Digital card games come in all shapes and sizes. It’s not just about your classic collectible or trading card games, instead, you get deck building in all sorts of strange places. You can hardly toss a digital stone in the Steam store without having to acquire the card to do so first.
Thankfully, Slay the Spire is way beyond your normal card game. It’s a dungeon crawling roguelike card game that is only a couple of keywords away from being an overpowered Magic: the Gathering card. Your aim is simply to make it to the end of each run. Of course, while the goal is simple, achieving it is not.
You start off with a small collection of cards and are expected to survive your early encounters predominately on the strength of these. However, as you progress you get new cards with which to deal out the heavy damage. It never feels overwhelming because it’s all so wonderfully gradual. Your deck by the end of the run might be a complex web of synergies and combinations but you’ll never get stressed about it because you’ve made it up as you go along.
It means that even if you aren’t a huge card game player you can hop in and be sure to find your own pace. It also shows you the next monster move so that you can plan your response accordingly, a little bit like Into The Breach. It’s this kind of accessibility that is sorely missing from many card games, so it’s good to see it here in this hybrid. The other thing that really helps it stand apart is the pace.
Instead of drawing a single card each turn you draw five then discard the remainders at the end of the turn. You get to know your deck in a way that you just wouldn’t if you simply drew one a turn. It’s a fantastic decision which means you can feel your deck grow fight to fight. There’s no wondering when you’ll draw that new card you want to try out; it’ll be here in a couple of turns. It makes changing the deck so much more interesting, so much more impactful. It genuinely gives a similar satisfaction to mastering a new combo in a fighting game, which is almost unheard of in card games. Card games are always about strategy – strategy is essential here too, of course – but because of the speed of everything, it feels like an action game too. It’s great.
Plus, there are multiple characters to choose from. This means that as well as deciding how you build your deck as you go, you get a big variety of styles just based on who you choose to be. It may sound like a normal thing for games, but it’s like looking at a tree. You’ve got the trunk, which is the core gameplay, then you’ve for a thick branch for each character, then lots of twigs coming off of those to represent the different deck types.
What I’m saying is, you could play this game forever and have a different experience each time. Not just because it is a roguelike, but because there are so many decisions to make. It may sound overwhelming, but you’ll make most of them in the early runs before realising they are a big deal. You’ll only start to think about them once you’ve got the hang of things, so it’s always a joy to play.
That’s not to say it’s easy, though. If you get unlucky with the boss fights you can be crushed. The same is true of the standard enemies, of course; you really have to think about whether it is worth taking a combo card early on or just a strong one instead. The game demands you constantly readjust your strategy if you want to make it to the final fight, let alone actually beat it.
The visuals have this wonderful cartoonish feel to them, with each animation being somewhat minimal but charming in its execution. The enemies are usually a lot more dangerous than their cute exterior would suggest as well. It feels like it as designed to appeal to everyone, whether you are on old-hand or if this is your first foray into card gaming. It does a great job of welcoming you into the fold instead of scaring you off.
All in all, Slay the Spire is just a brilliant game. It opens its arms to you and holds you close to begin with, then pushes you away and practices throwing cards at you once you have found your footing. It really is a marvel of a genre mash-up and it is thoroughly deserving of your time. Just be prepared to start over and over again – it is a roguelike, after all.
[Reviewed on PC]
Jason is the Editor of The Indie Game Website. He’s a lover of roguelikes, soulslikes, and other kinds of likes. He basically spends a lot of time getting beaten up in games and seems to enjoy it.