In just one small detail Slain: Back From Hell approaches perfection. The melee parry is note perfect. Tap the block button just as the enemy’s attack animation launches and immediately the camera zooms and pans to focus on the warring sprites. The game slows minutely, momentarily rendering individual frames visible. Your blade meets your foe’s and there’s a shower of blue-white sparks, the two weapons chiming with a bassy clang like a hammer striking a steel girder. As your helpless enemy quivers, hit the attack button to riposte, your warrior’s full might driving his blade in a wide arc into his foe’s flank, spraying scarlet blood and blue-white energy and swiping them back across the screen. This single combat interaction has been tuned like a muscle-car engine.
Slain is full of bravura elements like this parry. But this artisanal quality is not sustained and the game is never more than the sum of its parts.
Slain is a 2D side-scrolling hack ‘em up with a smidgen of platforming that loudly embraces its retro inspirations. The arcade era suffuses the art style, the combat system, the level design, and even the graphics options, with a choice of two CRT-monitor filters to lend a grainy authenticity. There is one difficulty setting, and it’s coin-guzzlingly hard.
As well as the perfect parry, Slain boasts a silk-smooth dodge and the ability to riposte enemy projectiles with a sword swing. This trifecta of dodge, parry and riposte could be the foundation of a nervy, tactical brawler, but the potential is squashed by the enemy design. Grunt enemies walk lazily towards you from their edge of the screen and are best dispatched by hammering the basic attack. Large enemies can be dodged, but unless you learn to parry them they’re almost invulnerable so evasion is usually irrelevant.
A charged melee attack looks and feels gorgeous but is again out-competed by the parry. Mana-consuming neon energy blasts have more of a place, and you can burn your whole mana bar in a single, screen-nuking blast. After the tutorial level you soon pick up two alternate weapons, a flaming sword and an ice-axe, and enemies have rock-paper-scissors vulnerabilities to one or another weapon that require you to switch your load-out on the fly. This should make for tense encounters as you first fend off fleshy witches with your fire-sword before shattering skelebones with your iron blade, but this hardly ever happens. If you see a skelebum expect to be swirling your iron sword for the foreseeable future.
Slain looks like something from a Manowar album cover, or the comic Heavy Metal, or Adult Swim’s death metal cartoon Metalocalypse. Basically: it’s metal. The architectural style is gothic and the main building material is skulls. Stages are luridly coloured in blood red, gangrenous green, moonlight blue. Distant backgrounds (each one a landscape from a teen goth’s poster collection) scroll along in parallax, while the foreground is vividly animated with nodding, fluorescent fungi or slopping blood. On top of this are particle showers of leaves, rain, motes of fire. It’s an engrossing, kinetic milieu that somehow makes even the sewer level feel awesome.
Character sprites are superb executions of tired designs. The main character, Bathoryn, looks like a roadie with a big white beard, but he runs and jumps and swings his big end charismatically. Enemies include such novelties as the skeleton, the big skeleton, and the dog that is on fire. But these listless ideas are translated into excellent pixel art, either Burton-esquely lanky or chunky with muscle, and their animation is clear and characterful.
As you’d expect, the soundtrack is metal. The title tune has a finger-plucking medieval ambience, while the second stage refrain is reminiscent of the storming openings to ‘Better to Reign in Hell’ by Cradle of Filth and ‘Raining Blood’ by Slayer. Good comparisons to draw, though Slain won’t go down with Crypt of the Necrodancer or Undertale as an all time sound design great.
Level design is the bad kind of retro. It’s not Castlevania, not even Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. Possibly it’s Altered Beast. Levels are either linear, left-to-right stumbles through waves of enemies, or involve a little light hopping as you head from bottom to top of a tower. Difficulty doesn’t so much spike as headbang, and encounters slide from shiny through filler into tedious grinds that will send you back to the checkpoint over and over until you memorize them. Gloriously gory traps repeatedly fail to eviscerate you, as they’re easily avoided. There are the inevitable instadeath pitfalls. This is arcade level design in full mediocrity, and nobody even gets your pocket money. Though on one level you do turn into a wolf, so it’s not all bad.
Lackluster stages pay off in stomping boss arenas. Screen-dominating nasties with crippling attacks and unique attack patterns, boss fights are Slain at its best, forcing you to learn fast, improvise, and use every part of your move-set. They’re varied too; an early encounter with a fifty foot banshee whose scream can liquidise the player character from half a screen away will re-familiarize you with the dodge button, while a mother beholder has no physical attacks but spits globs of green death and spawns tiny offspring who rapidly mature to harass you. The quality does dip, but for the most part the bosses feel like the challenge this combat system is begging for. And in a joyous flourish after each victory Bathoryn can headbang along to a chugging guitar riff as stage pyros flare up around him.
Slain aims to be as totallybrutalmetal as a Meshuggah concert, performed to an audience of vikings, in Hell. It nails a lot of the details. Unfortunately, they’re nailed to a spongecake. Bring on a better level designer, give us reasons to use the solid combat system, and developer Andrew Taylor will make a sequel to truly honor the great horned metal god.