Those of you old enough to have grown up during the "golden age" of heavy metal will no doubt feel a connection with Slain: Back from Hell the moment you boot it up. The moody, pixel-heavy visuals could have leapt straight from an Iron Maiden album cover, while the raucous, guitar-drenched soundtrack will have even the most lapsed of head-bangers nodding appreciatively. In terms of presentation, Slain is aiming for an admittedly slim target demographic, but it will undoubtedly score points with 30-something metal fans based on its presentation alone – it's just a shame that it doesn't have the gameplay to match.
Slain takes pride in kicking the player when they're down and making things as hard as possible in the name of maintaining an "old-school challenge". It's a game where pixel-perfect leaps are made tricky by fiddly controls, enemies are horrendously spammy and insta-death traps are to be found in abundance. It's also a game which dishes out its checkpoints with all the generosity of a Wall Street Banker, and from this bubbling brew emerges intense periods of annoyance and frustration.
It's a shame, because buried under the unfair difficulty curve there's a good game desperately trying to hack its way out. Slain's superbly-animated main character is blessed with a wide range of skills which, initially at least, appear to give you the tools you need to overcome the game's more egregious moments. You can combo together attacks by tapping a single button, and it's possible to charge up a powerful blow – provided you have the timing required to tap a second time when it reaches its most potent state. Incoming threats can be blocked and parries are possible, the latter opening up your opponent for a deadly counter. The L shoulder button causes your character to dash backwards out of danger, while the R shoulder button unleashes magical projectiles which, like your standard attack, can be charged up – as long as you have enough magical power in reserve. In addition to all of this, it's possible to bat incoming projectiles back to where they came from.
There's a lot to digest on your initial play-through but the opening level does a good job of presenting you with ample opportunities to hone your skills and test out all of your moves. Things begin to fall apart from the second stage onwards, where the designers seemingly disregard everything they've taught you so far and create a game which is frustrating, unfair and not really much fun at all, unless of course you get some perverse thrill out of unbridled anger.
Waves of airborne enemies prevent you from putting together slick combos and make precision platforming painful, while ground-based foes often drop in from the top of the screen unannounced, giving you no time whatsoever to react. You soon realise that the finely-tuned combat system is about as much use as an ice bucket in hell thanks to the sheer volume of enemies Slain places in your path; ironically, it's actually more of a risk to try and parry blows and deflect projectiles as you'll more often than not take damage anyway. A more sensible tactic is to simply charge through the level and hope for the best; the fact that one wrong step can result in an instant death also dissuades you from taking your time - you may as well charge through repeatedly until you actually make it to other side. Nothing is more frustrating than spending ages delicately picking your way through a tough level only to judge a jump slightly wrong and end up in a pool of blood which kills you immediately.
Another annoyance is the controls. The main character has a floaty feel, and this makes the platforming sections trickier than they should be. He also advances slightly when you're attacking, which – as you can imagine – is a nightmare when you're on small platforms trying to deal with multiple enemies. Tap attack one time too many and your character will move forward and off the edge of the platform you're standing on. If you're lucky he'll simply fall onto another platform below and you'll have to do that section all over again – if not, you'll fall into a trap which kills you. Rinse and repeat.
Checkpoints restore your life and magical power but are spread out quite thinly on some of the later levels, making repeated deaths even more annoying. Your character's health is also quite slender, and it only takes a few direct hits to drop him to the floor. Challenging games aren't a bad thing – the recently-reviewed Wulverblade is unashamedly difficult, too – but the key difference between these two games is that one is tough but fair and the other is needlessly brutal. Wulverblade gives you the tools to overcome its sadistic bosses, and with repeated play it's possible to figure out perfect strategies. Slain, on the other hand, has little room for nuance; even the best player in the world isn't going to be able to see a skeleton enemy falling off a platform two screens up which totally ruins their attack plan and sends them plummeting into a trap. Slain suffers from poor design and a misguided desire to "punish" the player whenever possible, like making a game that's incredibly hard is some kind of badge of honour.
It's a shame because Slain's aesthetic charms do go a long way to making up for its failings. The visuals are sumptuous and everything appears to be animated – right down to excellent-realised backgrounds. It's clear that a lot of time and effort has been spent on making sure Slain looks the part, but the mechanics underneath clearly needed a lot more attention.
Like the inside of Ozzy Osborne's head, Slain is simultaneously gorgeous, intense, chaotic and deeply, deeply frustrating. The presentation is excellent, with every part of the game exhibiting stunning 2D animation that really brings its hellish underworld to life. Where it all falls apart is the gameplay; Slain is simply no fun to play thanks to its painful difficulty level which chokes the tantalizing potential of its combat system. While it has been compared to the Castlevania series – and its combo mechanics call to mind the underrated Mirror of Fate – Slain isn't really worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as Konami's legendary gothic franchise.