While they sometimes can be played out too much, I still very much enjoy old-school games with retro graphics. Slain: Back From Hell from developer Stage Clear Studios especially feels like a love letter to me due to its heavy metal influence and Castlevania-like aesthetic. The visuals ooze style and the guitar laden soundtrack will have any metal fan head-banging, but does the gameplay match-up?
Slain: Back From Hell is a mix of old-school Castlevania with a big influence from its more recent 2D Castlevania counterparts; all with a heavy metal soundtrack playing throughout the course of the adventure and immense amounts of blood and gore splashing across the screen. In Slain you play as a brash, long haired character awoken from his grave in order to take on an evil influence that’s trying to take over the world.
If you are a fan of the retro style of graphics there are some nice touches. The backgrounds paint an amazing tapestry of dread and there are some good animations from the protagonist and the monsters. I also appreciated the death animations from not only the monsters, but also the myriad of ways the hero is defeated. No doubt, you will be dying an exorbitant amount of times from instant death traps to killer moves performed by some of the monsters and bosses, and it’s nice to see the care taken in making each death animation unique.
While there is definitely a Castlevania influence, Slain is relatively linear. Some light puzzle solving segments provide a nice change-of-pace, but most of it boils down to taking out a room full of monsters to unlock a gate or finding a hidden switch and then backtracking to get to a higher part of the area. There is a hub environment you travel to between levels, but all you do is basically choose between areas to explore and once those are completed you choose from two more.
The main characters controls rather well, and there is no shortage of platforming and tricky areas you are going to travel through. There is a knock-back mechanic that you have to be wary of because if you’re hit at the ledge of a platform it most likely means you will fall to your death, and this can lead to some frustration. Thankfully, the checkpoint system is much more forgiving and once you learn where the traps are and what enemies are up ahead, it shouldn’t be too difficult to make it to the next checkpoint.
You’re armed with a sword and there are a few different elements you can unlock and imbrue your sword with throughout the course of the adventure. You can switch between these elements on the fly at any time and every monster has a weakness to a certain type, though Slain does not give you any indication of which monster is effected by which element. Fortunately, this is more obvious during the boss battles because they have a health gauge so you can see which element does the most amount of damage.
Each weapon does attack differently, but it’s basically the same combo for each by just pressing the Y button three times in a row. You can hold it down to do a charge attack which is crucial for dispatching tougher enemies, and it also refills your magic gauge if the monster is defeated. This has to be timed perfectly to pull off and can lead to some frustrating moments if your timing is even a little off. As mentioned before, there is also magic that can be used with the R shoulder button unleashing a magical projectile depending on what element you currently have equipped, and there are variations of the spells that can be performed by holding different movement directions.
The big gimmick of Slain is the blocking and parrying mechanic. Any time a creature attacks, if you time it correctly you can actually block the attack and then counter with a huge move that will end up doing a great amount of damage. This is especially important to pull off during some of the harder enemies and often times can be the difference between life and death. Many of the enemies also throw out projectiles which can actually be reflected back with a well timed sword slash. Not only will this injure the enemy, but it will knock them off-balance to pull off the counter attack move without having to parry them first.
Figuring out how each monster reacts is part of the fun, unfortunately, there are not a ton of different monsters you will have to fight and many times they’re just recycled skins with more hit points or greater attack power. Slain does have some collectibles to find in secret areas, and a runner-like segment also switches up the gameplay, but once you learn every enemy there is not much to come back for.
What makes Slain so difficult is not in how the combat plays out, but how at certain points you have to take out groups of different types of monsters. Slain loves to throw in random monster-like arenas out of nowhere and just flood you with a variety of different creatures to slay in locked off segments. Again, death will come frequently but isn’t something that can’t be persevered through. Just be prepared for these battles to become bland and only add artificial length to the title.
Instant death traps are everywhere in Slain, but thankfully there is always a cue so once you have run through one you can always tell which ones are coming up; these vary from spikes, collapsing walls, or giant mace balls coming at you. If you are easily frustrated at having to maneuver through repeated traps, then Slain will most likely be your least favorite title even with the cues given for each specific trap. Where this becomes a problem is when traps are present during battles because of the unforgiving knock-back from the enemies, and often times you are not killed from the enemies but instead by the instant death traps.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the combat, especially for those who enjoy timing based blocking and parrying gameplay mechanics. However, I will mention that there is some questionable hit detection for sure and I don’t like how your character moves forward when they are attacking in a combo. Many times this causes a battle to be drawn out due to attacking then running back because of how attacks move you forward inadvertently. Even just touching an enemy causes damage to your character.
The length of Slain will vary for everyone and comes down to your skill with the combat system. If you are used to playing old-school titles like this you will most likely breeze through a lot of the areas. I took me about 4-5 hours my first time through. There were definitely a few areas that had me dying multiple times before I was able to get past, but with a little perseverance and quickly figuring out how each of the creature’s patterns worked, I was able to get through it with relatively no problem.
It was disappointing upon completing Slain not having the option for multiple difficulties, a score/time attack mode, or even a boss rush mode. You are just put back at the main screen and only have the option to start over from the very beginning or start off from where your last save was. To make matters worse, my first play through was without the 60 fps patch, which wasn’t game breaking, but noticeable when I was finally able to see the difference. This at least means now Slain will play like the PS4 and PC versions which run at 60 fps.
Overall, if you like the old-school charm and influence of the Castlevania titles, plus that type of difficulty, you will definitely enjoy a lot of what Slain has to offer. However, be prepared for some ridiculously tough boss fights and many instant and knock-back deaths that can become frustrating. Thankfully the forgiving checkpoint layout will keep you coming back for more.