Vampires are loose in Nebraska, and it’s up to a vampire-slaying collegian to turn them into dust. Here’s what we thought about Slayer Shock.
Note: The following review is based on the release version of the Slayer Shock. The game received a substantial update in Halloween 2016, but does not appear to have received any major updates since.
I have a confession to make. I’ve never really watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This makes playing Slayer Shock a rather strange experience, like playing Star Wars: Battlefront without having watched any of the Original Trilogy Star Wars films. There’s an idea behind this that I love: killing vampires as a Nebraskan schoolgirl, but I’m also spared from the obligatory comparisons to the most obvious thematic influence the game has.
So instead, I spotted a different sort of influence right as I started the game: Thief: The Dark Project. There’s a fair bit of Thief in Slayer Shock: the nights are dark and filled with terrors, you are rewarded for being sneaky, the graphics are low-poly and there’s lockpicking involved. That’s about where the similarities end, though, because Slayer Shock is distinctly it’s own beast. It borrows from immersive sims like Thief and Deus Ex (while borrowing its title from System Shock), but does not lean towards any one of its influences, which is in line with how Minor Key Games does things.
Aided by a team of fellow students, your job is thin the ranks of the vampires across a number of locations: from farms and woods to the local neighbourhood and university. Your team supplies you with everything you need: inventive weapons like the foam dart blaster or the water gun (filled with holy water), skills to improve your personal abilities and finally, intelligence on where the ‘Big Bad’ is.
Every night, which the game considers one episode of a ‘season’, you head out on a mission, which can involve stealing vampire items, freeing hostages, killing elite vampires or simply patrolling from one post to another. As reward, you gain ‘vampire dust’, the game’s currency. You get a bit of it by killing vampires, and a large quantity by completing a mission successfully.
The mission-based structure means that the game carries on even if you ‘die’. Presumably rescued and healed by your teammates, you live to fight another night. An interesting byproduct of this is that I never felt compelled to use the quicksave and quickload buttons, which I otherwise use abundantly in immersive sims. The genre of immersive sims has always been at their best when things don’t go according to plan, and you’re forced to scramble. In this respect, Slayer Shock secures one minor victory: even if it doesn’t directly discourage save-scumming, it made me forget all about save-scumming.
Early in the game, I decided that stealth is impossible in this game. Unlike Thief, there is no gem showing you how hidden you are, and unlike Deus Ex, there are no special augmentations that will turn you invisible. Rather than using set environments, Slayer Shock uses procedurally generated environments and paths, further making stealth harder.
I found that it was easy to be spotted by a vampire, either because I was more visible than I thought, or because a vampire decided it was a great time to investigate the precise area I was sneaking about in. In every single mission I played that had a stealthy bent to it, I earned a bright red cross informing me I’ve failed to be sneaky enough.
Thankfully, Slayer Shock is not a stealth-only game. It’s got combat too, and it’s just as valid—if a less encouraged way—to solve your vampire problems. Unfortunately, combat in Slayer Shock is hardly satisfying, with the weapons uniformly sounding weak. Much of the combat I experienced in the game involved holding down the attack button (or vigorously mashing it) and pointing at an enemy, which wasn’t so much a tense vampire battle as a dance of health bars.
There are a number of enemy types in the game, from the ugly minions to the leather-clad elites to the gigantic, ogreish Tarrares. Without any hiding spots in the game’s expansive, carboard-like maps, however, there was no game of cat and mouse. Get spotted, and that’s about the end of your stealth run.
After losing my first season of the game, I was booted back to the start, with a new team. I turned the difficulty down a notch, and found the combat much more feasible, but still thoroughly boring—the sole difference being that instead of losing, I was winning now.
With little excitement in the act of actually confronting monsters, I developed my own fun in the game. In the game’s patrol missions, I began trying to run to the post, usually located on the other end of the map, and back, as quickly as possible, without taking any damage from the vampires chasing me. I don’t think that the developers intended for the game to be a supernatural-tinged sport of track and field, but I can’t help but feel that that would have been a more interesting venture.
There’s no real story development in the game. I found myself doing missions and killing Big Bads (who all seemed to use the same lines; so much for the professional wrestling influence), but key questions remained unresolved: why are college students killing vampires out in the open? Where are the cops? Where is the military? Without any grounding context, Slayer Shock and its abstract, simplistic design feels like a hazy, and quite forgettable fever dream.
While the low-polygon art can have a charm of its own, and you can even get used to the music and sounds, it’s ultimately the gameplay that lets Slayer Shock down. It’s a game with gameplay so rough, breaking the game feels easier and more interesting than actually trying to play it as intended.
Ultimately, it’s a shame that a game with an idea so promising ends up not only lacklustre, but thoroughly disappointing. Minor Key Games has done better than this, and hopefully, they will do better than this again. Slayer Shock, however, will have to remain as a faux-Early Access oddity of a game.