Anybody who has ever played a video game has at some point in time encountered the classic “Hero saves princess kidnapped by a villain” trope. From Super Mario Bros. to Guacamelee! this trope has been a staple foundation for platformers’ storytelling and gameplay. Typically, it plays out that a generic, plucky hero (or anti hero, occasionally) must traverse from left to right on screen, jumping across platforms, spamming attacks on precariously placed enemies, and avoiding pits to reach the end of a stage where they take on a David vs. Goliath inspired boss battle. Nefarious attempts to reverse this trope by putting players in control of a plucky villain named Crow who has grown tired of repeatedly kidnapping his designated princess and squabbling with their generic Megaman-esque hero. Instead, Crow aspires to take over the entire world (of course.) but his master plan has a hitch – he’s going to have to kidnap not one but five princesses to power his ultimate doom machine.
Its an impressive premise, but also one that Nefarious never fully capitalizes on. While the game occasionally wisecracks about the nature of action platformers’ lather, rinse and repeat formula it also utilizes that exact same formula. Each world is made up of the standard left to right movement, with generic enemies culminating toward a boss fight at the end. A truly reverse system feels like it would have gone a little more daring, with gameplay going right to left, and rather than taking down generic enemies it would’ve been a little more interesting to have plotted where to leave your own minions who serve no other purpose throughout the game than witty remarks and snarky commentary. The boss fight is the closest to a flip beyond the narrative just telling us that things are different that we actually get with Nefarious as players use Crow’s illicit, industrial sized robots to battle the plucky heroes attempting to save their princesses.
The best moments of Nefarious are when it leaves the formula its mocking behind entirely, such as when Crow goes on an underwater adventure with one princess in order to secure a lost treasure. Rather than struggling with stiff, unpredictable platforming and mundane button mashing combat, this particular mission lets players navigate an underwater cavern to collect lucre, the in game currency, and allows for a few moments of intriguing storytelling as both the princess and Crow wax poetic about the commonalities of their predicaments. This breakout from the traditional gameplay is doubled down during a humorous scene that puts Crow in the hot seat of a dating game show.
Much like those particular standout scenes, there are a few twists to the standard issue gameplay. Each princess (or prince, as the case may be) that Crow encounters has their own personality and perks. One unruly princess implores Crow to create as much chaos and devastation as possible as he escapes with her, boosting the player with unlimited grenades for a high impact chase sequence. In another world, kidnapping a fiery prince causes Crow’s grenades to create arcs of lava that cool and can be used to navigate your way out of a treacherous tower full of dangerous spikes. As fantastic as these abilities prove to be, they are never used again outside of their respective chase sequences. Even the final boss sequence, which sees Crow harvesting the power of all five kidnapped princesses, seemingly glosses over their specific abilities choosing instead to just giving players a generic laser beam to shoot haphazardly at the hero.
Crow does have access to a set of upgrades for his villainous exosuit, but they are all fairly mundane upgrades – such as a sticky grenade or three punch fist – and actually putting them to use in a level is another story entirely. Whether or not it was a case of combining incompatible upgrades – such as the rocket punch and three fist punch – or an actual glitch is up in the air, but it did seem that most of the upgrades available made little to no difference to actual gameplay. If anything, one particular ‘upgrade’ – the ability to replace grenades with fully automatic assault rifle – was even worse than the standard issue option. It only took one grenade hit to eliminate most enemies, but it was entirely possible to unload all of your assault rifle ammo into even the weakest of enemies without destroying them.
Initially, Nefarious’ lack of a difficulty setting was troubling as most action platformers have sharp difficulty spikes. Nefarious, however, stays on the easier end of the spectrum with only one boss fight proving to be difficult and needing a few extra attempts which can be attributed more to clunky controls than actual difficulty. A lack of a new game plus or increased difficulty upon completing your first playthrough means there’s not much motivation for replay beyond specifically wanting to see the game’s second possible ending and collecting the crowns and records hidden in each level.