After a somewhat troubled gestation on Steam Early Access, Slain finds its way onto consoles now complete with an obligatory subtitle. Its original release was bedevilled with problems, but in this case Early Access seems to have worked because the developers, Wolfbrew Games, have ironed out the gameplay issues and technical glitches that plagued it and created an enjoyable and, in my experience, bug-free game.
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.
Fortunately, Wolfbrew have seen fit to forego the one-hit death that makes so many 8-bit games unplayably difficult and replaced it with a more modern-feeling energy bar. Added to this are frequent checkpoints that replenish health and magic points. The result is a game that looks like a punisher, feels like a punisher but actually isn’t all that difficult. There are moments of high challenge, particularly when new enemies appear and attack patterns must be learned but these are soon overcome and progress can be made.
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.
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. The music is appropriately guitar-based and chuggy, but given its composer’s pedigree – Curt Victor Bryant was a member of seminal Swiss extreme metal band, Celtic Frost – it felt slightly pedestrian and lacking in truly memorable moments.
Given that the puzzle aspects are lacking, what about the platforming? Well, Bathoryn controls fairly well for the most part and jumping is responsive. There are a few insta-death platforming sections that can cause frustration – particularly when accompanied by a fireball flinging enemy that will knock you into the lava or blood – but these are mercifully short and generally well checkpointed. Bathoryn’s Castlevania-inspired backdash, however, feels laggy and unreliable. I resorted instead to jumping slashes for most of the major fights with little ill effect. This is a shame since the hit and run potential of the dash is clear but it just didn’t feel right to me. I generally felt that a roll would suit the flow of the combat far better.
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.
The final boss in particular builds upon the tactics and strategies used throughout the game and serves as a fitting conclusion. It is a shame, therefore, that the game ends on a frustrating ‘To Be Continued’, although I enjoyed the inevitable narrative twist. That being said, there isn’t a huge amount of game here, and unless the no-death playthrough grabs you for the platinum trophy, there isn’t much to draw you back in when it’s done.
Overall, Slain: Back From Hell is a fun game. Despite the critical tone of much of this review, I very much enjoyed my time with Bathoryn and will be going back to try and unlock the rest of those no-hit boss achievements. It is best to go in with a clear idea of what to expect, however, which is a no-nonsense old-school hack and slash platformer fuelled by heavy metal.
*Our sincerest apologies. The score was originally intended to be a 6/10, but was posted by mistake as an 8/10 and has since been corrected.
Version Tested: PS4