I haven’t played Slain on launch. It came out earlier this year, sometime in March and looked amazing. I was gunning for it, until the reviews started coming out and I watched some videos of it: “weak combat”, “lack of impact”, “unresponsive dodge”. I was heartbroken, but there seemed to be an overwhelming negative consensus, so I decided to skip it. Fast forward to August and I was surprised to see it pop up in my new releases feed on Steam, boasting an overhauled combat system, redesigned enemy encounters and various difficulty curve tweaks. And the response was, this time around, highly positive. So I gave it a try. The following focuses solely on the game’s re-release.
Slain: Back From Hell: Windows PC [Reviewed], Xbox One (October 5), PlayStation 4 (September 13)
Developer: Wolfbrew Games
Publisher: Digerati Distribution
Release Date: 1 August 2016
Price: 12,99€ [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Developer/Publisher]
Slain and Redeemed
The game starts in a crypt as a white-haired bearded warrior sleeps a deathly sleep. A spirit awakens him and it appears that the warrior has no memory of his past life but is nonetheless irritated by the disturbance. The spectre addresses him as Bathoryn and tells him there is fighting to be done again. And thus it begins. Slain subscribes to an old-school of simplistic game design from a mechanical standpoint. It bears a resemblance in both game-play and style to such classics as Castlevania and Ghosts ‘n Goblins. As basic moves, you can jump, crouch, attack, block, dodge and launch a mana projectile. More advanced techniques include a charged up missile, used by holding down the ranged button; a screen-sized smart-bomb attack that damages everything and consumes the entire mana pool; a counter, where you execute a block attack just as the opponent’s attack would connect and a charged-up melee attack that you need to release during a short window upon receiving an audio and visual cue. The latter two will cause the enemies to release several mana orbs and will deal a devastating amount of damage. Additionally, striking projectiles at the correct time will repel them back.
The enemies come in many shapes and sizes in Slain. Small-sized enemies include skeletons, beholders, ghosts, weird blade-armed beasts and many more. They’re fairly easy to dispatch and under normal circumstances, they serve as nothing more than minor inconveniences and sources for mana, if the player is cautious, but can prove deadly in certain encounters where they vastly outnumber or outmaneuver the player. Medium sized enemies usually take a bunch of hits to take down and hit much harder. They’re easiest to take down with well-timed strong attacks and counter attacks (which become all but essential during the later game, so practice wherever possible). They’re usually not much of a bother, but occasionally the encounter design gives them an edge, either by trapping the player in an arena or adding a bunch of other enemies to fight alongside them.
Boss enemies in Slain are classically designed: they usually have multiple stages and predictable attack patterns once you die enough times. Some have a puzzle element, but there are few that I would call “puzzle bosses”. It usually comes down to discovering the best tactic to deal with the boss and dispatching it. Still, a few of them will give you a run for your money, as knowing what to do and actually doing it properly are wildly different things. Defeating the boss will prompt you to hold down the attack button to “praise the horned metal god”. Essentially what it does is have the protagonist face the camera, plunge his sword into the ground, and use it to support himself while he head-bangs the fuck out as the screen flashes red and metal plays in the background.
The levels are cleverly crafted and have very strong themes. There are stormy highlands, haunted castles, wolf-inhabited forests, fetid sewers and many more. Each region usually consists of one over-world section and a dungeon section. The overworlds are infested with monsters while the dungeons tend to have many more environmental puzzles, platforming elements and various traps and hazards. Each region seems to have a secret area hidden somewhere that rewards you with a piece of a broken talisman after completing a difficult encounter, but I was only able to find three of them. The save system consists of checkpoints that both save your game and replenish your health and mana. There are other power-ups that you find early in the game, such as guardian angels that replenish your resources without saving and a heart that merely restores your health, but they’re weirdly absent from most of the game otherwise.
Health is a constant concern in Slain. Anything but your fullest and undivided attention will kill you and do so fast. Even as little as contact with the enemy will hurt and knock you back, as well as granting a short few seconds of invulnerability. At first, this bothered me, as it was difficult to jump over enemies, but soon found myself using it as a reliable way to “skip” packs of enemies by running through them after taking one hit. In fact, this is the only “cheese” strategy that I’ve found to be consistently reliable in the entire game. I’m a Dark Souls fanatic, and I hear people saying that it’s a difficult series, but it’s also a lenient one. Dark Souls offers you the opportunity to go grind until you’re over-leveled enough to steam-roll enemies, or go to a different area to change the scenery for a while. You have many strategies at your disposal and many ways to approach a problem.
Slain is what I would call a truly difficult game. It’s what I’d call aggressively linear. While you can, a few times during the experience, choose where exactly to go, during most of the game your only recourse in getting from checkpoint to checkpoint is to try again and again and again and again, going through the same beats, trying to do better each time, eventually memorizing the timing of the jumps and the cues for your attacks. It took me over eight hours to complete Slain but a superhuman with lightning reflexes can probably do it in as few as three. I found it frustrating at times, infuriating even, but boy is it rewarding when you finally hear that sweet, sweet melody that tells you you’ve reached a checkpoint.
Metal Anthems and Album Covers
Brutal Legend was a pioneer in video games that referenced the Metal musical genre. But where it was a tongue-in-cheek self-aware satire of the gothic, hypersexual and dark fantasy themes found in 1980s Heavy Metal, I would describe Slain as nothing short of archetypal. You know what that means? It means cliched, but in the best way. The game’s themes and audio-visual style are quintessentially Metal.
The graphics are, as you can see, well-crafted pixel-art sprites and are evocative of decades old video-gaming styles, but Slain doesn’t use that as an excuse to avoid the work needed for a good action game. As such, the animation quality is fantastic. The way the flames trail off into the wind from your fire sword, once you acquire it, the writhing tentacles of flying enemies and the way the action slows down to a crawl and briefly pauses just as your sword makes contact with an enemy during a powerful charged up attack are satisfying as hell. And the amount of work put into the lighting and details in the backgrounds and environments are astounding for a pixel-art game. I would call the style “overdesigned” if the chosen theme called for anything less than that. As such, it’s perfect.
The sound effects were one of the things that were overhauled in the re-release of Slain. Where previously hitting enemies sounded like slicing wet paper, now each strike comes with a satisfying impact sound. Bones clatter to the ground as the skeletons crumble, and there are crunching noises as skulls are crushed and flesh is rent. By far the best-sounding are the high-powered attacks that come coupled with the impressive visual effects mentioned above. The soundtrack consists of a hefty amount of original Extreme Metal tracks by Curt Victor Bryant, formerly of the band Celtic Frost.
The environments are varied and manage to keep the action fresh as you progress through the levels. Hell, at one point the protagonist is turned into a wolf and has to outrun a Great Wolf Spirit in order to earn its respect. But mostly the variation comes from the designers using the different game-play and environmental elements to craft encounters that use the familiar pieces in unfamiliar ways. For the most part I was satisfied with the difficulty in Slain but some stretches of the latter third of the game felt more tedious and obnoxious rather than challenging, such as when I had to execute eight perfectly-timed counter-attacks in a row (failure meaning instant death) while also managing to fight off tiny trash mobs and then, at the end, also dispatch a medium-sized enemy before finally being awarded a checkpoint.
Another sticking point for me was the lack of meaningful progression. Aside from two weapon variations that add elemental effects to your sword, change its move set a bit and make it slightly more effective against certain enemy types, there is nothing to be gained: no new attacks, no health or mana upgrades, no cool equipment or items. I know it’s a back-to-basics style of game, but not only does it diminish the drive to proceed somewhat, but it affects the overall replayability of the game as well. It falls under the category of “not mad, but would have been nice to have”.
I can’t speak much about the story, as it is both merely used to thinly frame the experience and very thinly spread out as well. You will encounter various characters: some friendly, some reluctantly peaceful and some hostile and exchange some lines of dialogue with them. Nothing about the dialogues matters much, but they are very nicely written in the sense that they are so over-the-top loaded with cheesy gravitas that they come out the other side perfectly in-tune with the rest of Slain‘s tone. Additionally, there is a pretty nice twist toward the end during the final boss battle and an open ending that makes me hope for a sequel soon.
First of all, I would like to commend Wolfbrew Games for taking the criticism of the original release to heart and working this hard to overhaul their work rather than cutting their losses and giving up. It speaks volumes of their dedication. Slain: Back From Hell looks fantastic and sounds amazing. It does the “retro action platformer” thing with style and grace. The combat is impactful and satisfying and the difficulty curve is, for the most part, very well-crafted. While it could have done with some elements of character progression or more than one way to complete certain encounters, the experience is short enough that it does not outstay its welcome yet not too short as to disappoint. Some parts of the game suffer from tedium as they rely too much on timing and reflexes to grant you access to the next checkpoint but patience usually results in finding an effective solution to the problem. Slain is brutal, it’s metal, it’s unforgiving and a lot of fun if that’s what you’re looking for.