Slain / Slain: Back from Hell

A game by Wolf Brew Games for PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Vita, Xbox One, Switch, and Wii U, originally released in 2016.
Slain! is a dark gothic action platformer starring Bathoryn, a man on a quest to destroy the monsters that rule over a series of towers. Inspired by the likes of Ghosts ‘n Goblins and Shadow of the Beast, the game oozes with atmosphere (sometimes literally) with candle-lit corridors, rivers of blood, macabre statues, and twisted creatures from the darkest depths attacking from all sides... all accompanied by a heavy metal soundtrack.

Combat is slow and deliberate, with heavy overhand sword swings and a timing-based combo system. Simply mashing the ATTACK button as quickly as possible results in a series of short weak slashes that barely impact enemies and leave Bathoryn open to retaliatory strikes. Learning the proper timing allows Bathoryn to follow through with a 3-hit combo, stepping forward with each strike and pushing his enemies back.

In most cases, weakening an enemy until it is one hit away from death allows Bathoryn to follow up with a special attack that beheads the creature, as indicated by a red slashing graphic across its neck. Doing so sends the beast’s head flying across the screen and also restores a substantial portion of Bathoryn’s mana meter, which is used for his secondary magic-based projectile attacks.

A standard magic attack sends a ghostly spirit in a straight line across the screen, allowing the player to damage monsters at a distance, which is important as it is easy to become overwhelmed by enemies and quickly killed. A bit of the mana meter is drained by each of these attacks, but the player may also opt to drain the full meter to set off a “mana bomb” and damage all enemies in the vicinity.

The player begins the game with a simple steel sword, but he is able to find additional elemental-based weapons on his journey and then switch between them at will. These weapons include a flaming sword and an ice-imbued axe, and the selected weapon also imbues mana attacks with the same elemental effects. Many enemies are weak to specific elements, such as witches that easily succumb to fire.

Bathoryn also has a nonvariable 1.5x jump, a backwards dash, and the ability to duck and use his sword to block incoming projectiles. He can also swing his sword while jumping or ducking.

In addition to mastering the combo system, players must make regular use of the backwards dash, particularly against larger enemies. While weak enemies are stunned and pushed back by a successful combo, larger enemies will immediately retaliate with strikes of their own, and many of these enemies can kill you in two or three hits. An important tactic for dealing with larger enemies and bosses is to line up a successful combo, immediately dash backwards, and then move in with another combo… or pick away at the enemy’s life bar with a few spirit projectiles.

Unfortunately, the core design of the combat system can cause some issues. The player’s slow movement and attack speed make him ineffective against the large numbers of varied enemies that he must frequently face. When slogging through a row of sword-wielding skeletons, the player can easily push them all back with a properly-timed combo, but when facing these skeletons along with a distant projectile-firing creature and some fast-moving flying enemies, it becomes all but impossible to avoid taking damage.

Projectiles move quickly but may be blocked by ducking. However, enemy attacks are not blocked – or even reduced in damage – so successfully fending off a projectile may mean taking a hit from an enemy… but winding up a 3-hit combo also gives the projectile-tossing enemy a chance to hit you. This is alleviated somewhat by the fact that projectiles are destroyed by your sword strikes, but getting the timing right while fighting other enemies is difficult.

One of the primary difficulties comes from the fact that it can be hard to tell if you are lining up a proper 3-hit combo or simply whiffing your attacks, particularly when you are facing multiple enemies in close proximity, which is a frequent occurrence. The best way to tell if your combo is successful is to initiate the sequence before your enemies come into range, allowing you to take a swing and then step forward into the enemies to hit them with the second and/or third strike of the combo, which causes damage to them and pushes them back.

This can make the overall gameplay tedious as your most reliable attack is the same precisely-timed 3-hit combo over and over, with the occasional backwards dash to avoid a retaliatory strike. However, even if the enemy does hit you due to your mistimed attack, you may not be aware that you are taking damage because there are no sound effects associated with enemy attacks, and no sound effects to let you know that you are successfully hitting your enemies.

In fact, you would be forgiven if you were unaware that the game contained sound effects of any kind, as the heavy metal soundtrack drowns everything out. However, the sparse options menu gives you only two controls: music volume and sound volume. Dropping the music volume down a few clicks lets you hear the game’s sound effects… but this is no improvement.

Aside from your own character’s grunting and sword swinging, the game lacks most typical event-related sounds, offering very little feedback from enemies or the environment. What’s worse, the background noises of bubbling blood, crackling fire, etc., are over-amplified to the point that they echo badly and drown out most other sounds. In the end, your choices are a heavy metal soundtrack with no sound effects, or badly balanced and otherwise missing sound effects.

It’s unfortunate that the game’s sound effects take away from the player’s immersion in the experience, because the game has much to offer from a visual standpoint with detailed enemies, gothic architecture, massive amounts of dripping blood, gnarled trees, jagged rocks, and loads of particle effects, all creating a dark and gritty atmosphere.

However, the writing does not support the serious tone of the game. Aside from being filled with misspellings, incorrect capitalization, and grammatical errors, some of the characters – including the main villain – regularly communicate using internet-speak. When a hulking demon says “We were all hoping you would make it tho”, or casually tosses a “btw” into a sentence, it’s hard to take him seriously. And the other characters fare no better.

Overall, the game is quite difficult, due largely to the aforementioned combat troubles. The developers have acknowledged this to some degree by providing frequent health restoratives. However, they also pepper the game with a number of traps, most of which kill the player instantly. These include blocks that crush the player, statues that do the same, jutting spikes, and pools of blood. There are also several monster spawning traps that cause creatures to rise out of the ground when the player walks over them.

Many of the traps the player encounters are not telegraphed on their original appearance, so the only way to discover what they are is to blindly walk into them and get smashed (with a nice gooey blood effect). Even once you do know what the traps look like, it is still possible to find yourself wandering directly into them, as some do not strongly contrast with their surroundings. However, you can lure enemies into triggering traps and then cackle like a banshee when they walk face first to their own doom.

Checkpoints are not terribly frequent, so getting killed can mean replaying a healthy chunk of the level, and there are often a few overly long stretches that offer no checkpoints whatsoever, including an area where the player must face off against a series of enemies, followed by three minibosses, each with enemies leading up to them, with no checkpoints in between.

Adding a bit of cruelty to the experience, checkpoints do not act as save points, so exiting the game after reaching one does not return the player to the last checkpoint, but rather sends him back to the start of the level. It is not uncommon that the player is required to complete 45 minutes to an hour of gameplay between save points.

Since each area consists of multiple levels, it’s reasonable for the player to believe that his progress is being saved when moving from one level to the next – especially when seeing a transition screen with a description of the next level – but this is not the case. Woe betide he who exits the game outside of the hub.

Adding to the presentation problems is a lack of any kind of options menu outside of volume controls, including the inability to remap the controls. In fact, there are no in-game indications of what the game’s controls are, so it’s quite likely that players will be unaware of their full moveset. In addition, there are a number of jarring transitions when reloading and when moving from one area to another, as the player instantly jumps to new locations upon travelling through warps.

Oh, but there is an area where you get turned into a wolf and you have to run really fast to outrun a giant white wolf head that chases after you. Of course, there are tons of insta-death pits, and you die instantly if the wolf catches up to you, and there are no checkpoints in between, but it’s a significant change of pace from the rest of the experience. You do face off against some enemies here, but they die in a single hit.

Slain! was developed by Wolf Brew Games, a studio founded in 2014 and based in Hemphill County, Texas. The studio is headed by Andrew Gilmour and Asa Dang. Andrew worked as an artist in the game industry for many years, including work on the Jak and Daxter series with Naughty Dog, and numerous other games for Ritual Entertainment, 3DO, and other studios. Asa worked at Rockstar Games on Grand Theft Auto V. Music for the game was composed by Curt Victor Bryant, former guitarist for the metal band Celtic Frost.

The game was funded in part by a successful Kickstarter campaign, and the game was published by Digerati Distribution, which also published The Joylancer: Legendary Motor Knight.