Slain: Back from Hell is a game that captures your attention immediately. It's a heavy metal inspired 2D hack-and-slash with some of the most beautiful pixel graphics and art design that you'll see. In an age where games using the pixel-art style are a dime a dozen, Slain stands out from the crowd not only with its metal aesthetic, but with its incredibly detailed and intricate backgrounds. Each new area is given a fantastic amount of depth, and you feel as if you're travelling through a fully realised world.

While the regular, run of the mill enemies mainly consist of simple skeletons, the boss enemies are a whole different ball game. End of level foes are huge, detailed monstrosities, each one feeling unique from the last. Every boss enemy is also similar in design to the area that they're found in, which is a nice touch.

Elsewhere, Slain's soundtrack is superb if you're into heavy metal. The music is ever changing and never grows stale, which is particularly important as you'll be dying a lot in this game and consequently hearing the same music over and over again. Clearly, developer Wolf Brew Games has taken a lot of time and care in producing the feel and aesthetic.

Unfortunately, it forgot to make the game fun to play.

Slain's gameplay almost entirely consists of you just slamming the square button repeatedly until the enemies standing in your way are vanquished. There's no nuance to the combat, despite there being a surprising amount of mechanics available to spice things up. Alongside your stock sword swings, you have a charged sword attack that deals more damage, a mana system that allows you to cast regular and charged spells, the ability to block and parry as well as being able to dash backwards to avoid attacks. There's obviously supposed to be a bit of depth to Slain's combat, so it's disappointing the majority of your enemy encounters will consist of you getting the first hit to stun your foe and then mashing square until they die.

Occasionally you'll use a spell or two against annoying long-range enemies, and you'll come across some stronger baddies that you'll need to block and parry, but these encounters become increasingly frustrating as you need to be frame perfect or else you'll still take damage. Attempting to block an enemy's attacks eventually becomes redundant as more often than not you'll still take damage, which isn't worth it as health is scarce to begin with.

The strength of certain enemies is also a little unbalanced, as some of the stronger regular foes seem to take longer and more hits to defeat than boss battles, which are often over after no more than a few seconds of button bashing.

The other portion of Slain's gameplay is platforming, which works fine for the most part, although it is a little basic. You'll be jumping over spikes and across moving platforms, but this should be standard fare for anyone who's dabbled in the genre before.

When it comes down to it, the biggest problem with Slain is its insanely unfair difficulty spikes. Unlike the Dark Souls series where you learn from each death, this game is just constantly throwing cheap ways of chipping down your health. Enemies will spawn out of random places with no rhyme or reason, and you'll often find four or five projectiles alongside airborne foes flying across the screen at once, making it literally impossible for you to not take some sort of damage.

If the game was constantly giving you checkpoints this level of difficulty might be bearable, but you'll often go through significant amounts of a level without seeing one. Things unsurprisingly become very frustrating when you slog your way through a particularly tough section with only a sliver of health remaining, only for a spell-casting skeleton to appear out of thin air and pick you off, rendering all your hard work pointless.

Slain is clearly designed to provide a challenge: the game has a trophy for dying 100 times, something that you'll likely see pop-up during the third or fourth level. Naturally, you'll constantly feel like you're being punished, and never feel as if you're succeeding or achieving anything. Dying dozens of times in every single level gets old quickly, and the game ends up feeling like you're slamming your head against a brick wall for five hours.

Conclusion

Slain: Back from Hell has one of the very best pairings of stunning visuals and amazing audio that you'll find on the PS4. Unfortunately, it's let down by a dull combat system and a horribly unfair level of difficulty, meaning that the game never picks up the momentum that it should. Wolf Brew Games had an awesome idea here with stacks of potential, but the complete package is hell to play through.