There was a Buffy The Vampire Slayer game on the first Xbox, for our sins. I can remember playing it, hating it, then hating myself for having been suckered.
It was hack and slash and jump and collect, of course: all license and no trousers. Slayer Shock [official site] too is hack and slash and jump and collect, but more than a decade later it’s got the hindsight to appreciate why we loved the Scoobies.
Slayer Shock’s the latest from Minor Key Games, they of sharp Minecraft-does-Cthulhu survival game Eldritch and cool Deus-Ex-as-minimalist-stealth effort Neon Struct. This is recognisably one of their games: low fidelity models and art but high fidelity attention to environmental detail. In this case, that means schools and suburbs and caves and conveniently empty coffee shops – recognisably Buffy-esque locations.
In these places, you stalk with stake or katana or crossbow or supersoaker loaded with Holy Water (yee-haw!), battling or optionally stealthing your way past a primarily vampiric pantheon of foes that borrow from all over the bloodsucker lexicon. Yer Buffy-style school vamps, yer Interview With The Vampire style period finery types, your Bloodlines-style fetish goths. None of your Twilighty or True Bloody deconstruction of the monster here, just pure and unabashed celebration of a long-toothed baddie.
Slayer Shock’s structured, cutely, into episodes and seasons. Each mission (lasting between five and twenty minutes) is an episode set in what is essentially a recurring set: spooky forest, corn fields at night, school campus, suburbs and so forth. Not directly ripped from Buffy, but very much of Buffy, and of that moment in time. A season runs until, by running kill x vamps or rescue x hostage missions, you’ve collected enough vamp dust to research the location of that year’s Big Bad. Between episodes, you get to hang your with your very own Scooby gang, made up of very loose Giles/Willow/Xander/a.n.other archetypes.
Sadly they don’t truly interact with each other, which cuts a huge slice of BVTS’ heart right out of Slayer Shock. They just sit or stand around, offering oft-repeated lines when you click on ’em. However, once in a while the game will pop an announcement after a mission. Something’s happened. Someone’s had an argument. Two of them are crushing on each other. One of them’s been attacked by a vamp on the way home and is in hospital. Or: somebody’s died.
It’s all very true to the soap operatic aspect of Buffy, and it’s cute to see two of your guys end up sat at a table together instead of at adjacent desks. Dialogue is brief and low-key: don’t expect heart-felt soliloquies here. It’s stylistic rather than striving for emotional resonance, but the lack of much personality to these guys – let a lone a real sense of tragedy in the event of a death – can make Slayer Shock’s downtime feel mechanical, especially as the Scoobs’ real role is to sell upgrades.
On the other hand, true disaster could have awaited had Slayer Shock tried to go full-blown Whedonesque, so all things considered the minimal approach was probably the wisest one. And, more importantly, there’s at least a vague sense of there being something worth fighting for.
Also keeping Slayer Shock well short of Dream Buffster Game territory is that it looks a bit, well, cheap. This isn’t blind dismissal of a consciously low-tech-looking art style. I really dig the look of Eldritch and Neon Struct both, but they’ve got the benefit of depicting an abstract place and a massively stylised alt-future place respectively. Slayer Shock, by contrast, is trying to do Sunnydale, i.e. near as dammit to a real place. Its sparse buildings and blocky enemies don’t come off as retro-stylised, but instead as boxy and plain.
That’s just close up, though. From a distance, Slayer Shock can be striking – the silhouette of something hunched and pointy-eared lurking in far-off mist, spectral trees poking through the dusk, after dark lecture halls with rows of creepily empty seats… Minor Key’s less is more approach certainly lands plenty of environmental punches, making it all the more distracting that its people look so lousy, although as I say its vamps’ garb is very much a giggle.
The good news is, the combat’s ace. This is the poppiest of Minor Key’s games by far, happy to let you dance with a half dozen or more vamps at once in free-for-all slasher or shooter fashion. Eldritch and Neon Struct were both relatively unforgiving buggers, requiring no small amount of precision, observation and caution, but this is a party if you want it to be. The upgrade tree, short but sweet, is a hoot, like a capsule Deus Ex – stealth upgrades or damage reduction or a more effective stake, that sort of thing.
Coupled with a sizeable choice of weapons (obtained by winning randomly-allocated blueprints from missions), you effectively get to build your own Slayer, replete with different wrist decorations depending on what you’re wielding. That said, play on Normal and you’ll wind up unlocking everything pretty soon anyway.
Gitgudders should take heart Slayer Shock will absolutely hurt if you ratchet up the difficulty and thereby risk death in every vamp encounter, and doing this also makes Shock’s simple but unforgiving stealth system more of a necessity than an option. On middle-tier hardness though, it’s a cheeky nod and wink to how Buffy could cheerfully dust a dozen street vamps without breaking a sweat.
Random tougher monsters, such as werewolves, a sort of ogre thing and a whirling-armed, exploding ghostlady that vaguely reminds me of Left 4 Dead’s Witches, increasingly pop-up as the seasons wear on, but the good news is you accrue an assortment of more effective weapons as you play. These are more about choice and strategy than power – e.g. wooden weapons are good against vamps but lousy against werewolves, which you’ll need something silver for. The Big Bads, bosses fought at the end of a ‘season’, also have particular weaknesses that you can spend some of your upgrade cash (‘Vampire Dust’) on uncovering if you so choose, in order that you know not to take holy water to a stake fight or whatever.
The bad news is, that’s basically it. Missions relentlessly rotate through the same half-dozen locations, half dozen enemies and half-dozen types of objective, your selection of weapons is likely to be reduced to a holy trinity of wood, silver and something ranged before long and, well, Slayer Shock feels pretty much the same all the time. This is not a six-season boxset, but rather a handful of episodes from season 1 on loop. It’s definitely not suited to binge-watching, but a season here and there every now again, sure. The names will be different every time, but the structure will not.
There’s a Big But, which is that if you crank the difficulty right up, missions are not something to just casually slaughter your way through. You’ll have to think smart, take longer and most of all sneak, something that is not realistically required on normal hardness. Surviving a season will be a marathon effort, plus failures run the risk of parts of town being ‘lost’ to vamp infection and thus unavailable for the rest of the season – thus cutting off some of the available rewards, such as new weapon blueprints or even replacements for murdered Scoobies. If Slayer Shock is to have a long afterlife, it will come not from binging, but from slow, careful forays into its Hellmouth.