superweapon. Despite a ridiculous plot device pulled from the playbook of an angry scientist, the majority of Nefarious' storytelling and characters are anything but outlandish. I was repeatedly reminded of Shovel Knight between levels as I chatted with my crew and the princesses I'd spirited away. The writing is full of heart, and I really enjoyed discovering what made everyone tick through the often humorous conversations placed throughout the game.
It's a shame then that the actual levels you play through outside of your home ship don't reach the high standards set by the side areas. There is certainly action platforming fun to be had in Nefarious, but the entire game lacks the precision controls that many have come to expect from 2D platformers as of late. Crow's jumps are floaty and imprecise, especially when you use the grenade jumping power that's so vital to getting around in later levels. By the time I was reaching the end of the game, dying over and over was becoming a chore as I was swarmed with enemies and expected to perform precise leaps of faith that I didn't feel equipped to handle. In addition, the game features damage knockback a-la the original Ninja Gaiden, a feature that is generally derided in older retro titles when its brought up. In case you were wondering, it's just as annoying to die from falling into a pit uncontrollably now as it was on the Sega Genesis.
About halfway through each stage, you succeed in fighting through the royal guard and capturing the princess, and it's here where levels really open up. For one reason or another, each princess grants Crow powers like producing additional platforms or hovering for a bit. This adds some much-needed variety to the gameplay and leads to great exploration opportunities, but most of the abilities are ripe with untapped potential. Everything shows up just once or twice, and I'd have loved to see additional levels designed around each power.
Once you tough it out through the main stages of the game, you are treated with one of its signature features, the reverse boss fights. You load into one of several large mech suits meant to invoke a classic game of the past and then challenge the hero of the stage to a duel. Much like those classic games, the boss only has a few precious hit points, so you have to avoid taking fire as much as you can while whittling away at your opponent's oversized life bar. Jumping into Dr. Robotnik's hover car and swinging a ball and chain around is something that always seemed like fun, and Nefarious lets me confirm that it is indeed enjoyable. I only wish that more of the game was focused on these encounters rather than the regular stages, as it's here where the concepts and gameplay truly come together and shine brightest. Had this game been more Furi and less Mega Man, it would have stood out a lot more from the pack.
This is not to say that only the boss fights in Nefarious are interesting. There are a few levels that forgo the game's flat Flash aesthetic for something a bit more interesting. There's an underwater stage and a train chase sequence that features sprites in single colors that look amazing and speak to an artistry and creativity that I wish was there throughout the campaign. What is there throughout is an amazing soundtrack from Matthew Taranto of Tadpole Treble and Brawl in the Family fame. These aren't your typical upbeat chiptunes, but the jazzy songs and a small dose of lyrics really make the music stand out and contribute to the game's overall sense of style.
Speaking of, style is definitely the word I'd use to describe Nefarious in general. As I mentioned in the introduction, the game does lean heavily on nostalgic callbacks, but in an indirect way that pays homage to what came before rather than relying on it as a gimmick. The character you take on in Dr. Robotnik's hovercar may be a speedster who loves chili dogs, but he's also an anthropomorphic bee in a kingdom of insects with his own subtle dialogue quirks. The princesses' various powers add differentiation to their personalities in ways that you don't expect, further establishing these characters as original despite the clear inspirations in some of their designs. They even go through the entire thing without even alluding to plumbers in any way as far as I can tell, and that's a huge step forward for these types of referential games.
Throughout my entire experience with Nefarious, I was enthralled with its world and its characters. There was obvious work done to make players relate to Crow and company, and the world has a history behind it that is only hinted at, making me eager to see any expansions set there. However, if there is going to be a Nefarious 2, I hope that the developers go back to the drawing board regarding the gameplay and focus on the game's strengths. Despite all this work being put in and everything I like about the game, I have a hard time giving a glowing recommendation to an action platformer that doesn't keep up with the standards of the genre. For some, it might be worth slogging through the base game to see the reverse boss fights, and others might find the grenade jumping to work to their favor. However, I just can't see a wide audience finding anything but frustration in this old school design.
Nefarious was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.
Nefarious features unforgettable characters and interesting mechanics, but the substandard running and jumping make the game harder to recommend than it should be.
- Innovative Boss Fights
- Impeccable Worldbuilding
- Witty Dialogue
- Style To Spare
- Floaty Jumping
- Short Length
- Annoying Damage Knockback