Save your hometown from being overwhelmed by vampires.
PC Release: September 29, 2016
By Ian Coppock
Autumn has landed, in all its colors and all its glory. Developers everywhere have been releasing some very spooky games this month, to mark the season and to line their pockets with the almighty fear dollar. Typically, this spot is reserved for a review of a retro game, but perhaps it’s time to review a more recent title that’s more fitting for Halloween. A game that combines the wanderlust of trick-or-treating with the fun of stealthy adventuring- a game like Slayer Shock.
Slayer Shock is a first-person horror game developed by Minor Key Games, the same studio that made last year’s cyberpunk stealth hit, Neon Struct (http://geekfactor-radio.com/art-games-2/). Slayer Shock is a marked departure from the high-tech escapades of Jillian Cleary, opting instead for a spookier, more rustic setting and some dramatic changes in gameplay. Instead of eluding security guards and hacking security systems, players take up silver stakes and crossbows in pursuit of vampires, a Halloween mainstay.
Slayer Shock takes place in the fictional town of Lancaster, Nebraska, during the autumn of 1995. Players assume the role of “the Slayer” an anonymous female protagonist and skilled vampire hunter. The Slayer is Lancaster’s last hope against a coven of vampires, who have descended upon the small town in overwhelming numbers. Armed only with keen reflexes and whatever weapons are at hand, players must repel the vampire threat and save what’s left of Lancaster from bleeding out. Slayer Shock isn’t as frightening as, say, Outlast, but it oozes creepy Halloween atmosphere, and getting jumped by a pointy-eared bloodsucker can still be quite startling.
Slayer Shock abandons many of the conventions established by Neon Struct and is instead more akin to Minor Key’s earlier game, Eldritch. For starters, players can actually carry and use weapons, a dire necessity for dealing with the vampires overrunning Lancaster. The Slayer starts out with two weapon slots devoted exclusively to a melee and a ranged weapon, respectively, but an acquire a larger backpack through upgrades. Slayer Shock‘s combat system is par for the course for first-person RPGs; shoot or stab the bad guy to make them fall down. Shoot or stab the bad guy in the head to make them fall down faster. Just make sure they don’t get an opening to do the same to the Slayer. A lot of the creatures in Slayer Shock use melee attacks, so timing counter-attacks to alternate with the monsters’ blows will go a long way toward emerging from fights in one piece.
Slayer Shock also deviates from Neon Struct in its implementation of RPG elements. Players can collect vampire dust while they’re out on patrol, be it from treasure chests scattered around Lancaster or from the corpses of the monsters they slay. The Slayer hunkers down at a coffee shop between missions, and can spend the dust on Slayer Shock‘s upgrade tree. Different skills can be emphasized for different playstyles; players can quiet their footsteps and increase damage dealt with sneak attacks, or become proficient at kicking down doors with guns blazing. Slayer Shock doesn’t provide the most RPG versatility ever seen, but it’s a fair amount. Players can also customize their character’s skin color and even add nail polish, which is a novelty.
The Slayer is not alone in her quest to save Lancaster. She has an entire support team hanging out with her at the local coffee shop. These NPCs present no character development and a lot of canned dialogue, but the upgrades they harbor are much more useful. Each character fits into niches that have been well-trodden by previous vampire fiction. There’s the brooding vampire hunting mentor, the brilliant weaponsmith, the nervous lore-keeper, and the shifty new guy whom no one trusts. In addition to the aforementioned RPG upgrades, players can solicit these characters for new weapons and tools. The team can also perform XCOM-esque research projects on the vampires’ weaknesses, and on where the coven leaders are to be found.
Once these upgrades have been purchased, it’s time to hit the streets of Lancaster. The Slayer can travel to just under half a dozen districts around the town, and each one is a procedurally generated, open-world level. Each mission also presents a randomized goal, be that patrolling the area for vampire activity, stealing vampire artifacts, or hunting down and killing the vampire elders leading the invasion. No matter the mission type, each area of Lancaster can be counted upon to be crawling with spooky stragoi. Again like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, completing a mission in one map will lower the danger there, but the panic and violence will increase in other districts. Letting one district go for too long without a visit will cause it to be lost to the vampires.
The narrative being propelled by all of this monster-hunting is, much like the one in Neon Struct, intriguing but a bit shallow. The Slayer is a silent protagonist who never talks, but she seems to take more initiative than Jill Cleary did in Neon Struct. Slayer Shock‘s overarching narrative is nothing new for monster-hunting games; there are a bunch of bad guys descending onto a location, and it’s up to players to kill all of them and the big baddie in charge. The only real exposition to be had in the game is from the mono-syllabic conversations with the NPCs in the coffee shop. No, the meat of Slayer Shock is roaming around the neighborhood killing things. Occasionally, the vampire leader will appear to the Slayer in dreams to taunt her.
One of the reasons why Slayer Shock‘s narrative is so shallow is because the game is designed to played in strategic rounds. The Slayer has to maintain Lancaster’s districts long enough to find the vampire leader, kill him/her, and make things peaceful again until the following autumn, when the threat returns at a higher difficulty level. Theoretically, players could spend the rest of eternity clearing out the vampires from Lancaster each autumn, making Slayer Shock more akin to a roguelike in some basic structural respects. With the government apparently nonexistent and the Ghostbusters on vacation, the Slayer seems to be the only one available to save Lancaster.
Even though Slayer Shock bears the potential for mind-numbing repetition, the gameplay is a lot of fun. Players sneak into a district of their choice, creeping from house to house, room to room, in pursuit of their objective and away from ever more numerous vampire hordes. The game’s early levels are when things are most fun, because stealth is typically the only way to survive encounters with the beefier vampires. This game is a must-have for stealth fans who enjoy creeping around abandoned towns, stabbing things in the back. Even though Slayer Shock‘s combat and sneaking are both very basic, they’re not simplistic. They’re those two mechanics drilled down to their purest essences.
Slayer Shock does suffer from a major imbalance that will probably illicit eyerolls from players. For one thing, the Slayer becomes more powerful at a much faster pace than the game becomes more difficult. By autumn #2 or #3, players can walk up to the biggest, baddest vampires and stab them to death with little worry. It takes many more playthroughs before the vampires can catch up to that level of potency, and that’s a problem. Slayer Shock is in dire need of some enemy rebalancing, so that there’s more parity between player and monster. Luckily for Slayer Shock, players can go into the options menu to increase the difficulty at any time, but that’s not exactly an elegant fix. Being able to cut down monsters like tissue paper also undermines the sense of danger inherent in a vampire invasion.
The other problem with System Shock‘s gameplay and one that was also a major issue for Neon Struct is the enemy’s AI programming. Though the monsters in Slayer Shock are markedly smarter than the security guards in Neon Struct, they’re still sometimes shockingly dumb. More than once, players will be able to sneak right in front of monsters’ eyes, even without basic upgrades. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as it did in Minor Key’s previous games, but it’s still an issue in need of a fix. The vampires in this game need some teeth… no pun intended.
All that said, though, players can still expect an ample challenge in the early and late stages of the game. The maps are expansive and really fun to roam around in. The fact that they’re procedurally generated also means that the experience will be different every time. There’s a lot of fun to be had in rifling through an entire neighborhood of abandoned houses, sneakily killing vampires as one goes. The music that plays in these levels loops a little too soon, but it’s hardly offensive. Just some creepy, low acoustic rock and bass befitting a small town in the 90’s. Slayer Shock also utilizes the same low-poly aesthetic as in Minor Key’s other games. It’s not super flashy, but it works surprisingly well for the stealth horror vibe the game goes for. The spookiness is further rounded out by an array of muted fall colors; lots of brown, grey, and blood, blood red.
Even though Slayer Shock is a bit shallow and apparently afraid of its own monsters, it’s one of the funnest horror-adventure games to have been released this year. It distills stealth and hunting gameplay to a fundamental level without being simplistic, and presents a novel setting befitting a vampire game. The repeated autumn invasion narrative isn’t anything too special, but setting out into the neighborhood to repel it firsthand is. The challenge can take a little while to catch up, but the fun implicit in quietly taking out monsters across a dark autumn neighborhood makes Slayer Shock worthy of a purchase. There’s nothing like a small town full of glow-eyed ghouls to get into the Halloween spirit.
You can buy Slayer Shock here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.