IN A DESERTED castle, a lonesome figure that looks like Charon’s long lost twin floats eerily through the hallways, trying to make sense of what happened to a once thriving kingdom. Not too long ago, the king of that very kingdom was in the midst of celebrations with his Queen, holding merry festivities in the name of their young son and heir to the throne. Their castle was a symbol of strength and power, standing tall with picturesque stained glass windows that adorned its walls. But even that wasn’t enough to stop the unexpected arrival of a hideous enemy, known only as the scourge. The king hastily hid his son away in a lifeguard. and left instructions scrawled down in a diary in the hope that one day, a savior would come to their aid.
This is the chilling plot we face in Stained, RealAxis Software’s castle themed side-scrolling platformer in which you control a grim reaper type figure (who I will henceforth refer to as Grimmy) wielding an upgradable scythe. I found this to be both a curious and interesting choice of protagonist, firstly because it feels as if death is the narrator (see The Book Thief) and secondly because ‘death’ is one of the only things left alive, which adds a nice oxymoronic twist to the game. Now the only questions left are who is this mysterious stranger we’re playing as, and why have they been drawn to the castle?
Quite early on, you learn to brandish Grimmy’s scythe and stamp it down onto the ground to smash stained glass windows in the background. Doing so releases the magical creatures embedded within the glass, and launches you straight into battle. Being constructed from glass, the enemies will shatter into smithereens when you hit them by pressing ‘X’. Holding ‘X’ for longer is a also nice strategy, as it allows you to swipe your scythe three times, which prevents the knights from getting too close to inflict any real damage upon you. Grimmy’s ‘life’ bar is quite ingeniously presented in the form of another scythe that is apparently filled with blood, and it’s very easy to get low on health in this game if you don’t fight back. Fortunately, defeating enemies does gradually restore your energy, something which becomes pretty significant during mini-boss battles. Before each stage begins, we also get to see a page or two from the King’s journal, which often fills us in on what to expect next, and sometimes leaves us cryptic clues and secrets. For instance, one might assume that the Kings and Queens of medieval times were happy couples with no need to go on Judge Judy or anything like that, but once you reach Corkscrew Tower, it is unveiled that a secret passage once functioned as an escape route for an ancient Queen and her lover. The plot thickens!
Puzzle solving usually requires you to figure out how to navigate your way through blocked doors, thorn-filled pathways, and, when you play the Ballroom Stage, a Crystal boss that lives in a cave which no one can enter. Dying means you have to repeat a section from the very beginning, which can be slightly tedious (and I also found the idea of death itself dying to be an interesting concept). But at the same time, it allows you to rethink your strategy for the next time you attack a bad guy or try to infiltrate an area. I particularly enjoyed Archway Pass, which requires you to use a ball to smash down a barrier, and do a fair bit of backtracking to collect a key that unlocks an area you must access to unlock yet another area just above you. It’s complex, and the clues aren’t always obvious, but nobody wants a game to be too easy. Furthermore, the guesswork in Stained certainly gets your mind going and the satisfaction you get when you’ve solved a task is absolutely worth it.
Although stamping down your scythe can expose enemies from their windowed hiding spots, it also releases puzzle pieces which Grimmy can collect and access later in his inventory menu by pressing the ‘I’ key. If you’ve ever experienced the joys of tangram on one of those long overseas flights, or any other location for that matter, you will probably recognize the similarity to these puzzles. You are rewarded with an unlockable item when you complete a puzzle, which occurs when a piece turns green and you hear a specific tone. Sometimes these tangrams are crucial to progress the game forward. And whilst these puzzles do add variety to gameplay, I feel that a more thorough explanation is necessary regarding puzzle controls and their impact on level progression, because otherwise it can result in a bit too much guesswork.
Stained has an intriguing and unique approach to dungeon battles, and it’s not only because you play as Grimmy. Enemies do not run towards you in this game, you run to them. As mentioned previously, you have to smash the stained glass windows in the background in order to make the baddies reveal themselves, which is a lot of fun and is also a fantastic way to let out any pent up rage you might be feeling against windows (gotta wonder who will be paying the repair bill though). Grimmy also gets to smash chandeliers that work like makeshift elevators, and his scythe doubles as a sort of grappling hook that he can scale walls with. Originally, your enemies are sword fighting knights, but as you progress you’ll encounter wicked dragonflies, spiders, jumping knights and a whole slew of mini-bosses. The background music also adds considerably to the overall mood of this game, which is like a dark ambient lullaby that teams up very well with the sharp, slicing sound effects when enemies approach or attack you. Stained does atmospheric and creepy very, very well.
If you like dungeon crawling side-scrollers, enjoy tales about kings, queens, and all things medieval, or you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to play as the Grim Reaper in The Sims, you will love this game.