*Full disclosure - this is a thinly veiled review post. I don’t claim to be a game reviewer, and I don’t plan on doing these on a regular basis, but I certainly have my opinions and when I feel strongly about a game (positive or negative) I don’t mind sharing those thoughts.*
Months and years - the game development cycle isn’t something that is generally known for it’s brevity or timeliness.
So in many cases, it’s months and years we spent lusting for games. With the way the game industry has progressed, we are now given a window into concepts looking for funding via crowdfunding campaigns like Kickstarter. Mighty No. 9, Bloodstained, and Battletech are some of the more famous games that fall into those categories. Many other end up on Steam Greenlight, giving us not only the early build or concept, but the power to decide if the game lives long enough to see a full Steam release.
One of the earliest large successes video games had on Kickstarter was Hyper Light Drifter - a game that I joined to Kickstart on day 1. The concept looked right up my alley in both game type and aesthetic, and at $10 it wasn’t something I was too worried about if the game wasn’t great. Honestly, it was a bit of a throw away purchase; just a buy on a whim. I wasn't sure if it would be bad or just ok, and I didn't dare dream that the game could be great. Then whispers of demo builds came in of how well it played and looked. Interest in a game I had already paid for piqued. 2 years later, the game has been delivered, but how did it fare compared to my slowly rising expectations based on internet rumors and impressions?
Slain! I discovered via Twitter #screenshotsaturday. Immediately, it's the visuals that draw you in. The gory beauty, those beautiful pixel animations, combined with it's serious metal soundtrack; I had high expectations for this title and the time I would spend soaking in it's gorgeous visuals and killer soundtrack.
Now we've come to the delivery of these two titles and reality sets in - how have my expectations aligned with what was delivered.
In the case of Hyper Light Drifter, it was everything I hoped it would be back in 2013 and then some.
And then lots.
It just might be one of the best game I’ve played in the past decade.
A quick rundown; the game is an overhead action RPG where you play the role of a 'drifter' who roams the post-apocalyptic frontier of another world, rediscovering long forgotten cities and lost technologies, trying to destroy the evil that has created the ruinous world you traverse. The game lacks any dialogue and tells its story through level design, your discoveries and small interactions with NPCs, with a sprinkling of cut scenes. The truth is that the game is very vague on details and leaves much to interpretation as to what it all is - who you are, where you are, who you're fighting - the only clear certainty is who is good and bad.
The world is broken up into 5 areas, with a central hub city and ruins to explore in the cardinal directions. Levels hearken back to classics like Zelda: A Link to the Past; each level has it's own character, with associated enemies and level aesthetic, and each dungeon broken into 'rooms' waiting to be explored with enemies lying in wait for you to dispatch. Hidden paths and rooms are waiting for the most diligent of explorers who will take the time to discover them, some providing power ups, and some telling more snippets of the story.
As for the game play - it's masterful.
Dash, cut, shoot. There are small variations on these capabilities, but these are your 3 primary abilities and it’s up to you to properly time and maximize them against the hordes of enemies and bosses who will inevitably kill you. Lots. The game is very Dark Souls in this respect - dying is commonplace - where you may enter a room and clear it out, but the next time you enter when enemies re spawn, you might die before killing one.
The game is infuriatingly hard at times, but it never feels cheap; the reason you died is usually quite apparent and you did something wrong. Proper observation of enemy attack patterns and timing are crucial to success; doubly so for boss battles. Close to an hour might have been spent on some bosses in my experience.
This would be the only loose thread someone could pick at in my opinion - the level of difficulty could certainly be a turn off for some (and has been the case for many). I think it's easy to forgive the story for being vague - it feels like an artistic choice, not a shortage of canon as much of it is there to explore and discover. The difficulty is something that could be a hurdle that keeps many from enjoying themselves; obviously this was not the case for me, as I've finished the game and plan on trying to find a few more secret areas, but I could see more casual players wanting to kill a few fun hours being turned off by spending that whole time on a boss they cannot get past.
The creators of Slain! describe the game as:
"A gothic puzzle-combat platformer with gore galore. Putting a strategic twist on the classic hack and slash games of the ‘80s and ‘90s.’"
I underestimated just how dedicated the team was to it's stated goal.
I had envisioned a grand return to something akin to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, only with updated graphics and a metal soundtrack. I projected what I wanted to see in the game instead of seeing it for what it was - a return to Castlevania circa 1986 instead of 1997. Unfortunately, even accounting for that, I think the game stays a little too true to it's roots, carrying with it the flaws of those retro games.
The gameplay itself is true 80s hack n slash - ultra simplistic, but to a fault. You fight through waves of enemies and hope you don't take too much damage until the next checkpoint. Controls in the game - consisting of a weak and heavy melee attack, a magic projectile, a dash-retreat, and jump - lack precision and feel delayed as an action must complete it's animation before another input will be recognized resulting in lots of button mashing. Hit detection is vague and leaves you button mashing hoping you've struck your enemy - too many times have I found an enemy still alive after my 3 hit 'combo' should have killed them. It makes for an unsatisfying, and at times, frustrating experience. I don't feel like the game is a lost cause, but the game as it stands is too simple; strategy and technique don't seem to play a part in success, it feels like the only way forward is brute force.
The pixel art is still a work of real beauty and I love watching the game in action - truly it's the design and the soundtrack that are the driving force in my continuing to play the game. The attention to detail is superb and animations are truly a sight to behold. With that said, I can’t say I’ve ever suggested anyone own a game when they’d potentially enjoy watching a “let’s play” of it online more.
I do enjoy retro platformers, but Slain! feels like a return to the lackluster part of the 80s. Unfortunately that's not something I could suggest to others.
It’s never the money that makes these kinds of misses ache - it’s the hope you invested in the game that doesn’t reciprocate. It’s never fair to place those kinds of expectation on others, but it doesn’t stop us. I’m sorry to say that Slain! missed the mark for me, but I’ve certainly gotten more than I expected in Hyper Light Drifter, and from it I've found one of those special experiences that make the more-often-than-not misses tolerable.