Back when Slain was originally launched as a Kickstarter project in early 2015, it was pitched as being an homage to the gory sidescrolling hack and slash titles of the 80s and 90s, with just a hint or two of heavy metal thrown in for good measure. A successful campaign saw Wolf Brew Games release the title to market and find a generally negative reaction in response to their efforts. It’s to the developers’ credit that they’ve stuck with it, attempted to buff out the bugs, improve the gameplay, and come back for a second spin with this new version – Slain: Back from Hell.
The initial impression that the new game makes – and it very much feels like an entirely new game at times – is a good one, too. A massive number of bugs have been squashed since the initial launch, meaning that Bathoryn’s trek through the seven great towers is a much more fluid and playable one. A lot of things appear to have been entirely redesigned along the way, with the original title’s clunky and unresponsive combat pulled and tweaked into shape to almost get it to the point where it gels perfectly with the hard-as-nails design that permeates throughout the rest of the experience.
Indeed, the game was always advertised as being an intensely difficult slog through the wastelands, with players quickly and violently dispatched for not spending enough time considering their surroundings or memorizing enemy attack patterns.
Striding into a room with your sword drawn, looking to hack and slash through whatever comes your way will often end in death, as Slain has something of a habit of throwing a monkey wrench into the works whenever you feel that you’re fully in control of a situation. Given that lead character is ostensibly weak – falling after just a few hits – you’ll find yourself wandering into an area with the simple goal of reaching the next checkpoint, which serves as both a save point and (aside from in very rare occurrences) the only way in which you’ll be able to replenish your health.
Bathoryn’s relatively short lifespan makes for thrilling gameplay, with the threat of death never really being more than a slightly misjudged block attempt away. When this is the case, the game has to provide pixel-perfect hitboxes and combat that quickly becomes second nature. Sadly, that isn’t always the case.
There are times where you’ll attack one enemy and land your shot, also damaging a secondary foe who has moved into range. Then there are others where two enemies will be stood together in the same configuration and your perfectly-judged swing of the sword damages one of them but leaves the second completely unscathed, causing you to be open to his attack. It’s rare, but in a difficult game, the last thing you need is for the engine to be causing deaths that aren’t your fault.
However, the main cause of frustration is that your main weapon can be imbued with elemental powers such as fire or ice, with the correct choice dealing more damage to specific opponents and an incorrect choice dealing less. It isn’t always obvious which weapon selection is the most effective – especially in areas where there are multiple enemy types – and an erroneous decision can mean that a foe takes up to twice as many hits to defeat. Sub-bosses generally require you to block at a very specific time in order to counter with a critical strike and missing that timing once is often enough to seal your fate. So having to do that six times as opposed to two, because you’re using the wrong weapon and have no idea that’s the case, is far from optimal.
Also in question is the simplicity of Slain’s level design. Yes, the game is tough to beat, but that’s solely down to enemy patterns and the lack of any health pickups. Despite the game containing some outstanding sprite work that really captures the essence of classics such as Castlevania, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Altered Beast and the like, the levels themselves are all too straightforward.
With the exception of one surprisingly easy (yet entertaining) section where you’re transformed into a wolf and have to run away from a chasing enemy, bashing down walls as you do so, the levels all feel more or less the same. You’re generally looking to defeat enemies in order to reach switches which, when flipped, enable moving platforms that allow you to reach the next section and the next enemy layout. No matter how many times the developers change the color palette or add a different type of dripping fluid to the background, you’re still traipsing around levels that feel very familiar, very quickly.
That isn’t to say that Slain: Back from Hell doesn’t provide a rewarding experience. With the exception of the larger enemies, the combat system does allow for variation in terms of how you approach each threat and there’s a genuine feeling of accomplishment that shows up whenever you do finally get to the next elusive checkpoint. Even with that said, there are times when the repetitiveness of the level design and an unfair death or two will be enough to push players away. The number of times that you’ll pick up the controller for another crack at things an hour or two later stands as testament to just how far the game has come. It isn’t perfect by any means, but Slain: Back from Hell is a far more worthy challenger than it was when it was initially launched.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which we were provided with.
It isn’t perfect by any means, but Slain: Back From Hell is a far more worthy challenger than it was when it was initially launched.