Usually I would argue that you don’t need to know much about the past of a video game to give it a review. However in the case of Sean O’Connor’s Slay I would say it’s very relevant. A long time before Braid, Super Meat Boy, Limbo and Minecraft shined a spotlight on small independent developers, there were people like Sean O’Connor. Selling games on their own websites, well before big platforms like Steam existed. Promoting game demos through shareware sites and CDs in magazines. It was far from the glamorous depiction of popular independent developers today, but we all look back on it with fondness.
Was that fondness rose-tinted? Probably, but regardless the first version of Slay dates back to this era. The recent Steam release hasn’t changed much from the original that came out over 20 years ago in 1995. All the better for it too, it’s hard to fault the simplistic but absorbing strategic puzzle that it offers. The first time I sat down with Slay a good 2 hours of my time disappeared into a void. I’m not pertaining to an empty void of despair either, more of a satisfying one full of little men with spears and hexagons. Looking at the clock I gasped, it was well past my bedtime. Even my cat, who is well known for using every possible moment to try and acquire my attention was sound asleep.
Describing how Slay is played makes it seem a lot more complicated than it actually is. I assure you, a few minutes with the game and everything clicks into place. Each player is given a number of regions in their control at the start of the game. In your turn you can recruit new soldiers and place them on unguarded enemy territory along the edge of your borders. Each isolated region of territory you control has a capital where all your gold for that region is kept. Each hexagon in that region earns you some income that goes directly to this capital.
This dynamic adds a very interesting aspect to Slay, multiple pools of gold and any expenses associated with them must be managed separately for you to be successful. If one of your regions gets split in two, you have a very awkward situation on your hands. A new capital is created for the region that got lopped off, will this new capital support all the troops occupying this new region? Probably not, it’s extremely easy to become too greedy and bite off more than you can chew.
To defeat your enemies you will need to upgrade your soldiers. It’s incredibly cheap too, a mere 8 gold will upgrade a single man to the most powerful unit in the game, a baron. However there’s a catch, a baron costs 54 gold every turn in upkeep, not to mention once you upgrade a soldier you can’t go back. Last but not least, if I tree occupies a hexagon of land you won’t earn any income from that tile, but don’t worry you can use a soldier to chop it down. I didn’t take notice of this rule when I first read it, but one thing it doesn’t mention, with each turn trees spread to neighboring tiles. You might think the AI in this game is ruthless, but let me tell you they haven’t got nothing on Mother Nature. My first game ended in tears thanks to trees, and I haven’t let them get the better of me since.
Slay is a lesson in being humble, each ball it throws at you isn’t hard to juggle, however if you start going too fast sooner or later you’ll drop the balls and abandon your dreams to join the circus. Take the game slow and methodically you will have a relaxing game, start taking risks and you’ll be doing mental gymnastics trying to outsmart the AI. In my opinion that’s exactly what makes a good strategy game, it’s entirely your choice how simple or complicated you want it to be.
So how does the steam version compare with the original? To put it simply it feels lacking, all the basics are here but it’s missing some very simple features. Even the first release in 1995 had the choice of local multiplayer, allowing you to take turns sharing the same computer. But this Steam version does not. The graphics and interface have been changed from the original too. The new graphics aren’t even that pretty either. Most of those interested in Slay will be those who have played it before, they will want to experience the feeling of the original. The old garish graphics had a certain charm, the practical interface has also been replaced with something far more suited to that of a tablet. None of these things are deal breakers I just find it somewhat baffling, especially when the price is evidently directed to those who want a nostalgia trip.
The steam version also doesn’t include a map editor or a networking mode, however Sean O’Connor has said he will be adding those features in the near future. At the end of the day it all comes down to how much do you want to support the developer of this classic. If you look for them, there are many games that offer a similar puzzle to that of Slay, but none of them will hold the same legacy. This isn’t being resold by a publisher that bought the rights, it’s more homegrown than ever, and that’s one reason Slay is still so appealing in this day and age. Even if you didn’t play it back in it’s heyday, you will appreciate the timeless nature of it’s strategic puzzles. Give the demo a try and see if you don’t get hooked, there isn’t a game much more perfect for a coffee break or a train ride.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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