Ever since the Dominion turned Magic: the Gathering on its head and got players building decks during the game, designers and developers have been exploring new design space in card games. Given the popularity of both and the advent of digital versions of card games, it’s no surprise to see games like SolForge and Hearthstone using digital space to do things to cards that can’t easily be done in real life. Slay the Spire, much like the recent SteamWorld Quest, turns deckbuilding into the basis for a game that’s more video game than card game. Here, deckbuilding is mashed up with a roguelike, where players do “runs through a 3-level dungeon. Do deckbuilding and roguelikes go together like peanut butter and jelly, or like oil and water? Let’s find out!
Violence: The game is mostly about fighting monsters in dungeons, so violence is prevalent. While damage is mostly represented through numbers, there is enough blood to warrant a Blood and a Violence indicator from the ESRB as well as a “T” rating.
Sexuality: I did not see any, but the game is randomly generated, so I cannot definitely say there is absolutely none.
Language: Likewise, I personally did not encounter any language, although certain aspects of the story and card names are rather dark.
Spirituality: A few of the special encounters involve praying to gods, dark magic, and so on, although they are by no means the focus of the gameplay and the text is easily skipped.
First off, it’s worth pointing out that deckbuilding and roguelikes have a surprising amount in common. In both systems, players begin every game from scratch and work their way up to a better and better set of capabilities. So it makes sense to simply change the rewards in a roguelike to things that alter your deck used in combat, and this is the natural route that Slay the Spire takes. Players can also get one-time potions and persistent artifacts to use, but it’s mostly about building a deck that has not only strong cards, but cards that work in unison. And finding fun combos that tie everything together is just as joyous in Slay the Spire as it is in Star Realms or Dominion.
The reason deckbuilding is so fun here is because of its trust in the player. I was unimpressed with the lack of true customization in SteamWorld Quest, the other recent deckbuilding video game, and Slay the Spire proves my point. Players can remove cards from their deck, upgrade them, change their deck contents mid-combat, and much more. The amount of customization is insanely high, and definitely in the spirit of a roguelike. The game shows its trust in the player’s ability by being considerably difficult. You aren’t likely to beat the entire dungeon on your first five or six runs, at least. And while I think the difficult is appropriate, I do have a complaint about it.
I have not played enough roguelikes to know if my complaint is about the entire genre, or Slay the Spire in particular. Here, players improve their runs by getting scores from their runs, which then add up to “unlocks” for that character. New cards are unlocked that can show up in future runs. However, nothing from your actual run – none of your artifacts, or cards in your deck, or potions – are kept from one run to the next. To me, this method of unlocking feels incredibly artificial, and prohibits players from making strong runs early on, as well as prohibiting them from feeling a personal sense of growth.
If I could keep one card or one artifact from each run, I could more systematically create a personal “build,” have more continuity from run to run, and have a stronger sense of accomplishment. Instead, I’m just given a relatively arbitrary score and the promise of maybe some good stuff eventually if I’m lucky. After one run left me with 997/1000 points for the next unlock, I considered starting a run and dying right away just to get the 3 points. Aren’t roguelikes not supposed to promote “save scumming” type behavior? If I was instead getting personalized benefits from each of my runs, I would not have this impulse.
I could also complain about the mediocre graphics and the serviceable but forgettable audio, but I have no real problem with them. They’re functional, and in particular, the GUI allows you to see everything and anything you want to see, which is the important point. This is a game through and through about gameplay, not story (I’m sure there is one…) or looks. The amount of customization permeates every decision: from the rewards, to the paths you take on the overworld map, to the cards you play each turn, every decision is paramount. This is exactly what I enjoy about deckbuilding, and you get it in spades here. You can probably do a complete run in about 10 hours of practice, but I would not be surprised to see people sinking 60-100 hours into this with all of the different characters and builds possible. This is the premier video game for people who like deckbuilding and want it in video game form. It’s also a great way for video gamers to see what the deckbuilding fuss is all about on the tabletop side of gaming. While I would prefer more personalized rewards, that’s a minor blemish on a fantastic game at a very reasonable price tag ($25). I could say more, but I’m going to make another run instead…
Review copy of Slay the Spire was generously provided by Humble Bundle.
The Bottom Line
For deckbuilding and video game mashups, this is as good as it gets.