I’ve never really been a fan of card games. Whether it was Pokemon or Magic the Gathering, none of them have ever appealed to me. The same can even be said of video games that use similar mechanics, as evidenced by my last foray into the genre. It was that which initially made me wary of Slay The Spire, but the across-the-board praise for developer MegaCrit’s effort was enough to draw me in. Even as a non-fan of the genre, I can safely say that it has more than earned the hype.
Slay The Spire is a mix of two genres I’m not 100 percent on board with. There’s the aforementioned card game side, but the title also works in roguelike elements as well, making for a unique combination that has the potential to be endlessly annoying. Thankfully, the experience is made simple and enjoyable enough that this proves to be a non-issue. The way it works is that at the start of every journey up the spire, you are given a basic deck of cards. These standard cards are fairly weak, but so are the initial enemies, and since you only have three energy tokens to start, your assigned deck is just solid enough to get by.
Each level of the spire gives you a few different paths to take, which are littered with enemies, random events, merchants and campgrounds. When you do jump into combat, the action itself is pretty straightforward. At the start of each round, you are given a fresh hand of cards to use, with each using a set amount of energy. Cards fall into several different categories but can mostly be classified as offensive or defensive.
As you bash your way to the top, you’ll have the chance to add and remove cards from your deck. You’ll unlock new ones at the end of every battle, and you can also purchase some from the local merchants. This actually goes hand-in-hand with the ability to drop cards from your collection. That may seem counter-intuitive in a way, but eventually, you’ll realize it’s an important aspect of the journey. By trimming the fat of early cards, you can craft a potent deck that will kill it on the higher levels. It’s another layer of strategy for you to uncover.
There are other things to take into consideration, the most critical being which of the three characters you choose to work with. You begin with The Ironclad, but by completing runs, you’ll eventually unlock The Silent and The Defect. Each character has their own unique cards, attributes, and style of play. For example, The Defect can channel powerful orbs that can dramatically alter the tide of battle, while The Ironclad can build his defenses to an impenetrable level. There’s fun to be had in experimenting with each class and the myriad of builds they potentially offer.
Another part of Slay the Spire‘s strategy comes from studying its many enemies. It’s important to pay attention to what they’re going to do, as that shape your strategy for every turn. If you see they are going to attack, you’ll want to load up on defense. If they are planning on blocking, then you might as well fire off as many strikes as you can. It’s also critical to pay attention to the relics you acquire over the course of every run. Typically dropped after boss and elite battles, these relics can be good, bad, or a mix of both. For example, one relic gives you a boost in energy but places a limit on how many cards you can use per turn. It’s another wrinkle to the gameplay that makes every run feel unique.
What makes Slay The Spire so addicting, though, are its many randomized elements, from the cards you are dealt to the events you come across. Some runs, you’ll be granted a killer deck and a smooth path to the top. Other times, you’ll get a crummy set of cards and a myriad of enemies and events to contend with. Regardless of how things turn out, though, you’ll almost always find yourself gearing back up for another run. There’s just a thrill to each run that’ll make you want to see it through to the end, regardless of the quality of your cards.
Outside of the main campaign, there are a few other modes to sink your teeth into. Ascension opens up upon fully completing a run, and offers modifiers that significantly raise the difficulty level. It’s a way to test how clever you are by tying your hands behind your back. For a slightly less brutal challenge, the Daily Climb gives you a fresh challenge every day. These runs have you using a specific character and contending with a few modifiers as well. Finally, there are customizable game modes, which are pretty self-explanatory.
If there’s one area where I think Slay The Spire falls short of the mark, it’s with its its presentation. I understand that it was developed with a modest budget, but simply put, the graphics are pretty bland. There are some fun character designs, particularly of the three main heroes, but most of it is unmemorable at best. The same can be said for the soundtrack, which is comprised of fairly standard orchestral music. It fits the tone and mood well, but again, it’s entirely unmemorable. We’re talking about a card game, so I imagine most won’t care about these issues. But they do make the game feel cheap at points.
Dull graphics and soundtrack aside, Slay The Spire is an absolute triumph. It successfully blends together the strategy of a card game with the randomized madness of a roguelike, offering up a brutally tough challenge that manages to remain addictive and enjoyable. It’s such a treat to play, that it managed to turn me — a guy who had no love for card games — into someone who kept pushing this review off, all because I was trying to make it further up the spire. That might be a problem for some, but I’m just looking forward to starting my next run.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by Humble Bundle.
Slay The Spire is an ingenious and addicting blend of card game strategy and rogue-like mechanics. It's a potent mix that will keep you coming back for more, even if death often awaits you.