Slain: Back From Hell may open with a line as bombastic as its title – “Bathoryn, awake” – but this pixelated wonder earns its right to lines like that. Slain: Back From Hell takes you on a journey into a metal-inspired dark fantasy landscape that looks like it leapt out of an Anthrax music video, and yet, for all its horror, captures the eeriness and beauty essential to all fantasy.
The beauty of the game belies its rocky release; Slain was actually launched back in March but the developers, Wolf Brew, noticed a massive issue and politely requested reviews be forestalled – though the game remained available to buy. Since then it’s been patched multiple times and has now been relaunched as the Back From Hell edition.
Our story begins when Bathoryn is quite literally called back from hell to the world of the living, once more to defend the land of Chalh from the vampiric Lord Vroll. The outlandish names, like something from a Robert Jordan or a David Eddings novel, are only the first of many callbacks to another era, but the true triumph of Slain: Back From Hell is that it does not rely on tropes of the past – pixelated graphics and a nostalgically over-the-top fantasy narrative – to win players over. The gameplay is definitely modern – fast-paced, complex – but has a pinch of an old-school challenge spice which seems to be finding resurgence in the gaming community.
There is an abundance of 2D sidescrollers from indie devs filling up the market at the moment, perhaps because they are much easier to make in Unity than any other type of game, but Slain distinguishes itself in several distinct ways. Firstly, it is less about vertical platforming (like Hunter’s Legacy) and focused on horizontal jumping (the floor is literally lava). Secondly, the combat mechanics are far more developed than any other action-platformer I’ve played, with chargeable attacks, blocking, dodging moves, aerial attacks, magic missiles (which must be used wisely due to a limited mana meter), and an all-important parry mechanic that allows you to land critical hits on enemies if you time your block perfectly. Of course, this concept is not new, but it is executed so well, with such a satisfying thud of mighty steel on demonic flesh that this is largely irrelevant.
The enemies are various: slow, fragile skeletons who pack a punch, hulking insectoid demons who came cut you in half with scything attacks, animated wolf-statues, beholders who shoot gaseous bubbles, and more. Timing is everything to “git gud” and you will inevitably die over and over until you grasp the basics of when to parry an attack and when to use the “R” button to quickly leap out of harm’s way. The first fight with massive skeleton executioner feels nigh impossible until you realise how to time your parry and land that sweet counter. This kind of difficulty curve and tense combat is reminiscent of Dark Souls but with less of a focus on patience and more on making correct decisions. Combat gets even more interesting at later game stages when they introduce magic, such as the ability to turn your sword into a glacial axe which slows enemies, or a flaming brand.
The landscapes are beautifully drawn, as are the monstrous inhabitants of this forsaken land; but it’s the animation of Slain that is truly amazing. The swings of Bathoryn’s sword seem to cut air. The monsters drool and, like wet dogs shaking water out of their fur, often send flecks of blood splattering over their surroundings. The mystical lamppost-like fauna, which light up as checkpoints, glimmer and shed particles of azure light. The mists drift, like a spectral creature. Gore is a central theme. Even the lava sometimes looks more like boiling hot blood than it goes magma. When Bathoryn dies we are often treated to a unique animation: disintegrated by a flaming ball, ripped in half (you can see a pixelated ribcage fall out of the corpse like something from Bone Tomahawk) or melted into green slag. The list goes on – and on your first play you will probably not encounter the half of them. In a game where death is frequent due to the difficulty, it would be easy to find it tiresome and frustrating, but I actually started to enjoy dying just to see what horrible end I would receive. Even the game-over text is satisfying: YOU HAVE BEEN SLAIN. Maybe it’s because it takes the blame off you: it wasn’t your fault. You didn’t blow it. You got cut to ribbons by a 20ft tall demon with scorpion-pincers. You never stood a chance, mate.
The music is stunning. Quite simply one of the best soundtracks to a videogame I have heard in a long time. Everyone is praising 65daysofstatic to the sun and back, and they deserve it, but let’s take a moment for Curt Victor Bryant. I’ll admit I’m a fan of metal, but when I heard that the game was metal-themed I imagined a relentless guitar track that would grow tiresome after one or two levels. Instead, I found myself surprised by sophisticated and complex compositions which change frequently depending on whether you are fighting, which area you are in, and any cinematic events. There are haunting piano segments which deserve to be in an iconic movie scene. Atmosphere is such a key element of game design and Wolf Brew nail it.
Each level breaks down into smaller areas, and yes, as in Dark Souls and Salt and Sanctuary and World of Warcraft and innumerable other RPG titles, the name of the location appears on your screen as you enter it. This, however, feels more like an indication of progress than an attempt to draw you into a deep lore. The artwork is doing the drawing you in already. Having said that, between levels, there are old-school text loading screens (overlaying a .jpeg) explaining some of the history of Chalh, reminiscent of ancient titles such as Forbidden Forest 3. Strangely, this slightly clumsy narrative device (contrasting with the silky combat and the gluttonous animation) doesn’t really detract from the game but actually lends it a kind of lofty gravitas.
The final thing to mention about this game is the boss fights. Whilst I enjoyed these (and was pleased to see some very unexpected types of creatures as opposed to the usual fair of large horned demons or sorcerers), I felt that they became too easy once you figured out the boss’s pattern. Rewarding, and certainly a worthy addition to the game, but perhaps not as satisfying as the progressing through the levels themselves, or overcoming a particularly difficult enemy set (at one point I got stuck on two flaming demon-hounds and when I finally got them down I jumped out of my seat).
Leading up to the re-release of Slain, Wolf Brew posted a marketing caption: UPGRADED, OVERHAULED & REDEEMED. Does Back From Hell “redeem” the initial disappointing release? In my eyes, absolutely. Like a medieval sinner turned to a life of holy demon-slaying knighthood, it claws its way back into the light over a pile of steaming gore-matted corpses. And if that’s not metal, I don’t know what is.