Review: Slain: Back from Hell

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Some of my favorite stories in the game industry are when a release manages to bounce back from a rough launch. I never played the original version of Slain, but I know it didn’t get a very warm welcome. The version I’m playing right now is welcome in my house anytime though, and I can only assume that’s because of significant post-release effort from the developer. It’s a tough game, sometimes frustratingly so, but taking the time to really drink in the pounding metal soundtrack and thousands of twisted corpses covering everything does a lot to help me refocus and get back to work on beating the thing.

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You are Bathoryn, white-bearded badass warrior returned to life to battle the forces of evil yet again. The villainous Vroll has unleashed his minions on a dark fantasy world and you are the only one who can stop him, perhaps because literally everyone else is already dead. I mean, they had to get the corpses and skeletons and organs and offal coating everything from somewhere, right? Your quest starts in a place called the Bloodgrounds, with bloody trees growing from bloody islands floating in a river of blood, where your trail leads you to the Tower of Blood from which blood pours freely. So in retrospect, you might just be fighting evil because that’s specifically what you were brought back from the dead to do.

Let me reiterate: The world of Slain is completely fucked. Not partially fucked, not in the process of being fucked, completely fucked. You are playing through a pixel art rendition of an 80s death metal album cover, spray-painted on the side of a van owned by practicing Satanists. Every level is rendered in incredible detail, with burst bodies, moldering skeletons, ancient statues overgrown with corrupted vines, and rusted traps slick with fresh blood. Bathoryn is the only conspicuous force of even debatable good in the entire game, forced into uneasy alliances with twisted crones and ghost wolves gussied up with the purplest fantasy prose you can get outside of actual parody.

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So they nailed the atmosphere and presentation, have no fear there. The gameplay follows suit, but not in a way that’s easy to acclimate to. Bathoryn wields a broadsword the size of himself that he can swing in swift combos, but enemies take several hits and can counter with powerful strikes. You’ll need to learn the timing on his parries and back dashes if you want any hope of overcoming stronger foes than basic ghouls and skeletons, and even then that timing needs to be on point. Checkpoints are numerous but spread out across the game’s six long levels, which is going to leave you practicing certain encounters over and over and over.

The combat could become a slog, if the levels didn’t vary things up so much. Every area is split into two distinct locations, like the Bloodgrounds being a grim wooded romp first and a gruesome tower climb after. In one level you’ll be transformed into a beast and sent speeding across ruined bridges in a particularly exhilarating sequence. In another you’ll scale a haunted tower filled with traps to avoid and switches to navigate the tangle of platforms with. Again, the difficulty is tuned high so you’ll need to be constantly on the lookout for crushing walls and spike traps, which can become tiresome alongside the tough combat. But it doesn’t demand perfection the way something like Volgarr or Cybarian does, and that wiggle room lets you enjoy more of the gory chaos going on around you.

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Slain is perhaps the most metal game on Steam (complete with victory headbanging) but it’s still not polished to a metallic sheen. Even the graphics, as intense and detailed as they are, suffer from some stretching and inconsistent resolutions on things like particle effects. The controls are tight enough for the challenge presented, but you’ll have occasional deaths from enemies spawning under you or just not reacting fast enough to things that come out of nowhere. You can probably tell by now if Slain is the kind of game for you, but if you think it might be I’ll encourage you to give it a chance, just for the incredible spectacle it makes of dark fantasy taken to absurd extremes.

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