Pretend for a moment that Beavis and Butt-head learned to program and design sprites. The game they would set out to make is Slain: Back from Hell. Dripping with all that is metal and rad, Slain pulsates with eye-catching art that takes a classic aesthetic and breathes new life into it. Thematically, Slain is a Slayer song played out as a side-scrolling puzzle platformer. I say that Beavis and Butt-head would “set out” to make this game because I don’t think they would make this game. Knowing their short temperament and single-noted responses, I think Beavis and Butt-head would say that Slain: Back from Hell “sucks.”
I don’t think Slain: Back from Hell is a bad game, but I don’t think it’s a good one. At first glance, this game looks like something in spirit of Castlevania, trading the gothic approach in for something more black metal in presentation. In fact, if you watch this game in motion for a while, it seems like a really cool take on that style of game. The problem with Slain: Back from Hell is not at all how it looks, but rather how it feels.
From the first time I started the game, the controls and specifically the feel of the character were unpleasant. Initially, the game asked to be played using the analog stick rather than the D-pad. This is quickly fixed in the game’s settings, but for a game that relies so heavily on games from classic platforms it was kind of an odd choice.
Once I began to play through the game, there is a certain weight to the character that makes him feel sluggish. My entire time with the game was made to felt like I was pulling the protagonist across the screen rather than charging into battle. Perhaps this plays into the game’s story of a reluctant hero torn from his eternal slumber to slay the creatures of the land and restore balance to the lands, but it is not a choice that makes for interesting gameplay.
Slain relies on the classic idea of an action-oriented platformer that has permeated video game design since the 1980s. You, the player, controls the character and kills enemies as they approach. There are some enemies who are stronger than others and eventually there are boss characters. The Castlevania comparison is pretty accurate here when looking it a description on paper.
In addition to the heaviness that comes with the main character comes what feels like a slight delay in his attack. It is not that there is in fact a delay in when you press the button and when the character strikes. In fact, the game is perfectly responsive in that regard. The issue is split into two offenders: animation and hitbox.
Look at any image of this game, still or moving and you will see how much attention and talent went into creating the look of Slain. It is one of the most, if not the most, beautiful approach to pixel art today. There is so much detail to this art and every single pixel adds something integral to the creation of Slain’s appeal. “How,” I asked myself, “How did they pour this much into the world of Slain and leave the main character with limited animation?” It’s not to say that the character has no variance to his animation. It’s just missing something. Every jump and every strike of the sword leaves me wishing that there were a few extra frames at play here. It’s not quite as bad as having no jump animation, but it’s the next worst thing. When attacking, the movement of the sword is limited. Again, a few extra frames of animation would’ve added the illusion of movement and made the character feel like he belongs in this world. Instead, it seems like two different artists painting on the canvas.
It is often while playing Slain that I felt cheated. The game jumps between difficulty extremes from screen to screen, something that is largely due to how easily you can die and what you have to do to successfully land an attack. It seems like the character has a very large hitbox while enemies need to be struck in exactly the right spot. Additionally, certain characters can fire projectiles which may be sent flying back toward them if timed correctly. The problem is when the screen is overwhelmed in enemy sprites and you are trying to kill everything as quickly as possible. Every time you press the button to attack, you must wait for the attack to execute completely and the animation plays out just long enough for an enemy to get in close or for a projectile to pass through the barrier where you are safe to reflect it. You almost need to play the section a few times, knowing you will die, just so that you can learn where enemies spawn and where they will move and attack, so that you can move and attack ahead of them. You fight bad AI far more than skeletons or monsters.
Each area splits itself into three sections, each of which have the potential for a really great game. First, you run through an outside area where you take down standard enemies and the occasional tough grunt. Once you survive here, you’re taken inside to a platforming puzzle where you hit switches to activate elevators and platforms. Eventually, you run through a gauntlet of enemies and find yourself at the boss for the stage. Defeat of the boss opens up a new portal in the game’s hub and access to the next area in the game to face the next of six main bosses.
In standard arcade style, Slain is really great on paper. In practice, it falls apart. The middle section of each area with the puzzles and switches are all essentially clones of one another, offering no variety to the puzzles from stage to stage. The switches themselves are lacking any sense of accomplishment when struck. This is something really small but when playing the game it stands out every time you enter one of these areas.
I wish Slain were a better game. I wish that I could talk about it the same way that I talk about Shovel Knight and that it could be the lost game that was too edgy to have been published twenty-five years ago.
I want to feel like I’m learning with a game and that I am getting better at playing a game. I want to know that even when I’m not advancing, it’s my fault. If it’s my fault that I’m not doing well in a game, I can fix that. I can learn how to get better and I can have something to look forward to. Here, I never feel at fault and the only thing I get better at is predicting when it will all go wrong.
At its best, Slain is something really cool with a lot of potential to be iconic. More often than not, its combat feels like those last few seconds of a game of Tetris, when you realize you’ve lost control of the game and the screen is about to fill up and the game is over.
With everything, I recommend giving it a chance if you’re curious about it. It’s really pretty and has moments where you can forget about the flaws. Largely though, Slain is one note without variation.