Slain: Back from Hell is a game that takes after classic Castlevania titles that shows a lot of potential but ultimately doesn't quite succeed in delivering on its promise. It is definitely fun to play, but held back by its short length and linearity.
When Slain: Back from Hell was originally released in early 2016 – simply known as Slain! then – it was met with a lot of criticism and negative reviews from people who played it. While its visual presentation was comfortably reminiscent of Castlevania and its atmosphere and soundtrack would surely appeal to fans of the metal scene, it’s controls and general gameplay were of questionable quality. The lesson learned: no matter how good a game looks and sounds, it won’t matter much if playing it feels awful.
Just the right reason for Slain’s developer, Wolf Brew Games, to give the game a second-chance and rerelease it sometime later under a new title and with reworked gameplay. Slain: Back from Hell is the result of this, and the new name is just as much a play at the game’s fate in the real world as it describes the game’s own setting. Slain: Back from Hell had its rerelease last year, and a physical copy for PlayStation 4 was released in February this year, but the game has likely slipped past many gamer’s radars.
Slain is an hommage to classic Castlevania games, including a visual style that mimics 16-bit graphics, a focus on gothic horror elements like werewolves and vampires, and classic 2-D platform gameplay. You play as a Viking-like warrior named Bathoryn that awakens from slumber (or death, more likely) to free the land from the dominion of an evil vampire warlord named Vroll. The reworked control scheme is simple but effective, allowing enough control over your character to slice and evade your way through the hordes of enemies on your path. The game introduces many gameplay elements to spice up the experience along the way: there are elemental weapons, a parry move that allows you to stun and heavily damage enemies, and a magic attack to damage enemies at a safe distance. After the first introductory stage, you find yourself near a decrepit inn in the middle of nowhere, with entrances to different stages beside it.
This is the point where Slain doesn’t live up to its full potential as a welcome Castlevania clone: many stages aren’t initially selectable and in fact have to be played pretty much in a given order rather than at your own choosing. While each stage is beautifully designed and full of interesting enemies, there’s only a few of them and they aren’t particularly long. A stage may take up to an hour to complete, but this is mostly because there are many pitfalls and one-hit-death traps and tons of brutal battles that end your life and force you to retry over and over again. There are only three different weapons that are fairly similar in use – their only difference is their elemental affinity that certain enemies are either weak or strong against. In an hour or five or six you’ll be fighting the final boss and soon be looking at the game’s credits.
And while this may be true for these kinds of games in the past when you played them on the Super Nintendo or Sega Mega Drive, it is a bit of a disappointment in 2017. Especially since the game has a lot of potential the current iteration of Slain only touches the surface of. More different weapons, a non-linear level selection and the ability to back-track and find new upgrades and powers along with longer overall game-length could’ve made the game into the welcome Castlevania experience that many gamers are waiting for now that Konami is unlikely to provide us with the real thing. It would’ve greatly benefitted from more a deep, expanded style of Metroidvania gameplay – the same type of mechanics that made its biggest source of inspiration so much fun to play.
And its a shame too, since some of the elements that are found in Slain: Back from Hell are actually pretty enjoyable. Some of the bigger combat encounters and of course the boss Battles are actually pretty engaging sequences that require patience, memorization and some skill to overcome. They are genuinely fun to play and easily form the highlights of the game, along with its admittedly slightly gory and metal-heavy presentation. You may not be a fan of this style, but if you are it is a definite bonus.
However, because the upgrades are so few, the combat system never reaches a higher level and steadily stays the same throughout, ultimately failing to break up the monotonous navigation through lethal traps and pitfalls with even its strongest element, the combat. It doesn’t help that the game’s soundtrack is a rather ambiguous constant of metal music that may have been partly composed by Curt Victor Bryant from Celtic Frost and still manages to sound like random stock metal music.
All in all, Slain: Back from Hell is a somewhat enjoyable diversion that is great as a digital purchase once you find it on sale, but hardly justifies the price it costs for a physical retail copy. If you really want to experience the good old 16-bit platform days on PS4 it’s not the worst option, but it doesn’t quite make your old Castlevania cartridges obsolete.