Slain: Back From Hell is a gorgeous pixelated 2D action platformer oozing with traits of old-school classics such as the vanilla Castlevania series whilst tempered with a banging heavy metal soundtrack. With such a hearty concoction like that, what could possibly go wrong?
Originally released as Slain! due to the backing of a Kickstarter campaign, this pretty hack ‘n’ slash title initially faced some rather brutal criticism upon release. The developer, Andrew Gilmour, decided to recollect his thoughts and drag it back into Hell in an effort to forge a much more immersive experience on the return of its uprising – hence its new double meaning subtitle, “Back From Hell.”
You play as Bathoryn, awoken from a crypt against his will by a spirit in need of your combat skills. This leads to a tirade of bloody murder against a rising army of demons led by towering main antagonist Lord Vroll. Of course, the story isn’t really the main focus here as it rarely ever has ever been from games of this ilk. What is important, however, is the combat and flow that a title like this should focus on to keep the player invested.
Your basic melee attacks consist of anchoring a generic vertical three hit combo to predominantly slay your enemies. In an effort to vary it up a bit you can also block or parry an attack, leaving your foe wide open for a belting horizontal slice. I found this particular mechanic the most useful outside Bathoryn’s three beat chop and the animation that plays out during a successful counter looks weighty and satisfying. There’s even a mana meter that refills as a reward for your timing. This can be used to fire off a weak projectile or charged up to let off a devastating burst of energy. Your weapon also contains the ability to charge, which releases a strong close-range energy bolt in the form of a wolfs face if your timing is on point.
While the move set looks all well and good on paper, the way they are executed in actual combat can feel a little lacklustre. The three hit combo that you will rely on for the majority of the time can quickly become quite lethargic in execution, even more so due to how much of a beating the average enemy can take. Now, there’s nothing wrong with baddies being able to take a bit of a kick-in per se, after all, I generally crave for a challenge in games. It’s more the lack of having any ability to extend your combo, despite enemies feeling like they require it. Half the time your little three hit chain can be interrupted due to the way you move forward with every swipe – this generally results in bumping into them a lot of the time. The low stun that most enemies have also really doesn’t help the matter. You can dash back à la Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night-style as another form of defence, it just never seems to feel as satisfying as it really should.
Like I have already stated, I do love a challenge. I adore Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts which is notorious for its difficulty. What made that particular brutal classic morish was the flow and pace of the actual gameplay which, even after so many years later, still manages to keep me hooked. While Slain: Back From Hell tries its own hand at providing a challenging experience, its method of doing so makes progression seem slow and repetitive. Your distance in landing attacks are key, which again can be fine, but the way it’s all implemented just makes the whole ordeal feel fidgety and slow. What adds to the sense of a slothful grind is how cheap the game can be. Instant death traps are laid everywhere, some of which are set out right after locked periods of enemy waves where you would usually expect to find a checkpoint as a reward for your hard work. While elements like these are set as a nasty surprise, it more kills the momentum than anything else.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Slain: Back From Hell never feels unbeatable, and you do begin to understand your slay patterns and weapon requirements for various brutes in order to press forward. This does present a learning experience as you gradually hone your coordination skills based on the combat system restraints. The variety of enemies are in healthy quantity too, each with their own attempt at being different. In regards to the bosses, they look very decent, and confronting them are gloriously traditional.
However, it is the visuals that are its saving grace overall, as the pixel art style is always fantastic to look at. The variety in stages are littered with detail with scrolling backgrounds that bleeds vibrancy to compliment the eye candy that surrounds you. The heavy metal track list that accompanies the action fits really well within its flavour even though it’s not my particular bag in music. Despite originally releasing in a noticeably sluggish 30fps, an update recently saw things run at a cleaner 60fps. This does make the whole experience feel a little more fluid at least, although the scrolling environments do still stutter slightly – a slight discrepancy that seems to be more noticeable when docked to the TV.
The thing is, games from back in the 16-bit era saw a slew of tough side-scrolling action platformers. Some of which remain classics to this day. While many are left forgotten, the odd few are still cherished as a somewhat guilty pleasure. What does make bringing a classic genre into the modern day a challenge, is that these certain types of genres don’t necessarily age well. Not unless it’s seasoned with something fresh at least.
This is what Slain: Back From Hell suffers most with. While it’s blatantly attractive to look at, the reliance on being too old-school in the hack ‘n’ slash department makes the game struggle to feel anything above mediocre. This doesn’t mean that I found it terrible by any means. There are a few decent surprises present and I am sure Slain: Back From Hell can be that guilty pleasure for some in its own right. I just didn’t find it nearly as fun as I had hoped it would be, especially considering the potential that can be seen within the half a dozen hours it takes to beat it.