Slain: Back from Hell is essentially a modern take on Ghosts ‘n Goblins. You wander from left to right, platforming and killing spooky enemies, and dying a copious amount of times. Enemies will often follow you, encouraging you to thoroughly kill everything before attempting to move on, and there are cheap deaths aplenty. But with some excellent heavy metal tunes and highly intricate pixel art, does Slain offer enough to make the frustrations worth it?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Despite strong presentation, mechanically it’s simple and dull and the difficulty feels harsh and unfair.
An intriguing start to Slain’s story sees you awaken from a deep slumber in order to battle the forces of darkness, with some dialogue pertaining to some character background and lore to the world. Moments later you’ll be platforming through a Hell-scape, slicing up a selection of undead and monstrous foes, and occasionally firing off a magical ball of energy. Later you gain a couple of new melee weapons and magical abilities but the gameplay-loop remains unchanged, with a focus on some tricky platforming courtesy of the abundance of beasties knocking you back, that frequently respawn, and a severe lack of checkpoints.
Enemies can really pack a punch and many have attack and defence stances that you’ll need to study in order to efficiently defeat them. And indeed efficiency is critical. The longer you dilly dally with an enemy, the more likely their friends will turn up, and once there’s a crowd it gets very difficult to manage them. This is partially due to the knockbacks that can push you into environmental hazards or straight into the path of another enemy’s attack or view, but also your limited health bar and lack of checkpoints or opportunities to refill it.
On your travels you’ll occasionally come across health and mana pillars that restore you completely, and less often you’ll hit a checkpoint. Unfortunately, the two are uncommon enough to mean large sections of a level will need repeating over and over again each time you die. And you’ll die a lot; there’s Dark Souls level difficulty going on here. Additionally, much like Dark Souls, you’ll learn something different after each death, better preparing you for that particular foe, or that platforming section, or precisely what that object on the ground does when you walk into it. Unfortunately though, where Dark Souls taught you repeated behaviours of enemies and repeated aspects of its level design, Slain’s lessons are more specific, with enemy traits and level design changing quite drastically throughout the game and never referring to any set rules.
This, inevitably, starts to feel unfair. It does however, help with its nostalgic charm. The enemy and level design is reminiscent of Ghosts ’n Goblins and the original, linear Castlevania titles. Meanwhile, the gory, grotesque theme also draws a comparison with those classics, with its harsh difficulty taking it further into the 8-bit and 16-bit realm. However, whilst the visuals are indeed pixels, Slain sports some of the most impressive, intricate and detailed pixel art on the market. Environments are multi-layered to give a faux-3D effect that’s very effective, meanwhile, every aspects of the game is full of gory detail. Meeting a new enemy for the first time is quite the spectacle, killing them for the first time is equally a visual treat as their death animation delights with blood oozing out of them as they collapse, this is especially so for the end of level bosses. Furthermore, a heavy metal rock soundtrack takes the presentation to new heights. It’s terrific.
However, the frustration of it all is brought home but just how basic the mechanics are. There’s no skill or finesse to combat. Despite five different attacks it all comes down to simply as whaling on an enemy with until they die. There is a defence mechanic but you’ll take damage regardless, albeit less damage, and whilst a well-timed press of the defence button allows you to counter, it’s so narrow a window it feels more like luck than skill to hit. Additionally, enemies are damage sponges and a chore to keep fighting.
Indeed, Slain: Back from Hell’s terrific presentation is a strong draw but it’s frustrating lack of checkpoints, harsh challenge, and simple mechanics largely undo the good. It can certainly trade a little on nostalgia for those in the mood for such a title, but it heavily features the worst parts of those games of yore.
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