"I foresee myself playing this for at least another 100 hours."
Once every decade or so, there comes a game that defines a genre or reignites interest in a cobweb-laden style of game. Slay the Spire is one such example. While some say Slay the Spire found its success as a deckbuilding game with RPG and roguelike elements, the fact is that its nuances and details make it the stellar title that it is. Since that time, several big-name developers and indie studios have crafted clones of this titan. The simply named Monster Train is yet another unabashed spawn of Slay the Spire, but it departs from its ilk with a unique tower defense-esque system on — you guessed it — a train.
As is sadly tradition for roguelikes, the story and theme are purely window dressing. Upon booting up the game, players are met with static images and a booming narrator that regales them with tales of hell's last defense against heaven. Angels have attacked hell's foundation, blasting it into a new era of frigid tundra, and it's up to the player to defend the last of the pyre on a train by staving off the do-gooders with demons, weeds, and — naturally — anthropomorphic candles.
Although I haven't uncovered any additional story after beating the game a few times, this isn't why we're here. We're here to thwart the same enemies with the same or highly similar cards over and over again. Sounds great, doesn't it? Thankfully, Monster Train is so much more than these gross oversimplifications. After each win, the game offers new challenges to turn up the difficulty, which can range anywhere from buffing enemies to loading the player's deck with unusable cards. Each new challenge may entice players to give the game another go, but Monster Train offers many more reasons to dive back in.
Players start the game with two decks of cards and the ability to unlock three more over time. Decks can be combined, with one chosen as a focus deck and the other as a secondary. The focus deck boasts a champion that has diverging upgrade paths each game. This mega creature always starts in the opening hand of combat, costs zero flame, and is typically more powerful than anything else accrued over the course of the run. While winning and mostly losing, players gain experience in each deck type at the conclusion of battle, which unlocks new cards and artifacts. Figuring out the best way to combine two decks with an ever-growing library of cards and artifacts is the main addictive quality of Monster Train.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. How do you even play this game? Slay the Spire focuses on a primary character who can use cards to attack, defend, and engage in all sorts of antics with oncoming enemies. In Monster Train, players act as omniscient overseers of the battlefield (AKA the train) as one does in Magic: The Gathering. Every battle takes place on four levels of the train, with the highest floor being the pyre room. Players cannot interact with the pyre room and must build their defenses on the three levels below. Once enemies enter the pyre room, the pyre takes and returns hits repeatedly until the enemies die or the pyre is extinguished, which results in a game over.
Enemies always enter on the first floor and work their way up. Players get to see what enemies have entered the train and can use flame points to play spells or creatures. Once a creature is played, their card is removed from the deck for that battle, but spells recycle over and over once the deck is emptied and reshuffled. Each room has a friendly creature size limit. Initially, players have five pips of monster size per room, which fills up surprisingly quickly, resulting in two or maybe three units per room, but this can be improved over time. Once players pass their turn, the enemy attacks, and the friendly creatures respond in kind; then, the enemies ascend a floor and new enemies enter the floor below them. This repeats until a boss is spawned, which changes the way players must plan.
When a boss spawns, players can play a turn as normal, but this time when the turn is passed, the boss and friendly units will attack each other back and forth until the floor is cleared of friendly units or the boss is killed. This process repeats until the boss makes it to the pyre room and the final showdown takes place. If players taste victory, they are scored based on their performance and then earn rewards, such as gold and new cards to put into their deck. Typically, three cards from a deck set are offered and players pick one.
Between each battle, players can choose one of two routes for the train to follow. Each route offers different benefits, such as healing the pyre, trashing two cards from the deck, buying upgrades for spells or monsters, and engaging in events. Unlike Slay the Spire, the events in Monster Train are always beneficial but sometimes come at a cost. They also provide some insight into the world, with a brief script detailing what has happened to other trains or denizens of years past.
Customization is what makes Monster Train a unique experience, and the options players have at their disposal set it apart from Slay the Spire. Yeah, artifacts feel like a straight ripoff, but they're almost always a huge, meaningful benefit to the deck. Similarly, the fact that everything that occurs between battles only helps you makes engaging in events less stressful. The other unique qualities are the way in which battles play out and the limitations of the train. Upgrading cards is crucial, and knowing what to upgrade when can determine whether you win or lose. Each loss teaches me how to play the game better and doesn't always feel like the result of bad luck.
Though, if I'm to be honest, I have come to crave the x-factor in each run. If the right artifacts or cards don't turn up, a battle can feel lost from the outset. Considering runs can take about an hour, this hurts. Some deckbuilder RPGs lean on this more heavily than others, and I'd say Monster Train relies on it less so, but luck can still be a deciding factor. For example, I got to start a run with an artifact that loaded the second floor at the start of combat with four random monsters from my deck. I also happened to draft (and later copy) some gigantic monsters that are normally exceedingly cumbersome to not only play but fit into a room with other units. Since I got these creatures early enough, I avoided all other creature drafts and let every enemy enter my second floor and die instantly for the rest of the run. This is certainly an extreme example, but sometimes this sort of exploit feels necessary, especially as the difficulty rises with each win.
Monster Train also offers a unique multiplayer mode that serves as a timed score attack battle, with players playing parallel to one another against enemies rather than against each other. This mode is definitely intended for seasoned players, as the game moves at a hellish pace. In fact, even when selecting buffs and shopping the timer moseys on. If the next battle is not completed within the time limit, you are out. Matches incorporate multiple players whose trains you can see as phantoms alongside yours, and each player's Steam avatar and current score is displayed in the top-left corner of the screen. While it's not a huge departure from single-player gameplay, this mode offers an opportunity to interact with others. Of course, Monster Train also offers daily challenges, as well as a mutator mode that can be shared with friends.
Admittedly, when I first saw Monster Train, I was immediately turned off. The visuals come across like a mobile game, and the animations are stiff and awkward. But what appears like a childish game is actually a harrowingly deep and complex affair that demands your full attention in order to succeed. Musically, Monster Train functions fine. I have reached the point where I turn the music down, but leave the sound volume up. The music and visuals aren't necessarily bad, just fine. In terms of controls, I initially had some issues accidentally changing floors when moving my cursor around, but this never resulted in a misplay.
Although it's nothing revolutionary, Monster Train has certainly cemented itself as a champion of the deckbuilding RPG sub-genre. I foresee myself playing this for at least another 100 hours. Finding synergies between decks and cards within each deck is an absolute pleasure, and I predict additions will come at some point in the future. I just wish this style of game could find decent storytelling. If you're itching for a tale, there's no shortage of gripping and emotional yarns out there. If stats and cards woven together through complex decision-making is more your scene, then hop aboard and have your ticket ready.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.