I did not spell the title wrong
We take for granted how difficult it is to do a bad thing well, especially in video games. There are plenty of bad movies intentionally made to be fun to watch. Digital marketplaces are full of bad games made badly and good games made poorly, but creating a game that is intended to reflect bad design but is actually fun to play; that takes work.
However, with the emerging sub-genre that I like to call jank-pop, there have been better examples of it. Cruelty Squad, for example, features eye-piercingly garish colors and spaghetti-nest level design, but it winds up being fun to play with its dark but off-kilter sense of humor and deep (sometimes unintentionally broken) mechanics.
Some people take Cruelty Squad way too seriously. However, I don’t think anyone’s really going to do that with Slayers X: Terminal Aftermath: Vengance of the Slayer, which looks to be the embodiment of video gaming’s awkward adolescence. Yet despite the fact that it is set up as a tribute to the worst circle of the late-’90s FPS modding scene, Slayers X manages to find depth and value as an extremely unconventional character exploration.
Slayers X: Terminal Aftermath: Vengance of the Slayer (PC)
Developer: Big Z Studios Inc.
Publisher: No More Robots
Released: June 1, 2022
If you played Hypnospace Outlaw, you’ll no doubt remember Zane. He was a teenager during that game’s events and was an accurate reflection of a certain type of internet denizen that still exists today. He was a very self-centric type who mistook his alienation as a sign of being above everyone else and destined for greater things. The type who would make up a story like, “A drunk guy stabbed me at a party, so I pulled the knife out and threw it back at him.” Someone who thinks that life absolutely revolves around them.
Of course, Zane is a fictional character, but it’s totally possible to forget that.
Jay Tholen, one of the people behind Hypnospace Outlaw, obviously holds deep fascination for the Zane character. So, he went back into the Hypnospace universe and asked what it would be like if Zane had created a mod for a first-person shooter like Doom or Duke Nukem 3D. What he came up with is Slayers X: Terminal Aftermath: Vengance of the Slayer, which is simultaneously ridiculous and compellingly believable.
The story around Slayers X is that Zane’s friend finds the incomplete mod that the two had worked on together in the ‘90s, finishes it, and releases it. I find that background hard to swallow because I feel like any adult would be embarrassed by Slayers X.
The idea is that Zane (not some Gary Stu, but actually Zane himself) is some mystical warrior-hacker called an X Slayer, who is still in training but quickly shaping up to be the best there ever was. A rival group called the Psykos attack one day, kill Zane’s mom, and do away with his fellow X Slayers. So, Zane goes out for revenge because he’s the best.
I don’t know if it was specifically a millennial thing to have a phase where you think you’re due for some world-changing event to prove yourself in, but I definitely had something close. The whole setup is intensely familiar to me. I even had a notebook back when I was a kid, where I was outlining the design of a game. Not strictly a self-insert thing like Zane did, but definitely an edgy shooter that I tried to replicate in Duke Nukem 3D. Slayers X just speaks to me at a core level.
The game even takes place in an early-3D representation of Boise, Idaho. Or at least a version that exists in Hypnospace’s parallel reality. One of the things that was most interesting about Duke Nukem 3D at the time was that its environments were more based in reality, whereas games like Doom, Blake Stone, and even Quake were a lot more abstract in their approaches. As such, the idea of setting a game in a familiar place was still very novel and tantalizing.
This approach rarely translated well to gameplay, which Slayers X actually replicates. Levels have a lot of pointless exploration available, the flow is often just… not there, and the critical path through levels doesn’t feel very well-curated. Duke Nukem 3D avoided this with some of the most clever designs in FPS history, but a lot of amateur-level designers didn’t know how to replicate this. You can just browse through Duke!Zone for clear examples of this.
Slayers X deliberately lets itself fall right into this, and it’s just so, so charming.
The trial of the deuce
Slayers X pulls off the amateur aesthetic expertly. This isn’t just in regards to the level design. Some of the texture work uses digitized and hastily altered images of (fictional) real-world graphics. Some textures have been blatantly repurposed for new contexts, like the metal interiors of ventilation shafts just being grey dirt. I’ve never seen someone make shortcuts taken by casual developers feel so deliberate and difficult.
There are many indications that betray the amateur facade, however. For one thing, the CGI cutscenes, while intentionally done poorly, wouldn’t likely have been possible for teenagers at the time. Facets of level design wouldn’t have been easy to pull off in the days of the Build Engine, such as level-over-level stage construction. This can be explained by pointing to the fact that the Hypnospace Outlaw universe has a different approach to technology.
Despite this, Slayers X still feels like a classic FPS. The weapons are fun to play with and varied (though limited), and you’re frequently fighting hordes of identical enemies. There are some innovative wrinkles (like breaking glass to get ammunition for your shotgun), but it largely plays like a ‘90s FPS, right down to the exaggerated head-bob.
Thou truly art the final X-Slayer
Whether or not you actually appreciate the deliberately terrible design, I enjoy Slayers X for its fascinating character exploration. The whole experience is absolutely believable as the product of an edgy teenager’s imagination. Zane put a lot of his own world – fantasy and otherwise – into Slayers X. We learn a lot about him, even as we cringe at the humiliating depictions of the people from his life. We see the world through his eyes. But Zane doesn’t exist.
It digs at me in the same way that Hypnospace Outlaw did. It is a clear window into a time that I remember so well. The exploration of a fog-enveloped place in my memory is just so deeply moving that I’m not sure it would matter if the game itself was any good.
In fact, as a game, Slayers X isn’t that great. It’s not bad enough to be repulsive, but you constantly bump up against problems that, while probably being deliberate, are still problems. Its flow isn’t great, it’s incredibly short, and there aren’t a lot of enemies or weapons. But it still manages to be innocuously enjoyable.
However, as a piece of fiction, Slayers X is something both indispensable and unique. It gives me goosebumps that someone could convey such a detailed narrative by indirectly telling it through a character’s unrelated creation. It’s an elaborate lie that feels completely honest. But with lots of poop jokes.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]