Played on Windows
Also available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, macOS systems, and Linux
Slay the Spire is a unique game, it combines rogue-lite experiences with a repetitive and randomized dungeon, along with the ideas of deckbuilding which are popular in some Euro board games. It can be somewhat similar to Dominion, while still retaining a dungeon crawler and succeeds at getting the feeling to combine into a unique game.
Admittedly, I’m covering Slay the Spire today, because of it being part of the Humble Monthly Bundle for September 2019. It’s the only game I’ll be reviewing this month, as I’m passing on Squad, but it’s also a game that’s been on my wishlist pretty much since it launched. It’s been more about time than interest for it, and I’m glad I finally have a reason to put it at the top of my list.
Slay the Spire looks nice, it’s got a lovely aesthetic to it as the player climbs many levels in the dungeons. Admittedly, the map feels more like an adventure through a town as a straight map, versus climbing a tower, but that’s not a major problem.
Much of the game itself is a little plain. Players will attempt to climb the spire and run into various enemies at each level. The player’s character and enemies look fine, however, they don’t stand out. I believe this is likely by design.
Much of the game is focused on the lower half of the screen, where the player has to pick different cards from their current hand and use them to either protect the player from damage or injure the opponents. Having a large distracting background to this would take something important away from the game.
So many cards to choose from in this run.
At the same time, after three or four runs, players will start seeing the same enemies every time, and there are very few unique or new enemies as the player goes on, so ultimately the graphics for the Slay the Spire fade into the background. The information is clear and useful, it’s just not treated as a major feature.
Yet, the cards look beautiful. Every card feels unique and interesting, and when I find a new card, I love looking it over and thinking about what I can do with it, imagining the scene playing out on it as part of the battle. The fact that every card can be uniquely identified at a glance from the images is well done as well.
While the game may tell you what attack or ability is coming from enemies, for the most part, this is just an indicator, and the enemies aren’t visually prepping for different attacks. Similarly, while many attacks are different only a couple look different, even having a shield, or spikes makes the player or enemies look the same, and I almost wish there was just a touch more style included here. It’s not awful, but the graphics don’t stand out as much.
Similarly, there’s not a strong story included here. There’s a spire, players will attempt to “slay it” (or at least just climb it). There’s some minor lore involved with the game, as well as a strange god-like creature that will grant a reward to a player, but I would say the story of Slay the Spire is not a major part of it.
This is the ONE story based event.
There is one special event that does start to add more backstory into the game, and it does a good job, but ultimately it’s not going to change the game, and while it does explain one character, it’s not enough to call it a full story.
Ultimately, Slay the Spire is a game in the same vein as Nethack, Rogue Legacy, or The Binding of Isaac where the repetition of the experience is the goal, and as such the story falls as a victim. There are hints of lore, but the focus is on the gameplay.
Slay the Spire seems like a simple idea for a game at first. Players enter the dungeon and fight different monsters with their cards from their deck. When they run out of cards they can just shuffle their discard pile and continue playing. Once they beat each enemy, they’re able to gather their spoilers, which is a small amount of gold, and a choice of one of three cards that will be added to their deck.
There are three main characters in the game, the Ironclad, the Silent and the Defect, each one is a unique character, and from this, they each have their own deck, red, blue and green cards. That means they will only be offered cards from their type, and that means each character will play very differently.
The Ironclad will work more with defense and offense. Focusing more on overwhelming the enemies attack or defense multiple times. At the same time, the Silent tends to focus more on poison, multiple cards, or even using multiple weaker attacks each turn. Finally, the Defect is more of a spell caster, as he will channel orbs, and then use those orbs to attack rather than doing direct damage himself.
All three characters are unique in their style and each character’s deck will always feel different because they are all made with different pieces. Even the initial decks each character starts may have similar basic cards, but each is unique to their character.
The character’s deck will continue to grow after each enemy but the next enemy they encounter will result in them being able to use their new cards, and players will rinse and repeat this process throughout the dungeon as they tackle each enemy.
Over a single run, players can run into normal enemies, elite enemies, special event, chests, campfires and of course bosses, and navigating a randomized map that leads the player through the spire will force them to decide which path is best for them.
While the normal enemies and elite enemies encounters make sense, with the latter being far stronger enemies, with lucrative rewards in the form of more powerful cards and relics, which are devices that will give the player a permanent boost of some sort, from giving a defense to certain special attacks, or giving every 10th attack double damage.
Similarly, chests spots on the map will give relics as well, though they may come from a separate pool, each one should be an improvement to normal players, though players are never required to take any rewards in the game.
That’s one of the big strategies for Slay the Spire. New players will see the wealth of cards on offer and gobble as many cards as they can into their deck. This may sound fun but the problem is this starts to produce a bloated deck, and while players might find ways to win with such a deck, a better strategy is to have a nice tight deck that you can consistently pull the cards you want out of.
After a major battle you’ll be offered a ton of different loot.
It’s strategies like this that evolve over multiple playthroughs where players can feel why they failed a specific run, though at the beginning this can be the most confusing as there’s a huge number of bad habits that players will have to understand and avoid. But after a few failures, players will start being able to identify these mistakes. There’s a point where much of Slay the Spire becomes second nature, and the only real focus is on avoiding grabbing a card because you want it, rather than require it. In most of my runs, I can usually point to a couple of actions or a strategy that I regret in hindsight.
The strength or flow of a deck will be tested by many of the enemies on each of three maps called Acts, and each act will end with a final boss. Each act has a set of three possible bosses, but they all can be extremely challenging and it’ll take a solid deck to tackle any of them. The enemies aren’t given too much more power but it’s more the level of damage they can deliver, the abilities they might deploy, and other minor tricks they might have.
At the same time, much of the game is gaining the necessary cards, deck, and relics to beat each boss to move on to the next chapter. It becomes a race, as the player has to continually move forward towards the inevitable boss, so eventually, they will be forced to see how well their strategy has worked.
Each boss plays a little differently, and each act has much harder challenges, but worth challenging.
Similar to the difference in rewards from regular enemies and elite enemies, bosses produce some of the most powerful cards in the game, as well as a choice from one of three “Boss” relics, which give unparalleled power which helps players grow their deck even more.
Yet, there is one thing that seems to get in the way of a successful run more than anything, and it’s the make or break part of Slay the Spire. The biggest enemy you’ll find is the random number generator. This is usually the way of Roguelites, as you’ll often find differing dungeons and sometimes different challenges based on just the way a random number is made.
I feel this is one of the serious issues with Slay the Spire. While there might be some dungeons that are impossible in Nethack, there isn’t a huge difference in difficulty for the most part. Getting the right item is important, but there are so many chances to get those special items on those runs. Players can dive to the lower floors and should eventually get their kit together by the time they need it.
Slay the Spire has a decent number of attempts to get the right deck or card, a big question will be how many enemies players face versus encounters, shops, campfires and the rest. Still, I’ve found the game to be inconsistent in its rewards. As the “Silent” character, one of the critical cards for a good run is “Footwork” which improves a players dexterity that greatly increases the level of defense (damage mitigation), and yet I rarely see that card.
What’s worse is that it’s very easy to lose a run due to making a bad guess. If you are playing as the first class in the game, Ironclad, you might build for a strong defense or a strong offense, but many of these builds revolve around a specific card. If you get a key card, it’s sometimes safe to build in that direction, but the problem comes in that you usually will need some form of synergy.
A perfect example of this issue is with my favorite card from the Silent(green) deck which is Footwork which I mentioned earlier. I would pick up this card every time I see it, I even ran a game where I got two or three copies and was near unstoppable, that was a good run. The problem is the last ten runs before writing this review I never saw a copy of Footwork for Silent, and sadly that means if I was holding out for that strategy I was left lacking.
Similarly, with Silent, I enjoy running Noxious Fumes, a poison-based card, but I’ve had entire runs where I am ready for that card to drop and it never does. Instead, I’m left losing, wondering if a different strategy could have worked, but the problem is I didn’t have time or an ability to collect a different strategy until it was too late, and by that time I had passed on several valuable cards from other strategies.
Glorious little Silent, pulling so much of his deck in a single turn.
Though after writing this piece (but before editing it) I hit a Silent run with two Noxious Fumes, multiple other poison cards, two catalysts, that double or triple poison damage, and a footwork card, that I cherished. That run became almost simple to win, but the fact is, it’s more that I was lucky to get the cards I wanted, rather than just skill.
Top players say they can mitigate this or build to any offered cards, but I question that. I feel that’s a bit of confirmation bias. They remember when they did avoid a bad RNG death, but ignore when they just gave up on a run because they couldn’t get the right cards.
I like the randomness of Slay the Spire, but the problem is now that I’ve gotten better, reaching the second or third act has become easier, but I find that I’m still not able to build the deck I want to build on command, likely by design, but I think that holds Slay the Spire back from being a really amazing game. Admittedly that would weaken the roguelike aspects of Slay the Spire, but it also would let players feel that they could build towards a specific strength or target the deck of their dreams earlier.
There’s more of course with Slay the spire, there are actually quite a few surprises including a system for more difficult runs, and I’ll be honest, I haven’t fully gotten far enough for that mode to really discuss it, though I like what I’ve seen so far, in addition, there’s a way to change the ending and… similarly, I’ve yet to break into that area of the game.
Progression unlocks major cards and relics but there’s little reason to holding them back.
But there’s one thing I’ve found. I keep wanting to return to Slay the Spire, unlike many rogue-like games I still haven’t gotten tired of this game. One of the reasons is that a bad run can be relatively fast, and even a good run will struggle to last more than an hour or two. Playing for just 30 minutes will at least give you an idea where the run may end, and that’s entertaining. This is a game I’m sure I’ll keep installed after this review just to play one more game.
The three classes help keep me interested. Many games try this and admittedly it’s not the best idea when it might take over 10 hours to play through a game or more, but being able to switch between three very different characters on a short game works well. The other big piece is that these are different characters. While there are some untyped cards all characters can get, the majority of the valuable cards are from each class, so that Footwork I loved for Silent, would be powerful for either other class, but is unavailable.
There is a progression system that is the biggest thing that keeps this from being a true roguelike game, where each run earns “XP” or “points” and after a certain amount of another tier of items unlocks, giving three new relics, or three new cards or similar. These unlocks are some very powerful cards, and honestly, I wish the game offered them in the first run, but it also gives players a feeling of getting a little more powerful each upgrade. Though I don’t think the level system is as necessary for this game.
Still, there’s one thing that I feel I should mention. When I was getting ready to write this review I felt I understood almost everything in Slay the Spire, but there was still one more thing to talk about. Slay the Spire has mods and that might be expected, however, I’ve been kind of impressed by the level of mods. I won’t talk about too many of them, but the big one I found interesting was a Yu-Gi-Oh mod.
This felt amazing to play, and different from the base game. There’s a lot of potential in mods.
This might not sound amazing and may not look amazing in the screenshots, but this is far more than just adding a Yu-Gi-Oh character sprite to the game. Instead, this is a major modification, where not only is the character different, but there are all new cards. This is a new deck, and several Yu-Gi-Oh decks are recreated here. There is a summoning and tribute system that was never in the game before. Some summonable “Orbs” that are different than the orb system of the Defect, and a lot of new status effects and more unique to this card set.
It’s hardly the only major conversion, there’s everything from a witch that bases her gameplay on the curse cards, that are normally considered a negative to a mod where you play as one of the bosses, the slime. Not every mod will be as in-depth or well thought out like these, but the fact that there’s so many full conversions, I have to say that if somehow you get bored of playing the base game, you’ll still find ways to enjoy yourself with the mod support added here.
And if somehow unlimited mods aren’t enough, there is a fourth official character entering beta next month, so there will be even more official content coming, which is incredible for a two-year-old game.
Slay the Spire is what it says on the tin, it’s a rogue-lite Deckbuilder. If those words interest you or even excite you, this is an easy purchase, but even if it doesn’t, this is more of an adventure than I imagined. The experience here is well done and the repetition is fast enough that you never feel too invested in a single run. It’s a problem I have had with a few rogue-lites that there’s a particularly deep run and I stopped playing for a while after those runs, but in Slay the Spire, the deepest run I have had was probably between 90 minutes to two hours, and that’s for a complete victory run. There’s not a heavy investment so you’re able to duck back in for “one more attempt” and not feel bad about it.
Yes the RNG system is a little harsh, and I admit I’m not sold on that one piece, but there’s enough other stuff in this game to keep you coming back. I’ve held off about talking about many pieces that unlock after multiple playthroughs so if you’re interested, check it out yourself.
I give Slay the Spire a
Final thoughts: A very solid deckbuilder coupled with a slick rogue-lite. Together they make an addictive combo that I keep finding myself pulled to for “just one more run”. It’s quite entertaining.
Stats: 21.6 hours played so far, 17/44 achievements earned