Slain: Back from Hell has a lot going for it at first glance: the music, pixel art and gore all borrow from a strong metal motif. But the longer I played, the more I realized that everything was just surface level. It doesn’t take much to scratch off the paint and see the rust underneath this the rock mural on some dude’s van.
The story of the hero Bathoryn is equal parts simple and confusing. You are a warrior brought back to life (for reasons never adequately explained) to defeat the evil Vroll. The lands have been completely decimated by the tyrant and death and decay hang in the air. This gives the perfect excuse for Bathoryn to explore gruesome locales and slice up various creatures of the night.
Gameplay in Slain is very arcade-like, right down to the linear paths and higher difficulty. You basically walk forward, use a few different attack options to clear your path, and do some light platforming along the way.
You also have access to magic which acts as your projectile for the game. You can charge the shot up for a stronger fireball or use all your mana to unleash an eruption that hurts all enemies on screen. I found the magic to be useful only in a very few select situations since your meter depletes much too quickly and your sword ends up being much more useful.
Speaking of your steel, you get access to two elemental power ups as you progress through the game. The fire and ice enhancements of your trusty blade have different effectiveness against different enemies. This was often spoiled by the old hag who acts as your guide/comic relief: ‘Witches hate fire!’ I found myself sticking to one type out of the three (normal steel acts as the first style) that worked the best in each stage. There was little motivation to experiment since it wasn’t a necessity.
Combat in Slain boils down to two must have skills: timing your blocks right so you can do a counter-attack, and reflecting enemy’s fireballs. It was fun, if not a little repetitive, getting my blocks synced up with different enemies. The same cannot be said for dealing with your opponent’s projectiles.
Fire-slinging creatures are usually in the most frustrating locations and they grind your progress to a halt. What ends up happening is that there’ll be a number of enemies in front of the slinger that you’ll have to strike once or twice and then jump over a fireball. Alternatively, you can reflect the fireballs back at these ‘guards’ and then 1 hit kill them. Rinse and repeat 3-4 more times and you can go after your slinger. Usually they’ll retreat if you try and attack them head on so again you have to play the reflecting game. I was also struggling with the timing of these damn projectiles even late in the game. This wouldn’t be a problem if these encounters were spaced out more (they’re not) and if you didn’t have to grind through it over and over if you die (which you will. A lot).
Sometimes ‘you died’ is just part of a game’s design and the aptly named Slain definitely embraces this. Some titles like Super Meat Boy know how to make constant death work: To his credit the dev has made it quick to jump back in and try again. The problem is that a lot of the challenge feels unfair; enemy and trap placement came across as cheap and the vertical levels were designed to make you constantly fall to your death.
But what really undermines the tough as nails philosophy of the game is the pacing. You’d think a resurrected warrior with a flaming sword would be able to easily cut a path through his enemies, but really it’s a game of patience most of the time. For instance, sometimes you need to be strategic and clear an area of enemies before you try and make some perilous jumps. The flow of these sections is completely ruined and sometimes I found it easier just to take the damage and run through groups of monsters. And all this doesn’t really mesh with the brutal aesthetic of the rest of the game. Viscerally tearing my enemies to shreds shouldn’t take so long nor become so dull.
Speaking of the visuals, the pixel art in Slain is quite nice. The gothic and macabre designs are all there with characters (except for our bland hero Bathoryn) and architecture looks especially demonic. The problem becomes the color palette used. There are a lot of murkier shades used so a lot of the details are lost unless you look really hard. For instance, at one point a menacing face is formed from brick and moss on the walls but against a black background the effect was almost lost. It was really the light hues of ice and magma that really popped out on this muddy painting (with a broken down van as a canvas).
When I first started my adventure the music pumped me up. I grew up with metal so this soundtrack was made for people like me. But then I stopped noticing the noise in the background as I repeatedly perished. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway as when I went back to try and appreciate the different tracks, the ‘brutalness’ of each one blended together for an uninspired auditory experience. No pieces stood out as the one you wanted to hear while you brought down your ice axe.
While the story really doesn’t matter here, it stood out for the wrong reasons. The script is dense with the most violent words the developer could find in the thesaurus. At first it fun to read through but it quickly became tiresome and even encumbering to the actual tale that Slain is attempting to weave. That in itself is difficult to figure out as the ending contains a baffling moment that seems open up for a sequel and treat the entire story thus far as an inconsequential set-up.
The sparse humor found throughout the game doesn’t come close enough to dilute the high level of seriousness that this metal-fueled world wants to reproduce. Bathoryn’s interactions with the zany guide hag try too hard and her connection to the overall plot never falls into place.
Slain: Back from Hell is that mural on that beaten down van painted by someone sporting a mullet; the first time you walk by you quickly glance over and think, ‘hey, that’s cool.’ But after going by a bunch of times you notice the faded colors and the incomprehensible scene of violence going on. It’s like the artist wants you to take the time to appreciate the art but, honestly, it’s not worth the effort. There are a few spots that stick out like a segment where a warrior turns into a wolf or the bright blues and reds that border the fresco. But really, there are no secrets to be found here (and not many in the game). The mural is here to distract you for a short period (6 hours) and once you’re done taking it in, you’ll find it difficult to recall the experience.