Slain: Back From Hell isn’t a retro game. It’s too pretty to be retro.
Indie Roots, Old School Inspiration
Slain: Back from Hell is a heavy metal inspired indie platformer, focused on melee weapon combat, a high level of difficulty, and killer visuals to complement the soundtrack. I emphasized the “heavy metal inspired” portion of that last comment because I think it’s important in the context of this title. Andrew Gilmour is responsible for the concept, art, and animation, and it very much feels like a labour of love. The amount of work in this game visually for one person to complete is staggering. He hired a programmer, two sound guys, and a musician to see his project through. He didn’t care that some people dislike metal, and he didn’t care that some people will not like the difficulty level. This was a project of his own design, for his own desires as a finished product.
I completely understand why this game didn’t get the raving reviews I think it deserves, and I’m here to tell you why.
When I was young, games typically came on plastic cartridges that you plugged into large slots on whatever console you happened to own. NES, Master System, Atari, they all worked relatively the same way. Within the cartridges themselves you had a ROM chip (read only memory) that the game console read the game data from. The size of the ROM was always limited to only what was needed by the game data, because memory wasn’t cheap.
The consequence of the high memory prices, along with the limitations of the consoles themselves meant that game size to be put on the ROMs were severely limited. Developers used limited resources, on limited consoles, to build games within limited budgets. It was not uncommon to see games that were 32k, 16k, 8k, or even 4k in total size. To give context a 4k file size is roughly 800-1000 times smaller than an average mp3 file, or 1400 times smaller than an average 15 megapixel shot from a modern smart phone.
So, then, what did developers do to make the games worth your money? How did they increase the longevity of the game, so you didn’t play through it in 15 minutes and put it down for the next title? They often did one or both of the following two things.
- They made the games difficult enough that players would need to practice for many hours before becoming skilled enough to finish it.
- They made games loop, often with a more difficult variant of the game following the first playthrough. Some developers even went the extra mile, and required you to finish the game 2 or more times in succession to see the “real” ending.
Unfortunately (in my opinion), the loss of the limitations described above is one of the chief reasons games have become less difficult with time. There are of course other factors like the lure of catering to a broader, younger audience, and the need to retain players within your game universe to monetize through other means that are not the price of the game itself.
That’s a topic for another day, however.
Well, what does that have to do with Slain?
You control the fate of Bathoryn, a doomed hero in a Gothic world, who seeks to liberate six cursed realms from six deadly overlords.
He must battle his way through this blighted land, packed with gruesome pixel art foes before ascending (or sometimes descending) into a stronghold, all the while defeating fiendish traps and vile monsters alike.
At the heart of every domain Bathoryn will confront a mighty foe – defeat it and his quest continues to its ultimate destiny. Fail, and you’ll die gruesomely – mauled by werewolves, disintegrated by floating monstrosities, squashed by great weights or torn apart by hidden blades. And you will fail…
Test Your Metal
Slain is not an easy game. If you grew up in the 8-bit era cutting your teeth on the likes of any shoot ’em up, Mega Man, Castlevania, or almost any home-bound arcade port, you just might enjoy this sort of punishment. If you didn’t, then I fear it may be a little much. I’m theorizing here, but I would guess that the majority of negative reviews towards this title will mention the toughness. If you’ve got the mettle to endure a death count in the hundreds, and enjoy a well crafted challenge, then read on.
The game spans 6 worlds, and it all plays out in a very linear fashion. There are no branching pathways, and very little puzzles (despite that being in the description of the game). You will always know where you need to go, and the enemies in your way will always be the obstacle to overcome. You have a sword to start, and the game introduces you to a few additional moves right out of the gate. The moves are the following:
- Attack with your weapon
- Block (has diminishing returns)
- Evade jump backwards
- Cast a fireball (uses mana)
- Cast an area-of-effect spell (uses all of your mana)
- Well-timed block (allows a powerful counter attack, and gains you mana)
- Charge-up attack (takes a moment to charge up, making you vulnerable, and releases a heavy strike attack. If you hit an enemy with this, it will gain you mana)
While this all seems a little complicated, I assure you it’s all laid out in a very simple fashion, and you’ll pick it up in no time. The controls are sublime, and you never feel like you’re fumbling for your next button press. There is a little strategy involved, as checkpoints are laid out in such a fashion that using your mana wisely becomes part of the technique. Using your special attacks to gain mana can sometimes mean the difference between passing an area or death.
Later on in the game, two new weapons are introduced, a flaming sword, and an icy axe, and you can switch between all three on the fly. Enemies often have weaknesses that you can exploit by using a certain weapon, so you will be switching among them as you see fit.
"if you lack the patience for it, your game is over."
The checkpoints are spaced apart in varying degree, and reaching one will fill your health and mana bars to full. The distance between the checkpoints can often feel quite far, and the obstacles that lay between them can be quite taxing. This is a breaking point for many, as there are several points in the game where you will be tested thoroughly. You may need dozens of attempts before succeeding, and if you lack the patience for it, your game is over. There are no other modes to play, no other branching paths to take, and no easy way out.
Visuals and Sound
Visually the game is an absolute stunner. Through all the triple-A titles I have played throughout my years of gaming, I don’t think I have ever stopped in awe and taken as many screenshots as I did while playing this beauty. The pixel art is top-of-the-fucking-shelf, and it’s often expertly animated to boot. You’ll be stopping to smell the roses as large skeletons barrel towards you ready to cut you down with one swing of their sword. I died while gawking at the art more than once, it’s safe to say.
Along with the art, the metal music pumps away, filling the game with a soundtrack that comes and goes with the varying level styles. Often it will fade into the background like a melodic helper, plodding along as you slash through skeletons like butter. It then ramps up for some of the more difficult sections and sets off a feeling of uneasiness and dread. The sound design in the came feels visceral. You can hear your sword clink on the hard ground as you die, your corpse dropping the weapon as it falls. When you counter-attack or charge-attack your enemies there is a whooshing sound and a screen shake to go along with the hit, making your motions feel weighty and powerful.
It all comes together in perfect harmony, and despite what the credits of the game say, it feels like one person did the entire game from start to finish. There’s a synergy about it, and it all comes together under the vision of one mind.
Slain is a game that, if you’re in the right mindset for, will absolutely impress you. The opening scene sets the visual expectation for the entire game, and it not only delivers but exceeds your expectations. The gameplay gets harder and harder, but more and more fun. There are frustrations and pitfalls, and you may want to throw your controller once in a while. Take a break, grab a Jack and Coke, and come back with fresh hands, because the reward at the end of the battle is a killer one. The end boss is stunning (if a little easy by comparison), and the feeling of playing through this beast of a game is one of triumph that’s well worth it’s small price tag.
While Slain: Back From Hell is not the most difficult game, far from it in fact; it does take some finesse to prevail. It’s certainly not easy, and it is not for the frail among you. It’s brutal and fun, fair but challenging.
Perhaps it’s a byproduct of where I am in my gaming life, or maybe I’m a little more stubborn than the average gamer. This beautiful game tested me, set me up for a headstrong venture into frustration, and ended with a self administered pat on the back for a well-deserved ending. If you revel in the challenge of a well-built game, and you’re an old fart that grew up with the NES or Master System, this game might be right up your alley.
Slain: Back From Hell
Developer: Wolf Brew Games
Released: March 24th, 2016
Platform: Windows, Linux, Mac, Xbox One, PS4, Switch, Vita
MSRP: $12.99 USD (As reviewed, Steam price)
If you’re not up for a challenge, just stay away. Go play Mario or something.
– Incredibly good pixel art, animation, and lighting.
– Controls are fantastic
– Metal soundtrack kicks ass, doesn’t get boring or repetitive
– Difficulty is up there, but right on point. Does not pull any punches.
– Can be very frustrating for those who do not prefer this style of gameplay.
A note on the ports I have played:
The Vita port looks incredible on the system's OLED screen, and if you like to game on-the-go, this is the way to play it. The game runs at 30 fps (as far as I can tell), but it feels relatively good. You can switch the controls so your character moves with the d-pad, and the load times while not great, are bearable.
The Switch port also feels like it's 30fps, despite the news that they dropped a 60 fps patch some time ago. It doesn't feel as nice as the Vita version, and the real killer here is that you cannot switch the controls at all. You'll be stuck playing an old-school platformer with an analog stick, which is an absolute deal breaker if you ask me. Avoid the switch release. Load times here are considerably better than the Vita.
The PC port plays at a locked 60 fps and feels even though an option to unlock the frame rate would be nice, it feels smooth as butter. It plays much better than the Vita and Switch. You have full control over the controls, and have the ability to bind each action yourself if you wish. There are also a few other things like a couple CRT filters that in my opinion aren't worth using. This is the absolute best way to play the game, and you can play it on pretty much any PC you might have lying around the house, as the system requirements are really low.