22nd Century Toys’ Slain: Back From Hell is a gorgeous retro-style platformer that boasts an enjoyable soundtrack, brutally difficult platforming and combat to go along with nostalgic graphics. Unfortunately, Slain lacks the mechanical and visual complexities to satisfyingly back up its own difficulty.
I don’t mean to sell it short. Slain does include mechanics such as deflecting projectiles, timing base effectiveness in blocking, and charged heavy attacks. While all of these are fan favorites in games that are considered punishing such as the Dark Souls series, they feel somewhat out of place and difficult to properly utilize on a two-dimensional plane. The inherent complications in attempting to implement this type of difficult combat in a two-dimensional plane are innumerable. The main issue is without that third dimension, your mobility will be limited. Most 2-D games featuring difficult combat are able to compensate for this lack of mobility by regularly introducing new combat mechanics in order to keep the game fresh within its two-dimensional confines. Unfortunately, this is not the case for Slain.
Much of Slain’s nostalgic charm is in its Castlevania-esque graphics. The environments are rich, and the enemies are all well designed. Unfortunately, there isn’t any Castlevania style exploration or upgrades. In fact, there is very little exploration at all. For the most part, Slain is very linear and straight-forward. Occasionally you may find a secret room, and you will be rewarded with a fragment of an amulet whose merits are not explained and are truthfully still not known to me. Since the challenges along with the secrets are optional and very difficult and no explained benefit to collecting the rest the rest of the fragments, I didn’t see it as worth the effort to collect the fragments beyond the first.
While Slain doesn’t necessarily try to be a Castlevania type of game, the lack of these exploration and discovery elements does promote a certain staleness to its gameplay loop. There are occasional upgrades to your weapon such as imbuing it with the power of ice for example, but once this power is turned on, there seems to be no way to turn it off except through death. There also doesn’t seem to be a limit to how much this “ice power” can be used, so it’s uncertain why the power isn’t simply a permanent upgrade. You are told that a witch up ahead is resistant to ice damage, but with no way to turn the power off, there’s really no way to make use of this information aside from dying and not turning the power on again after the respawn.
There’s a general lack of explanation to be found in Slain, as it expects the players to find things out on their own; just another way it follows the theme of attempting, and failing, to bring the feeling and general experience of Dark Souls to a platformer. One thing Slain does well is achieve a sense of complete relief upon finding the next checkpoint. There is a certain joy in knowing that this time your efforts weren’t in vain, as most of the time they are. That satisfaction is the best part of Slain as the periods between checkpoints can be immensely frustrating and difficult, albeit difficult for the wrong reasons much of the time.
The platforming itself isn’t very well implemented. The controls are not very tight, meaning that it is a fairly common occurrence to overstep a platform and fall to your death immediately. Unlike other difficult games that ensure the player is aware that their failures or successes are their own fault, Slain’s control issue means that on occasion the player can feel cheated and needlessly frustrated. While frustration often makes it all the more satisfying when you reach the next checkpoint, that frustration has to be born of genuine challenge, not poor design.
The combat in Slain is fun at first, but quickly grows stale since you start with your full arsenal of combat mechanics. As the game progresses, the only way the game is effectively able to increase the difficulty is to simply stack more and more enemies with varying abilities against you. The enemies are granted interesting and dangerous abilities such as summoning familiars or shooting bolts that form new enemies upon hitting the ground. While these enemy design choices are cool, they make it all the more disappointing that the arsenal of tools at your disposal never grows, never changes, at least not to a significant degree. There are occasional fast-paced side-scrolling escape sequences that break the monotony to a degree, but even they don’t succeed fully.
In the end, Slain is less than the sum of its parts. It takes queues from beloved franchises but unfortunately fails to combine them in a satisfying way. from its loose controls to its repetitive nature, Slain simply fails in almost every area where its inspirations succeeded.