Slain: Back From Hell is pitching itself as a tribute to video gaming from the early 90’s. If you were around and old enough back then you’ll remember that back in this era for each genre defining title there were a lot of soulless, cash-in clones that were neither good or memorable. So the challenge to a developer is to really make sure that what they deliver captures the elements of the former, rather than creating another of the later.
In Slain: Back From Hell you play as a rather disgruntled hero of the past called Bathoryn who is awoken, begrudgingly, from his eternal slumber to battle back an evil army that is invading and slaughtering the world. That’s pretty much all you get story wise other than the occasional paragraph of text or conversation between characters, but that was very much the norm for many games back then with the greater focus being on getting players quickly in to the action and holding their attention with engaging game play rather than a deep and compelling story.
Game play wise it’s a classic 2 dimensional side scrolling game that tasks you with hacking and slashing your way through a mix of undead, witches and monsters using your trusty sword and a little bit of magic. The game takes place over 6 levels, each interspersed with sections that challenge you to defeat a certain mixture of the enemies and ultimately lead you to a battle with an end of level boss or 2. On paper everything about the game sounds great, classic 90’s game play… check, hack and slash platformer… check, authentic retro 16 bit styling… check, head banging 80’s inspired heavy metal soundtrack… check, excessive blood and gore… check. But sadly the game fails to actually rise to the expectations of the player and deliver a classic, engrossing game play experience.
Starting with the good, the game looks amazing. I’m a massive fan of pixel art and this game does a very good job of re-creating that distinctive look that games used to have back in the 16 bit era. The detail in the artwork is incredible, and it’s an absolute joy to admire throughout the entire game. It really captures that classic hand drawn, limited colour pallet look that games had back then. Overall I wouldn’t say that it is overly distinctive or unique, but it hits the mark in paying respect to its forebears. This is partnered with a somewhat classic heavy metal inspired soundtrack, which although lacking much variety works to give the game some character and distinctiveness which all works well to create a great first impression.
Sadly though, first impressions quickly subside and the game does little to shore-up this feeling as you progress. Beyond the first level everything in the game is just so static. Nothing in the game seems to evolve or advance and hence it never feels anything more than a pretty looking memory game. Monsters are always in the same places, and behaviourally are all so similar bar their size and health that they present little challenge. They all just hobble straight at you repeating the same moves at the same set intervals which just sees you doing the same thing over and over again. Defeating an enemy or boss is just a case of memorising their specific pattern and then repeating block, attack, attack, block. Each time it appears like you have come across something new in the game it’s usually just a re-skin of something you’ve seen before. It’s all so mechanical and lifeless, there just isn’t any scope within the game to try anything different with each challenge having just a single solution to master and then repeat. The worst aspect though comes in the form of the the level design. It’s just… awful. It’s so consistently monotone with nothing new beyond the first level. The total lack of variety in all aspects just kills the game, and is sad considering the uniqueness of the art style for each of the levels. If as much effort had been but into varying the other elements of the game then there is potential for this game to be a lot better than it currently is. The only really positive spin I could put on this is that the game is quite short, so if you are determined to beat it you won’t have to put up with it’s short comings for long.
Overall, I have to praise the classic art style for doing the job of chiming those nostalgia notes. It’s a beautiful looking game, and it’s a joy to just stop for a moment and admire the environments. But for me that is all this game has managed to replicate from the era it is trying so hard to pay homage to. The ingredients are all there, but the way it’s all been bought together is so mediocre that it just gets boring very fast. On paper it has a lot of promise and the initial impression is actually pretty good, but that all washes away as you progress through the first level to reveal a repetitive, one dimensional game with no real substance beyond some great artwork and an decent soundtrack. Playing something like this now actually does more damage to those nostalgic memories than good, and actually there are very few games from back then that can stand the test of time and this sadly just isn’t a tribute to one that does. The video game world has moved on, and although there is space for a modern takes on classics in this case it simply helps you to appreciate how much things have changed for the better.
Slain: Back From Hell was provided to us by Microsoft via a download code for Xbox One.