A legendary warrior named Bathoryn has long been dead, with his coffin lying undisturbed in a dark dungeon. Subtle and eerie piano notes are playing in the background, with a stunning blue mist, and several cobwebs enveloping Bathoryn’s resting place. Then a blue spectre appears out of nowhere, resurrecting the warrior back from the dead. He is the only one capable of killing a powerful vampire lord named Vroll. I’m watching Slain’s opening cinematic in awe of its breathtaking Gothic art direction and atmosphere. But then I actually begin playing the game, and it all goes downhill from there.
Developer Wolf Brew Games’ 2D action side-scroller certainly looks the part, but it continually favors style over substance; it’s a cumbersome slugfest that botches its pixelated beauty. One of its biggest issues is that the main character doesn’t have much of a physical presence in the world. Bathoryn’s attacks don’t carry weight. Swinging my sword at enemies is like cutting through paper, lacking any sort of satisfying impact. Enemies don’t physically react to your hits, and the sound effects for your attacks are drowned out by the game’s soundtrack.
Famous metal bassist and guitarist Curt Victor Bryant is the composer, and he does an exceptional job dishing out euphonious and head-banging tracks. The score complements Slain’s morbid world and Gothic aesthetic with its ambitious guitar riffs. However, it shouldn’t be so overpowering to the point that I can’t hear the game’s sound effects. I want to hear my character’s and enemies’ movements and hits, but these effects are often drowned out.
It also doesn’t help that combat is repetitive, distilled to only five attacks, only half of which are actually useful. You can perform an effective, standard three-hit sword combo, which you’ll find yourself constantly spamming. You also have a heavy attack that’s essentially a beheading whirl, but it’s surprisingly weak and way too slow for most of the enemies in the game. You can block projectiles and enemy hits by crouching; a safety net that’s far too easy to exploit. You can also shoot a blue magical projectile and deploy a devastating bomb that gets rid of most of the enemies on screen.
The majority of your enemies are satisfyingly ghastly, from undead skeletons and hammer-wielding cyclopes, to green poisonous lizards and anubis-like creatures. But fighting these monsters is a chore as they’re relegated to being nothing more than damage-sponges. They each only have one or two attacks that they’ll continually spam at you, without rhyme or reason, and you quickly figure out how to kill them with rote tactics. For instance, being on lower or higher ground than these monsters will enable you to keep hitting them while they ineptly just stand and stare.
Fighting Slain’s seven bosses grows equally tedious, but at least these mammoth baddies are all visually striking. The Ice Beast is a towering ice giant that has beautiful blue and white lighting effects, while the Banshee Queen is a hovering menace with repugnant, slimey hair. All seven fights can be exploited by the crouch attack, a tactic that strips away excitement and the need for skill or creativity. The Ice Beast fights identically to another boss called the Thorn Monster. They both deploy a spinning attack that shoots projectiles at you, which can be easily blocked by crouching. Most of the Banshee Queen’s attacks can also be avoided by slightly moving away from them. Each of these battles can be completed in less than one minute by spamming either your own projectiles, or the standard combo attack.
Slain takes necessary breaks from mundane action with small sections of platforming and basic puzzle-solving, like hitting switches to unlock doors. It isn’t anything too clever or thrilling, but most of these sections are well designed and require a some skill to resolve. One such section in the beginning of the game has you slowly ascend a large room filled with deadly spectres, moving platforms, and traps such as spikes and noxious, bloody water. It was challenging, as avoiding these obstacles while jumping on moving platforms requires strict timing and reflexes; completing through this section felt like an accomplishment worth being proud of.
Platforming is a highlight, but Slain’s main achievement is its aesthetic. The beguiling pixel-art design is highly detailed. Every single level in the game receives an astounding amount of attention and care. The Ice Beast’s domain is a snowy tundra replete with a harsh snowstorm, a lustrous white moon staring at you in the background, and various bloody graves decorating the foreground. The introductory level, the Blood Grounds, is overflowing with blood pools, decaying trees, and a macabre red sky. Bathoryn also has a striking appearance, with long white hair and a purple cape. He reminds me of a tenacious viking warrior, but one who’s ready to take on some vile demons.
Slain is easily one of the best-looking 2D side-scrollers I’ve ever seen, but the monotonous gameplay fails to match up. The combat system is too repetitive and, in some cases, broken, making boss battles a total drag. Slain’s stunning Gothic aesthetic is wasted on an otherwise mediocre game.