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Slain: Back from Hell Review

Billed as a heavy metal , Gothic puzzle-platformer, Slain looks and feels like the NES game I always dreamed of playing as an Iron Maiden loving child. Complete with gorgeous pixel art and chugging soundtrack, it’s a blood-drenched throwback to a bygone era of gaming. Such pixelated faux-nostalgia has become so common as to be passé but in Slain’s case the aesthetic is perfectly matched to the feel of the game. This is not always a good thing, however, as many gameplay mechanics from the 80s and 90s have been relegated to the past for good reasons.

The plot of Slain is suitably clichéd. The hero Bathoryn is awoken in his tomb by a mysterious ghost who entreats him to battle once again. Upon starting his quest, Bathoryn is confronted by the hulking figure of Vroll, his nemesis and final boss-to-come. Following an exchange of hamfisted cod-Shakesperean dialogue – writing is not one of this game’s strong points – Vroll disappears and Bathroyn’s journey begins in earnest. Over the course of his travels, Bathoryn explores the expected range of Gothic inspired locales: a castle, a forest, witch-infested highlands and a sewer. There’s gore oozing from every orifice in Slain, and I can’t imagine any metal fan not immediately buying the game and soundtrack after watching the trailer. The bulk of Slain’s gameplay is combat and platforming. While the maps aren’t as detailed as Metroid games for example, the simple platformer design of Slain is enjoyable and strongly complemented by the variety of enemy types in-game. These range from weak, annoying skeletons, to tougher flying ghouls, to proper bosses at the end of each world. Combat mainly consists of attacking and parrying, and I cannot emphasise how important parrying–you really won’t get far without it. There’s a quick backstep as well that’s useful in some situations and a magic attack which is best saved for boss battles. The worlds are full of tricks and traps, and you’ll even get a trophy early on for learning from your mistake after dying in a spike trap.

Whilst there is some sense of exploration from a central hub area, each level proceeds in a linear fashion with the promised ‘puzzles’ amounting to little more than pressing levers and buttons to trigger moving platforms. Whilst there is nothing especially wrong with this mechanic, it doesn’t really pass muster as a puzzle-platformer given the wealth of competition available in that genre. What we are left with, therefore, is a traditional hack and slash platformer dressed up in a pixelated revisioning of a 1980s thrash metal album cover. Curt Victor Bryant’s score is what holds everything together. The old school heavy metal soundtrack combined with the weighty sound effects during attacks takes Slain to a whole other level. I’m listening to the soundtrack right now and it never got old while I played through the same areas over and over again, thanks to multiple deaths. Scrolling up or down in the main menu lets you play along with the epic menu music as well–one of the things I loved most in the game. Visuals are easily the highlight of Slain. While most pixel art games try and ape the retro look, Slain goes further by extending its style into visuals, animations, and sound design. Animations are smooth and I love just stopping and looking at the attention to detail in the new environments. There’s so much going on with pixel particle effects and it all comes together brilliantly. The visual style even extends to the interface and the dialogue boxes. Slain is one of the few pixel art games that deserves a hefty art book.

Combat-wise, Slain shows its 8-bit influence as there is one attack button which can launch a 3-hit combo and be held down to initiate a charge attack that requires very precise timing. This works well for the most part but obviously lacks the strategic elements enabled by a more varied assortment of attacks. Blocking is effective and intuitive, with a well-timed button press triggering a parry that stuns the enemy and allows for a critical hit. This mechanic in particular seems to be the real core of Slain’s combat and will become your most relied-upon technique in the boss fights that follow. It is in these boss fights that Slain: Back From Hell really shines however. Each boss is well-designed and generally sit on the right side of frustrating. Whilst it is possible to brute-force your way past them whilst taking a few hits on the way, you have to learn and adapt to the patterns to avoid a quick and brutal death.The old-school intentions of the game can be seen in the trophy design around these bosses. There are no trophies for simply defeating each one; instead you must beat them without taking a hit to unlock a trophy. It is here that the puzzle aspects are at their most effective. Each boss serves as a puzzle to solve, working out the attack pattern and how to counter each move is a satisfyingly pure distillation of Slain’s gameplay.

Slain has some problems though. A lot of the deaths feel unfair and cheap. This might be to keep things old school, but the checkpoint system means you’ll be replaying certain sections over and over again. While the combat is fun, it could have used a dodge or roll mechanic to allow for some invincibility frames through enemies. This would make it feel a bit more accessible and dynamic. The real problem and disappointment for me is the Vita version. After downloading a patch that fixed the game breaking bug on Vita, the performance is pretty terrible. It isn’t unplayable but I cannot recommend playing Slain on Vita at this point. I hope there’s a patch to at least get the framerate to 30fps. The PlayStation 4 version looks and plays brilliantly. The Vita version would be perfect to play on the go, but right now it is the furthest thing from it. If you’ve been craving an old school Castlevania like experience and like heavy metal, Slain: Back from Hell is for you. The gothic pixel art gore oozes style and the time I spent playing Slain was more than worth it. Now give me the damn soundtrack!!!

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