Generally I don’t do end of year lists, because I simply don’t have the resources to play everything. But sometimes that can be a good thing as this year proved that many games have been, and will be taken out of the oven too early. Slain is one such game. At least it was initially according to most who looked at it.
PROS: Everything you love about Castlevania 1, Golden Axe, and Heavy Metal!
CONS: The insane difficulty of NES Castlevanias.
DIE: Everything will kill you in this game. Usually in horrific, and gory ways.
When Slain was released, the initial reception wasn’t very good. Performance was terrible on many computers, it had bugs, crashes, and other problems. But things didn’t stay that way for very long. Where other developers may have spent eons trickling out patches to try to get things working, made excuses, or worse, given up entirely, these guys didn’t. The people behind Slain put out major overhauls for a few months. Once the game was in the state it should have launched in, it was given a subtitle to reflect it, and relaunched.
So this revamped version I received for Christmas is really good! It has brisk action. It has a blend of fighting, and puzzles. It has really inventive character designs, and a head banging soundtrack. What it doesn’t have is a ton of exploration, a deep story, or a wide cast of playable characters.
You see, at first glance many people will think Slain is going to be a Castlevania clone, and they would be partially right. But these folks aren’t thinking of the right Castlevania games. These days a lot of people are wistful for the entries like Symphony Of The Night, or Aria Of Sorrow. Versions of the formula that mixed in the exploration of Metroid into the series. Leading to the term Metroidvania. But Slain follows more closely to the first Castlevania most people who owned an NES played. Castlevania.
So what you’ll be doing here is going through linear stages. At the end of each stage you’ll fight a horror themed boss, and then move on. After you complete the first stage, you do get to go to a hub level, where you can choose the order you want to play the stages in. Well, partly. Because two of them are locked until the second, and third, are completed. You can also replay any stage you’ve previously beaten. But no matter what order you choose there aren’t any changes. Each of the six stages does give you a pretty wide variety of settings. The entire game is oozing in Heavy Metal. The style of the characters, and even the pixel art itself, is right out of album covers. Old school fans will immediately think of the art on albums by Iron Maiden, early Metallica, Sepultura, Dio, Thor, and Iced Earth.
You’ll be fighting in old burned out towers, desolate plains, ethereal worlds, and blood soaked towers. There are also booby traps everywhere. Trap doors that will have you falling on spikes. Blood puddles that pull you down, and drown you. Background statues that attack you, ceilings that crush you, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The enemies will take you back to times of playing Castlevania. Albeit with a dash of Golden Axe. Instead of fighting one or two enemies at once, you’ll often be swarmed with five or six. All of the enemies look gorgeous. As far as monsters can. The details in the sprites are just as impressive, and imposing as the backgrounds. Plus, every character has a ton of animated detail. If you take five seconds to analyze something as simple as a skeleton walking toward you you’ll notice it instantly. He’ll then hack you to death with a machete because you weren’t paying attention.
Which brings me to the death animations of your character. Because it goes along with everything else. You’ll see your organs fall out after a monster has you disemboweled. You’ll see the flesh fall off of your bones when you fall in an acid pool. You’ll see your head get severed by an enemy knight. or your character become paste when he gets crushed. The ways you go down in this game can give Mortal Kombat a run for its money.
So how do you survive? Well the game does take a few cues from Castlevania in that you’ll have to plod through areas, avoiding traps, killing enemies, and trying to make jumps without bats or Medusa heads knocking you into pits. The game also has both a health, and power up bar. But the similarities begin to end there. For starters, instead of picking up random secondary weapons from candles, you have a charge attack. The longer you hold the charge, the more powerful a burst of fire you can throw.
But I can already hear you asking where to find mana to replenish your secondary ammunition. You find it in battle. Slain, has a pretty respectable fighting system. True, you can hack n’ slash your way through via Golden Axe inspired brute force. But you’ll actually have an easier time once you discover that timing is everything. Slain gives you an attack button, a jump button, a secondary attack button, and a block button. Holding the block button can , well, block attacks from enemies. The thing is blocking too many attacks will actually cause you to go into a hit stun, where enemies will finish you off.
However, if you time your block perfectly, the enemy gets hit stunned, allowing you to get off a critical hit. Many enemies will die after one or two of these, and it is here you get mana. But it goes further. Some bad guys will shoot projectiles at you. Instead of blocking these attacks, you can time your primary attack. Hitting the projectile at just the right time will knock it back, like a baseball. This is crucial to master, because for some of the larger enemies, mini bosses, and bosses you can’t survive without it.
And before you go thinking you can instantly make the game go from difficult to easy by doing this, every enemy type has a different timing requirement. In the case of boss fights, you’ll also need to learn their patterns. Attack at the wrong time, you’re dead. Go on a flurry of hits blindly, and you’ll soon be on the business end of a super move that will one shot you. Even if you have full health at the time.
Still, you’ll need to master every trick at your disposal, because much like the early Konami, and Sega games that inspired it, it is difficult. But difficult in a good way. You’ll die 20 million times. But every time you’ll still want to play again. It gets you hooked on perseverance. That constant feeling of just one more try. You will give it one more try, and another, and another. Because every stage has a hidden piece of a talisman you’ll need to find. There are also elemental versions of standard swords, and axes. But the way they’re implemented is really cool. Again, the amazing sprite work, and animation is on display. These weapons aren’t just recolored, and buffed versions. The wild designs make each of these feel unique. Like the embers of fire trailing off of your flame sword. Or the water, and ice dripping off of your axe. Slain always has some new detail you’ll be discovering.
The soundtrack also takes inspiration from vintage metal, though it has elements of subgenres. There are moments where it feels symphonic, other times there’s a sense of power. Often times it will evoke crunchy, speedy licks, and solos. Curt Victor Bryant (of Celtic Frost) did a wonderful job giving players a soundtrack that matches the imagery in Slain. Again, it will remind you of early metal albums. If you grew up in the 70’s or 80’s listening to a lot of the heavier, darker albums, you’re going to love the music in this game.
Unfortunately, the story we’re given isn’t nearly as interesting as the world it takes place in. You play Bathoryn. An old, expired warrior who is resurrected, and commanded to liberate six realms from monsters. There are some dialogue boxes between Bathoryn, and some of the characters, like the being who wakes you from your slumber. Or the banter with boss characters before, and after fights. But the exposition doesn’t show you the story, it just tells you what is happening. You go tracking down a villain named Vroll. He shows up from time to time to taunt you on your quest, and sometimes just before a boss fight. Throughout the game you also run into a mysterious mystic, who grants you the aforementioned weapons, as well as introduce some of the new enemies. The final confrontation does fill in some of the blanks, and there is an interesting twist at the end. I just wish the narrative could have been as interesting as everything else.
Be that is it may, Slain: Back From Hell is an excellent game overall. It is true, that it has a very high difficulty, but then so do many good games. If you’re someone who is willing to press on, there is a lot to like. Even if you’re not a big fan of Heavy Metal, the game’s horror elements, and atmosphere will still keep you entertained for hours. It isn’t a very long game at just six stages. But the challenge will have most people playing it for a long time. Even if you do become good enough to master it, you’ll likely come back to it for replays, or speed runs.
Final Score: 8 out of 10