Here are some of last week’s highlights in gaming, movies, and more:
Smoke and flame spew forth from the pointed metal behemoth as it roars down the tracks. The Boneshaker delivering the last embers of Hell’s Pyre to the source in hopes of reigniting that which has almost faded completely. Heaven’s minions swoop from the sky, boarding the lowest floor of the train to get at the ember and extinguish it. But you have minions of your own. A horned demon bursts forth and roars, brandishing a mighty greataxe. On the floor above, a few imps stand guard in front of a twisting plant creature. The third floor is quiet, waiting for a new selection of creatures. The demon of the first floor smirks as it dashes forward and swings the axe down on the first enemy it can see.
Welcome to Monster Train, see you in Hell.
Card-based, roguelike, deck building games sounded like the idea of a crazy person some three-ish years ago, when card games were mostly physical or in a mobile form (see Pokemon TCG online and Magic). Then, a wondrous game came to be that changed the way roguelikes and card games would interact. Now, because this is a review of another game (which is not a copy or a rip-off, but inspired by said game), I will do my best to not mention the inspiration game (though a review of it exists around here somewhere). Since the emergence of the genre, the card based roguelike genre has exploded with similar takes and sub-par titles, as what is the common happening when a hit is made.
Now in 2020, some years after the initial craze has died down and the weeds have been picked, Shiny Shoe, with the help of Good Shepherd Entertainment, created something that feels familiar but unique in its own right with their deck building roguelike, Monster Train.
Monster Train is an adventure where the player uses cards to defend their train from heavenly enemies as they bring an ember to relight the fires of Hell. Ok, that sentence was awesome.
Each run is different, with branching selections that end in a battle. Will you gather more resources, heal up, and enhance your spells? Or is the mystery of the caverns too much to resist? Each path offers something the other doesn’t but both meet back up for the same battle at the end, whether with mundane enemies or a boss.
And damn are these bosses not messing around. Extra abilities to hinder player progress or buff their minions, huge health pools, and they have the nerve to not even take part in the battle until all these minions are gone (pretty selfish for angels).
What sets Monster Train apart so well is strategy. The player chooses the two clans for their deck at the start of the run. There are choices to make for every round to maximize potential damage output or mitigate incoming enemy damage by placing units strategically and using spells effectively. There are choices to make with the merchants when upgrading units and spells, putting upgrade stones on cards to enhance them (and figuring out ways to bypass negative effects). And there are choices to spice up the non-boss encounters with extra enemy buffs in exchange for extra money or resources at the end (a nice risk vs. reward). While other games keep the strategy to the building of the deck itself and playing it, Monster Train’s addition of a three layer cake of battle positioning is the dessert I always wanted. This tactical edge really makes for interesting gameplay, as now two decks could be built exactly the same but play differently depending on card availability (drawing the right thing) and unit placement. The selections are less plentiful than our inspiration game in terms of branching paths, but it’s made up for in battle.
As always with deck building games, trial and error mixed with a bit of luck can take the player far, and continuous play rewards players with better cards and artifacts to keep you coming back again and again. I will say that the starting artifacts can differ wildly between runs, and it seems like the deck made for the run is really shaped by this initial artifact. This isn’t a bad thing (for me at least) because this guides the player to making decisions as opposed to leaving it totally open, but I can also see (and slightly agree) that this does take away some feelings of freedom that is usually inherent to deck building games. I think it’s thematic to be railroaded, in a sense, to a particular strategy with the deck though, as Monster TRAIN has players screaming down the track in a locomotive. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it.
So I avoided the obvious inspiration in the room, but I’ll start mentioning that game now and for good reason. Slay the Spire is the game that inspired the genre in a sense, and it is no doubt a huge inspiration for Monster Train. But instead of Mega Crit and Shiny Shoe working against each other, Mega Crit has instead decided to embrace the similarities their games share. Right now, Monster Train is available on Steam and discounted and, if an interested person already has Slay the Spire downloaded to their Steam library, they can get an extra discount! This is a pretty cool little collaboration and it’s sad this is the exception rather than the norm.
But hey! I bet you already have Slay the Spire downloaded (and if not, DEFINITELY do that), and now you can try something alike but new by checking out Monster Train. I give it a 9/10.
Michael Kenney May 19, 2020