A fallen warrior is woken from the eternal slumber of death and tasked with ridding the land of hordes of foetid, rotting aberrations summoned by the evil Lord Vroll. Reluctantly, the grizzled and battle weary Bathoryn dons his armour and grips his heavy sword once again, and turns into the blistering wind. Thunder and lightning crackle through the angry, swirling clouds; the incessant rain cutting like a thousand razor blades across the barren and desolate landscape. The raw power of a thousand electric guitars harmonises with a baseline being played by an orchestra of angels as cold steel meets skull once again and Bathoryn begins a quest to return tranquility to the cursed earth upon which he walks. Welcome to the world of Slain: Back from Hell.
Slain is a gothic-horror inspired 2D side-scrolling hack ’n slash that is very much in the vein (no pun intended) of games like Castlevania and Metroid. However, you’ll be pleased to learn that I’m not a fan of the dreaded portmanteau associated with this type of mash up, and so it shall not be given the dignity of a mention here. That said, Slain does borrow heavily from both game (and to some extent, Volgarr the Viking) in terms of visual style and gameplay, so if ever it was warranted it’s here. Playing as the undead warrior Bathoryn, players are tasked with running left to right and up and down (when required), hacking and slashing enemies with a sword, blocking, reversing attacks and using werewolf-themed special attacks to rid each stage of evil. In traditional 2D side-scrolling fashion, you’ll also find yourself jumping on moving platforms, hitting switches to open doors and facing off against screen filling mid and end level bosses.
Before I continue with this review, let’s just get something out of the way: the main reason I was drawn to Slain was the visual trappings. The game is a pure masterclass of retro-inspired pixel art mixed with gothic design and Lovecraftian overtones not witnessed since Bloodborne. The version I’m actually reviewing is the PS Vita release, which was the most recent one to drop and while I’m aware that the game has been available on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC for a couple of months by this point, it really pops on the Vita’s little screen. The level of detail is astounding; the light sourcing and the enemy designs, the amazing atmosphere and overwhelming sense of dread and despair lavished upon the environments through which Bathoryn runs - his grey locks flowing in his wake - are amongst some of the best I’ve seen in a game of this type. Enemy designs are gloriously gruesome and hellishly inventive, mixing macabre overtones of the occult with familiar fantasy and horror. The music too, is utterly brilliant. The heavy metal soundtrack matches the visuals perfectly, the quiet interludes and amazing crescendos effortlessly matching what the eyes are drinking in…Slain is without doubt the perfect marriage of kick ass visuals and spine tingling metal. It’s with crushing disappointment then, that I say that the rest of the game fails to live up to these incredible aesthetics.
The main problem is the difficulty level. While I’m not one to shy away from a challenge, I found that after a while the constant deaths and checkpoint restarts weren't really down to my ineptitude controlling Bathoryn, but more down to the - how do I say this - fuzziness of the combat scheme. You get a single attack button, a jump button and a block button. Hammering the attack button will unleash a flurry or sword blows against the myriad ground based and flying enemies you’ll encounter. Blocking an incoming attack at the right moment will allow you to reverse the blow and make a critical counterstrike. You also have extra attacks that chip away at the mana meter that lives under your health bar and these come in the form of a charged sword attack, or a special which is activated by hitting the right shoulder button (on Vita). You also get a dodge button (located by default on the left shoulder button), but to be honest I hardly ever found the need to use it, and as such it is pretty redundant.
While the number of attacks is fairly decent and standard for this style of game, combat feels very inaccurate and usually boils down to just hitting the attack button over and over until the enemies lining up to eat your blade crumble. There’s little point trying to use the block/reversal simply because it’s so difficult to judge when the enemy attack will come; and invariably ends up with you getting slapped across your stupid bearded face, diminishing even more of your precious life bar. If land based enemies are one level of annoyance though, flying enemies are a different prospect entirely. They hover around taking almost unavoidable, slow moving pot shots at you while you frantically jump around like a buffoon swinging your sword about like an idiot. It all just feels so random - sometimes you can run through a hoard of enemies just ploughing the attack button and effortlessly glide through them all as if your sword were a hot knife cutting through a block of butter; other times it’s like you’re going up against an army of invincible cyborgs, all of which have had their ‘nope’ levels dialled up to 12. Back to the checkpoint, infidel.
On top of all this, there are environmental instant death situations at every turn. Pools of lava, acid, traps…you name it. If it looks unpleasant, the chances are that it is…and getting within a pixel of it will send you back to the last checkpoint (again). On the subject of enemies, their AI seems fairly rudimentary at best - they just seem to hone in and amble towards Bathoryn, regardless of whether there’s a pit of unpleasant goo between him and them. Invariably this means they’ll just wade in and kill themselves…which is an awfully nice gesture given the circumstances.
Sometimes though, just getting too close to a moving platform will turn our hardened warrior into a pile of bones, which actually seems like a glitch to me. Now, the checkpoints aren't generally that far apart in the levels, but sometimes you’ll pass one and then there won’t be another one for ages, with an entire army of marauding baddies and instant-death jumps and moving platforms before you get to the next. The number of times I almost got to the next checkpoint before dying because a massive enemy just appeared out of nowhere almost had me biting my Vita in half at times. Believe me, Turok 2 ain’t a patch on Slain.
I have to admit that I haven’t finished Slain at the time of writing this review, and that’s because there’s a glitch that makes moving past a certain point in the game impossible. The developer has tweeted that this is being worked on, but it’s not ideal.
That said, there’s a lot to love in the parts of Slain you can play. The visuals are absolutely glorious, and the soundtrack is utterly brilliant. Controls are decent too, if a little on the twitchy side. It’s just that the combat - the main component of a game like this - is somewhat unbalanced and imprecise. Coupled with a steep leaning curve and unforgiving difficulty level, it makes Slain something of an acquired taste. If you’re looking for an alternative to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on Vita and you’ve already played Axiom Verge to death, then by all means give Slain a whirl. Just expect to die a lot and see that restart screen more times that you’re used to. Unless you’re a veteran of Bloodborne or Dark Souls…then you’ll probably 1cc Slain in half an hour. Probably.
Slain: Back from Hell is available now for PS Vita, PlayStation 4 (with cross buy), Xbox One and PC.
Slain: Back from Hell trailer
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