STAFF REVIEW of Slain: Back from Hell (Xbox One)

Thursday, November 24, 2016.
by Adam Dileva

Slain: Back from Hell Box art That’s it, I’m tapping out. I’m not normally one to give up so easily on difficult games, but man, Slain: Back From Hell is punishingly difficult. Originally a PC release, Slain has been improved from its initial poor reception, fixed, re-tweaked, and improved upon and now released on Xbox One. So do all these improvements make for a much better game? Yes, but with a caveat; it’s still frustratingly difficult, almost to the point of being unfair.

I grew up with old school Nintendo games, known for their brutal difficulty, but when I was a kid back then I didn’t mind the challenge of playing over and over. Now that I’m older and have specific tastes, I find the very challenging games frustrate me when it feels unfair. Dark Souls, known for its difficulty, at least does a great job of teaching you from your mistakes. Slain on the other hand just makes you bash your head against the wall until you figure out how to beat a specific section, enemy, or boss.

What is Slain: Back from Hell? Well, if your favorite heavy metal band and Castlevania had a baby, Slain would be the result. Inspired by classic metal music and artwork, along with traditional side scrolling gameplay, Slain has some of the best retro pixel artwork I’ve seen in quite some time, along with an original metal soundtrack that completely fits the mood and setting perfectly.

You play as the hero Bathoryn, awoken from a deep slumber by a spirit, informed that the land weeps and that he must destroy foul demons that have awoken. Thus begins your journey of vanquishing thousands of demons that stand in your path.

If you haven't played the original release on PC, Slain is essentially a take on Castlevania, a sidescroller with a heavy metal soundtrack and gothic theme. The first thing you should know is that Slain is incredibly difficult, so if you’re hoping for an easy playthrough, or completing it at all, you might want to look elsewhere. Even though there wasn’t enough checkpoints in the original release, there are definitely more in Back From Hell, but it’s still punishingly difficult.

You’ll be fighting against skeletons, rats, demons, ghosts, and more along your journey. Bathoryn himself is a muscular long haired dude that wields a giant two handed sword and head bangs whenever he defeats a massive boss, all while a heavy metal soundtrack plays in the background, recorded by Curt Victor Bryant of Celtic Front fame.

Gameplay will bring you back to the glory days of Nintendo and Genesis games akin to Castlevania and Altered Beast where there isn’t many button commands to memorize, but mastering them will take dedication and skill. While there’s not much variety in your attacks, the combat can feel satisfying when the game isn’t trying to be unfair. When you die, and you will die hundreds of times, you simply have to figure out what works and what doesn’t, hoping to learn from your mistakes. There’s absolutely no hand holding here aside from telling you the basic controls, after that you’re left on your own to survive and fight your way through hell.

Rapid presses of the attack button allow you to perform a combo, and holding it can charge up a special attack that can be devastating when released, but you need to master the timing, as it cancels if held too long and you’re unable to move when charging as well. You’re able to block attacks to reduce damage, and if you master the timing, you can actually parry enemies, opening them for a critical attack. Bathoryn also has the ability to use magic, shooting enemies from afar, but only in short amounts, as your mana bar is quite small. He is also able to dodge backwards with a tap of the Left Bumper, but it takes getting used to, as it’s only a leap backwards, so you have to be aware of which direction you’re facing when using it.

I found relying on blocking wasn’t advised, as you still take damage, and eventually there are too many enemies coming at you that you’re going to get hurt regardless. Many enemies also shoot projectiles at you, and while you can reflect them back with a perfectly timed sword attack, these returned volleys do very little damage. Sometimes the controls work flawlessly, and other times it felt as if there was a slight delay, as I wouldn’t counter back the projectile and get hit instead. Once you start to have enemies surround you, along with flying enemies above, it becomes quite overwhelming and feels truly unfair at times, resulting in much frustration.

I wish there was an option to upgrade your health and abilities. Later on you gain access to different elemental weapons, but there’s no way to upgrade anything else, which seems like a missed opportunity. Access to different spells, or being able to boost health, would have been welcomed. I know Slain is tailored for a certain experience, but it’s simply much too difficult, and when you eventually get to the point of wanting to throw your controller out the window as you don’t want to continue playing much afterwards, well you get my point. This review actually took longer than expected because I needed a day to relax and reset my frustrations a handful of times when I got stuck on the same section for over an hour at a time.

Oh, and if you’re an achievement hunter, you’re going to have a really bad time with Slain trying to unlock them all. Some of them are incredibly challenging, like defeating specific bosses in under 30 seconds and/or without getting hit, but for the truly sadistic, there’s even an achievement for completing Slain without losing a single life; something I’d love to see.

While I have some issues with Slain, the graphics and audio are absolutely impressive and impeccable. Everything to do with the visuals are retro styled that hark back to the classic 8 and 16-bit days. The pixel work is among the best I’ve seen, as even the rain and minor details look great. It’s clear that a lot of work went into the minor details, and it shows. Even the animations are varied, and your sword looks truly bad ass once you get the on-fire version of it. There are even CRT options for those that want to relive the old days where the TV screens had those faint horizontal lines across it.

Even better is Slain’s audio. Composed by metal guitarist Curt Victor Bryant, all of the audio is unique, metal inspired, and will have you wanting to start head banging. Obviously if metal isn’t your genre of choice, it’s not going to appeal to you, but it’s amazingly well done and fits the tonality of Slain absolutely perfectly. They’ve managed to find a way to make it noticeable enough to be front and center, but not overpowering at the same time

Even though I was incredibly frustrated with Slain at times, even avoiding it for a day at a time by throwing my arms in the air and proclaiming that “I give up”, I kept coming back to it to see if I could get Bathoryn to the next checkpoint. Bit be forewarned, even with all of its improvements over the initial release, it’s still much too difficult, in my opinion, to the point of wanting to constantly give up on it. Just like how you got used to seeing “You Died” in Dark Souls, get used to seeing the “Slain” screen, hundreds of times.

If you have a huge amount of patience and love self-punishment when gaming, then you’re going to have hours upon hours of fun with Slain: Back From Hell. If you’re like me though, you’ll appreciate what it does well with its amazing visuals and audio, and retro feel, but completing the game is whole other question. It’s easily recommended if you enjoy frustratingly difficult games and a challenge, but it can feel unfair a lot of the time that many will give up and stop playing. That being said, raise up those metal horns and grow out your hair, you’ve got some head banging to do.

A difficulty option, or many more checkpoints.

Overall: 7.5 / 10
Gameplay: 7.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.5 / 10
Sound: 9.5 / 10


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