Slain: Back from Hell
Developer(s): Andrew Gilmour, Stage Clear Studios
Publisher: Digerati Distribution
Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: December 7th, 2017
Bite-sized Reviews differ from our more traditional, full-length reviews in that they’re restricted to smaller titles and, as the name implies, trims the fat in favor of getting straight to the point. What is this game and why should you care? Let’s get to that below!
So, what is Slain: Back from Hell?
A heavy metal, gore-soaked throwback to the 16-bit era of 2D action platformers. It’s tough as nails, has a dynamite look, and a metal-as-fuck soundtrack, courtesy of ex-Celtic Frost guitarist Curt Victor Bryant. Developer Stage Clear Studios tosses classics like Super Castlevania IV, Ghouls n’ Ghosts, and some of Contra’s aesthetic into a grinder and delivers a visceral, brutal experience that unfortunately falls way short in the gameplay department. You play as Bathoryn, a buff metal dude risen from the dead, who is tasked with killing six demons using his massive sword. There’s basic hack and slashing, charge attacks, back-dashing, parry counters, magic, and elemental weapons to play around with, and each stage is littered with nasty baddies, annoying insta-kill traps, elementary platforming mechanics, and, of course, boss fights.
Why should you care?
Slain: Back from Hell looks incredible! It’s perhaps one of the most visually impressive pixel art styles I’ve seen yet, from its gothic architecture and blood-soaked playgrounds to monster designs and the overall theme of its world design — I was never not impressed with what I saw. Bryant’s soundtrack also slays throughout the game, with fitting tracks that’ll get you pumped after every frustrating death. Hell, even the start menu has chugging guitar riffs with each menu shift. The animations are also noteworthy, with lots of TLC being shown in Bathoryn’s attacks and each enemy’s satisfying death sequence. If you’re the type to crave brutally challenging experiences, Slain: Back from Hell is exceptionally savage. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t play as well as it needs to, but there’s no denying that landing well-timed counterattacks just feels so damn good.
Where does it go wrong?
Slain: Back from Hell launched at 30 FPS on the Nintendo Switch, instead of 60 FPS like it was everywhere else. This posed a huge problem, as the game ran with a significant motion blur effect that rendered the game virtually unplayable for me without feeling like I was going to vomit. The intense motion blur also made combat more difficult than it already was, making precisely-timed counter attacks unreliable. Thankfully, Slain has since been patched for 60 FPS; but I still had to wait for the update to even play the game effectively and give it a review. This is a non-issue now, I get that, but hopefully, you can imagine my disappointment.
As mentioned above, Slain was an incredibly difficult game for me for a handful of reasons. For starters, the game is just naturally difficult as a throwback to a bygone era. Enemies take off significant chunks of health upon contact and knock Bathoryn back (a la Mega Man or Castlevania), hazards provide instant-deaths (sometimes the frustrating “gotcha!” variety, because they’re either hard to locate or hidden under flocks of birds), and it requires a lot of pattern recognition and memorization on behalf of the player. This is fine. I actually enjoy these aspects of most “hard” games. Slain, however, knows what it wants to be and how it wants a player to react, but it doesn’t have the refined gameplay to make that entirely possible. Some enemies seem unaffected by basic sword swings and walk straight into you, while others had odd animation frames that made countering a bit of a gamble. Counterattacking, in general, leads to many unfair hits, as nearby enemies can freely attack Bathoryn during his flashy sword swing animation. With many of the game’s rooms stacking the odds against you, this became way too commonplace and unnecessarily and artificially inflated the difficulty. Our murderous metalhead is given a back-dash to evade attacks, but it doesn’t trigger mid-swing and renders it kind of useless.
Boss fights were visually impressive and a bit more enjoyable than basic enemy encounters, but that’s not saying much. None of them went beyond a visual spectacle for me. There is also a noticeable amount of slowdown in the outdoor segments (even after the 60 FPS patch) and whenever light-intensive objects are on-screen, like well-lit statues or enemy projectiles. After watching a few videos of the game running on PS4 I didn’t observe the same issues, so maybe the Switch version is the least appealing, then? The slowdown is also oddly less noticeable in handheld mode.
I also have a particular grudge against any 2D game with platforming that doesn’t allow you to use or rebind movement to the d-pad. Analog platforming in 2D feels rough.
Now, what’s the verdict?
As you can see, I had a lot of complaints and very little to praise beyond the game’s spectacular visuals and metal riffage. Slain: Back from Hell is a game that’d be very much “my shit” at first glance, but I rarely enjoyed the actual gameplay. If you’ve exhausted your current 16-bit era options on Switch, like Shovel Knight, Sonic Mania, Azure Striker Gunvolt: Striker Pack, Volgarr the Viking, and Blaster Master Zero, maybe consider Slain: Back from Hell. Even then, I’d have a hard time recommending it since it just wasn’t that fun to actually play, whereas it’s an audio-visual bloodfeast for the ears and eyes.
For a far more positive outlook, check out my buddy The Deviot’s review (of the PC version) who awarded it an 8/10.
We don’t use a scoring system here at Cheap Boss Attack, so hopefully you found the information above far more informative than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded-in star shapes.
A copy of this game was provided for review purposes.