In honour of its main character, Shelly ‘Bombshell’ Harrison, Ion Fury was originally known as Ion Maiden – but that changed soon after the band Iron Maiden threatened legal action. But the aging band needn’t have bothered – this throwback first-person shooter isn’t anything like the classic British metal forged in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Ion Fury is distinctively nu-metal; rooted in the ‘90s, hard as Nine Inch Nails and likely to make even the most skilled player feel like a bit of a Limp Bizkit.
Ion Fury is a singleplayer-only first-person shooter that feels reminiscent of pre-turn-of-the-century shooters like Duke Nukem 3D and Blood, with good reason: it’s been built on what is almost the exact same game engine, known as Build. It’s a colourful clash of primitive 3D environments with enemies and effects made of chunky 2D-sprites. Its pulsating MIDI-based soundtrack and crunchy shotgun effects seem like they’re being spat out by a Sound Blaster 16, and its main villain is voiced by none other than Jon St. Jon, AKA the voice of Duke Nukem himself. Ion Fury doesn’t feel like a mere homage to the era; it’s so exceedingly authentic that it’s as though it slipped off a game store shelf in 1996, tumbled through a wormhole and landed in my Steam queue in 2019.
Appropriately, it’s also incredibly challenging. Ion Fury features few of the modern conveniences that have coddled shooter fans over the past couple of decades, and indeed, the most notable traces of modern gaming design philosophy to be found here is the option to run Ion Fury at resolutions higher than 320×240 and the ability to turn on automatic checkpoint saves. Otherwise there’s no recharging health, no cover system, and no onscreen tutorial tips. Ion Fury is shooting without a safety net; an unwaveringly tense 16-hour killing spree that demands to be circle-strafed through methodically with one finger on the trigger and another hovering over the quick-save function key.
It could very easily have become a slog, were it not for Ion Fury’s excellent arsenal of dual-purpose death-dealers. Just about every weapon has a useful alternate-fire mode; the revolver can paint multiple targets and deliver a burst of homing bullets with a fanning of the hammer, which I found invaluable for taking out the more nimble enemy types such as the flying drones and headcrab-like spiders. The incendiary round-spitting sub-machine gun can be split between single or dual-wielding for a faster rate of fire, and the shotgun can transform into a room-clearing grenade launcher.
Each weapon is fun to use in its own way, and you’re gonna need them all because ammunition is scarce and enemies are plentiful, meaning the pressure is on to make every shot count. Additionally, certain enemy types will punish you for your inaccuracy; pump a few rounds into the head of the acid-spitting centipede enemy and its segmented body will self-destruct in sequence, but if you instead aim for its body it will split into individual enemies that can attack you from all angles.
Individually, the enemies in Ion Fury are tough enough, but the difficulty really spikes when they attack en masse during the boss fights that bookend each collection of chapters. The challenge presented by overpowered boss characters like the ED-209 inspired mechs is severe, but it’s made almost unbearable when it’s combined with the overwhelming numbers of minions that swarm around each boss fight arena. No matter how much you zig and zag and jump and twirl, the enemies are always accurate enough to nail you with health-sapping shots, often fired from far-flung corners or, most infuriatingly, from areas where enemies are seemingly out of sight. There’s rarely enough respite to steady yourself for a manual save, and you’re not given much choice other than to try and try again – dropping down the difficulty level to make an easier go of it sadly isn’t an option.
I toughed it out through all but one of these ball-breaking boss encounters on the game’s second hardest difficulty mode (Ultra Viscera), but Ion Fury’s final fight proved to be too much for me to handle. In order to roll credits you must survive against seemingly infinite, spawning versions of almost every enemy type you’ve faced so far, attacking in overwhelming numbers, while playing a sadistic game of jump rope with a swirling laser beam that threatens your kneecaps every few seconds and grinding away at the boss’ lengthy health bar, even while he remains shielded from the bulk of your attacks by a giant dome. After a number of hours struggling to make any substantial headway, I gave up and was forced to activate infinite health with a cheat code in order to finally beat him. It should have felt like a pretty unfulfilling way to finish my time with Ion Fury, but to be honest the use of a cheat code to beat a shooter inspired by the ‘90s could not have felt more appropriate. After all, when was the last time you played a game that even had cheat codes?
Eye-watering difficulty spikes aside, Ion Fury’s deliberately old-school design also becomes a bit of a burden as far as navigation is concerned thanks to the complete absence of objective markers. Often over the course of the campaign I’d hit a low resolution-textured wall in my progression, with no glowing chevron hovering on the horizon or chatty AI companion to direct me where to go. At these points I found myself retracing my steps the length of an entire level and back again trying in vain to open numerous locked doors, eventually discovering that the only way forward was by shooting an air vent hidden away in a closed bathroom stall (and only after shooting several other, non-destructible air vents, doors and sewer grates in the vicinity). I have no issues with the lack of handholding, but I’d have preferred if moving beyond such roadblocks required more brain power rather than brute force and guesswork.
To be fair, Ion Fury at least takes a lot of the banality out of the backtracking by stuffing its levels with hidden paths and secret rooms, so exploring every inch of each level rarely goes unrewarded. Destructible walls can be demolished to reveal chambers packed with much-needed power-ups, and medkits and armour shards are often placed on hard-to-reach ledges like pies left to cool on window sills, only reachable by pulling off a pinpoint series of crouch-jumps.
That said, Ion Fury’s level design as a whole is ultimately a bit too true to convention. The campaign takes you from shopping malls to subways to subterranean lairs and eventually sub-subterranean lairs, with each zone adhering quite rigidly to the classic Red/Blue/Yellow key structure and only broken up by the odd train level or horde-based elevator platform ride. I appreciate that developer Voidpoint set out to craft a first-person shooter on par with the likes of Duke Nukem 3D and Shadow Warrior, and in many respects it has succeeded, but I can’t help but wonder how Ion Fury would have turned out had it been an attempt to supersede or subvert the shooters of the ‘90s era rather than to merely measure up to them.