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Slain! Review – Rusted Metal

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The idea of a metal, retro hack ‘n slash side scroller that called to my inner 80s nerd excited me. The music has the perfect hard edge to it and the pixel art is deliciously dark and sinister. Slain! has the player take on the role of Bathoryn, risen from his tomb by spirits who need him to fight demons (again) and save the land. The spirits lure you out with a large sword, and you are on your way to, well, save the land.

I wanted to like Slain! Instead of headbanging gleefully as I progressed from level to level, I found myself banging my head on my keyboard. Like all classic side scrollers of this era, timing and patience is the key to making your way through each stage and level. However, it’s essential that the player has basic things at their disposal, like a good keybinding tutorial, so their initial impression of the game is not only good, but pleasant.

My impression of Slain! was not a pleasant one. Before I set foot out of the tomb and into combat, I noticed that the captions could have been cleaned up punctuation wise. I didn’t understand why some words were capitalized and others were not. ‘I’ was often not capitalized when it needed to be, and some sentences were ended with both a period and an exclamation mark. It was disappointing to see that the captions were not entirely proofread.

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Gameplay wise it took me a while to figure out how to pause the game. When hitting the escape key did not work, I hit ‘P.’ Sure enough, P is for pause. Players will need to figure out the controls on their own, as there is nothing within the game or in the menu that explains the keybinds, let alone allows player to change them. There is one point near the beginning of Slain! that hints at the ability to block incoming attacks. It took me a while to figure out that the down arrow (crouch) also allows you to block. However, block is only effective against incoming projectiles like fireballs and spells, not against enemies. Not giving the player the full ability to block can result in a frustrating amount of deaths.

Q, the combo attack key, is the most useful for plowing through smaller enemies. Hit Q three times in a row and your character will thrust his sword into an enemy while moving forward, pushing them backwards in the process. The W key, I assume, is supposed to be the decapitation key, and yet preforming that move does not always decapitate an enemy. It’s less powerful than the combo key and, as a result, I barely used it. The same is true of using the 1 key to launch a small mana bomb at an enemy; it takes 3 of them to kill a small skeleton. The Q key does an extreme disproportionate amount of damage compared to the other attack options, it seems. Not using the W key means you miss out on small amounts of mana, but mana regeneration items are generously sprinkled throughout the sections and levels, and placed at every checkpoint, so there is less initiative to use W to attack. The player will need to pay careful attention to how many hits it takes to kill any kind of enemy, so finishing them off with a decapitation will be useful. This strategy, however, is not intuitive.

The controls are slow to respond. Tapping a movement key won’t make your character move, and instead, you must hold it down for nearly a full second for anything to happen. Tapping an attack key responds quickly, but sometimes, when trying to perform a mana bomb, hitting the down key and then W would do nothing. I’d be swarmed by enemies and die.

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Slain! could not only benefit from allowing the player to change the keybinds and a more responsive movement/attack system, but also from including special items, like the mushroom in Super Mario. Many of the larger monsters seem to be overpowered, which lead me to jump over them to avoid fighting them altogether. Or I would exploit an area where they couldn’t attack me, but I could attack them. That did not feel like the metal thing to do. Something to add variety to the gameplay, like special items, would give Slain! more diversity and make playing it more interesting.

Another option could be to allow the player to utilize their surroundings as makeshift weapons. For example, before you head into the Blood Tomb near the beginning, you have to break through a wall that will shatter into one or two large moveable pieces. If you get a piece to the bottom, the only thing you can do with them is use them as a barricade between you and the skeletons. I really wanted to have an attack option that allowed me to fling the piece of the wall into my enemies.

Also, the checkpoint system should be combined with the save system. Players will restart at the nearest checkpoint after they die, but there is no way to save your overall progress. If you quit, you have to start from the very beginning. So frustrating.

Slain! has a great concept and the pixel art is on point, but the oversight of basic things like a keybinding tutorial and proofreading captions makes the game unpolished. The soundtrack is well composed and there were some neat weapons like the flaming sword, but the controls were clunky and made the game frustrating to play. Slain! throws you into the fiery pits of hell and says, “Good luck!”

Platforms: Windows PC | Developer: Wolf Brew Games | Publisher: Digerati Distribution | ESRB: NR | Controls: Keyboard

This review copy of Slain! was played on PC via Steam and was provided by the developer.

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Joanna is drawn to sci-fi and post-apocalyptic worlds, and games with a generous amount of gore. When she's not gaming, she's convincing her friends it's a good idea to go into abandoned buildings.

Review

Stranger Things 3: The Game Review — Mindflayingly Average

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Stranger Things 3: The Game logo

The Stranger Things series has been a big success for Netflix. A love letter to ‘80s pop culture, with a focus on the science fiction and horror movies of the time, the show has been hugely popular, with the latest season screened on over 40 million accounts in its first four days. Accompanying the launch of the television season is Stranger Things 3: The Game. Developed by BonusXP Inc, which previously created Stranger Things: The Game for mobile devices, the game is an isometric brawler which competently retells the story of Stranger Things 3, but has little of its own to say. Mild spoilers for Stranger Things 3 ahead.  

The game opens one year after the events of Stranger Things season two. While trying to contact his camp girlfriend with a high-tech ham radio, Dustin overhears a strange recording spoken in Russian. Determined to figure out what it means, he teams up with Steve and his coworker Robin to try and decode the message. Meanwhile, strange occurrences have been happening around Hawkins, with rats devouring fertiliser and chemicals. Max’s brother Billy is looking decidedly unwell, thickly wrapped in jumpers while he works as a lifeguard. A tingle at the back of Will’s neck tells him the mindflayer’s presence still lingers around the town. As events progress, a group of average kids must save the world from an otherworldly monstrous threat once again.  

Stranger Things 3: The Game takes place in a semi-open world, with more locations unlocked as players progress. The player starts out in control of Mike and Lucas, who wield a bat and slingshot respectively. Two characters are always on screen, with the other person controlled by AI. Local co-op is available and seems to be the intended way to play—the AI for the second player is not very smart. When in single-player mode, the player can switch between the two characters on the fly, and any unlocked characters can be swapped to as well. The other characters unlock over the course of the story, with a total of 12 to choose from. Each character can attack and block and has a unique special move, such as Max’s healing hearts or Jonathan’s stunning camera flash. Special moves cost energy, which can be replenished by drinking New Coke or picked up from defeated enemies. With each character playing so differently, the game would benefit from restricting which characters can be used in each scenario, as finding a favourite combination and sticking to it is far too easy. This lack of restriction also caused some weird story occurrences, like Nancy wandering around the void or Hopper hanging out with Mike while he mopes about breaking up with Eleven.

Exploring Hawkins involves lots of switch puzzles, and using characters’ special abilities, like Dustin hacking into a locked door or Joyce cutting the lock off of a gate with her bolt cutters. The puzzles are generally straightforward, with the Russians inexplicably leaving clues in English for the player to find, but more complicated riddles can be found by wandering off the beaten track. The creepy deserted pizza place has some based on pi, and exploring optional rooms in the Russian base will reward the player with rare crafting items.

Crafting in Stranger Things 3: The Game is poorly implemented. Items can only be made at workbenches, which makes sense for complicated contraptions, but is annoying at other times (for example, having to retreat out of the pool area because Eleven needs to put duct tape on her swimming goggles). When looking in a store, no indication appears on what items are already in the player’s inventory. Apart from plot items, the player can also make trinkets, which improve the party’s statistics. A wide variety of trinkets are available, from improving a single character’s attack to increasing the health of the whole party. Finding the missing items to create a trinket is tricky due to the poor shopping interface, and the sparse placement of workbenches gives the player few chances to actually craft the items. Fortunately, fighting enemies is easy enough that crafting can mostly go ignored.

Combat is simple, for the most part, with the player smashing everything on screen to progress. Hawkins is absolutely infested with rats and Russians, with even the library packed to the brim with bad guys. Though the excessive numbers of similar enemies is normal in the brawling genre, more variety would have been appreciated. The late game Russians become more interesting, with knife throwers, chemical spills, and grenades, but the first three-quarters of the game consists of the same baddies over and over.

An exception to this repetition is the challenging boss battles, which are far tougher than the average gameplay. Bosses will need extra conditions to be met before they can be damaged, like switching lights on, dodging charge attacks, or keeping several baddies away from each other. Some work better than others—for example, one battle relied on keeping two boss creatures apart to prevent them from healing each other, which simply did not work in single player since the AI fighter closely follows the main character. Instead, defeating the boss required exploiting Nancy’s critical hit ability to do enough damage to kill the monsters before they could heal, a strategy that required some luck to succeed. Other boss encounters fared better, with the trial of constantly repairing Hopper’s cottage as slimy creatures crawl through the windows proving tough and intense.  A dodge button would be a useful addition to the movement options, since the bosses run so much faster than the player does. The game is also a bit stingy on providing a place to stock up before a boss battle, which should be included considering the spike in difficulty they represent. Still, these battles are where the game shines brightest, showing creativity and variety that is sorely lacking in other areas.

Stranger Things 3: The Game is faithful to a fault, feeling like a very detailed recap of the season. A few sidequests tell their own story, like doing chores for the creepy Granny Perkins or exploring the abandoned electronics store, but for the most part, the player will be re-enacting scenes from the television series, with a bit of extra rat murder and crafting thrown in. Clinging so closely means the story has nowhere exciting to go since the player has presumably already watched the season. If the player has not seen the show, that would be even worse, as it is a non-scary adaptation of a horror show that completely loses the tone. The occasional dialogue choice is thrown in, but the response makes no difference either way. Adding in some choices alongside possibilities of events going differently would make things far more engaging. 

A highlight of Stranger Things 3: The Game is the art direction, with some beautiful 16-bit recreations of the cast and environments. With the exception of Jonathan, who looks like his pointy-chinned cousin, the sprites are a good resemblance of the cast. The monsters are appropriately fleshy and gross, with the final boss, in particular, looking foreboding. Environments can get a bit repetitive, with one sprite for all the beds, one for all the cupboards, etcetera. Sprite laying issues do occur on occasion—the ashtrays all hover in front of the characters, for example. The chiptune recreation of the show’s music, however, is spot on, and converting the title theme into a Zelda-like solved puzzle jingle is impressive indeed.    

Stranger Things 3: The Game gameplay

Stranger Things 3: The Game is only for really big fans of the show. Even then, the title is hard to recommend since it is an inferior version of the television season. While the gameplay is not bad, it is too repetitive to be enjoyable on its own. The game would perhaps be best played just before season four comes out, as a novel way of recapping the previous season.   

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS and Android devices.

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