Platforms: PC (reviewed)
It doesn’t take much time with Good Shepard’s new roguelike deck-building title Monster Train to see that its developers are clearly big fans of Mega Crit Games’ Slay the Spire. Monster Train’s deck construction and RPG mechanics will feel instantly familiar to Slay the Spire players, but that familiarity also cleverly disguises a complex and compelling web of unique gameplay components and ancillary features.
Monster Train can be an overwhelming experience for even the most devoted digital deck-builders, but its tense combat encounters, generous progression mechanics, and deep well of strategy potential make it an absolute must-play for single-player card game enthusiasts.
Highway to Hell
Much as in Slay the Spire, Monster Train involves progressing through a series of randomly-generated combat encounters while navigating a map peppered with equally random assortments of events and deck-modifying opportunities. However, unlike in Slay the Spire where the player controls a single hero and their associated deck of items and spells, Monster Train instead puts them in charge of an entire train’s worth of hellish minions.
Hell has frozen over, you see, as the result of a cataclysmic war with heaven’s angels. The minions of hell seek to relight the heart of their dark realm but to do that they need to transport a powerful artifact called the Pyre while navigating a perilous track that’s infested with heaven’s holy lackeys. During each fresh “run” in Monster Train, the player, acting as the train’s overseer, guides the train along a series of alternating routes before taking the fight to various mini-bosses and bosses at certain checkpoints.
These mini-bosses and bosses all come with their own devious strategies and unique abilities, so it’s up to the player to grow and refine their deck to ensure their hellish minions win the day. When it comes to deck functionality, Monster Train feels less like a hero-based RPG and more like Magic: The Gathering wherein they can play both spells and units in their efforts to guard the train.
There are five “clans” a player can choose from when picking their deck, and these clans are each associated with a specific color and overall strategy (leaning more into the Magic: The Gathering theme). At the start, players only have access to two clans; the Hellhorned (red) and the Awoken (green), but as they complete various meta-objectives across multiple runs they eventually unlock the other three. Since each deck is constructed using two different clans (a primary clan and a secondary clan), there’s a lot of potential for synergy and combos once players start unlocking new clans.
Each clan also has a unique hero unit which further ties into that clan’s overall strategy. The Hellhorned, for example, make use of a powerful warrior called the Hornbreaker Prince who can attack twice in a single turn, complimenting the clan’s direct-assault approach. Of course, in what is perhaps the biggest deviation from Slay the Spire’s combat setup, how many units a player puts out isn’t quite as important as *where* they place those units. In Monster Train, players must manage not just one series of combat encounters at once, but three.
Get On My Level
Every battle in Monster Train is set in a large train car with four stacking levels. On each new turn, a new set of enemies enters the car from the bottommost level, and any enemies who survived the last round move up one level. If an enemy reaches the fourth level where the Pyre is housed, they’ll be able to damage it (though the Pyre’s ability to inflict high-damage counter-attacks means that standard minions likely won’t last long against it). If the Pyre’s health is reduced to zero, the run is over.
This multi-level approach brings additional layers of micro-strategy to Monster Train’s overarching deck-based macro-planning. Each level in the train car can only house a certain number of allied units, so players must carefully decide which cards they play and where during each new turn. The fact that enemies will constantly advance up the levels if left unchecked adds a subtle yet invigorating pressure to each combat round, as does the fact that the player only has a limited amount of “Ember” (i.e. mana) to spend on cards during a turn.
Where the player places their champion unit at the start of the battle can also factor into their eventual victory or defeat. Depending on the specific nature of the enemies they’re facing, it might be better to unleash the champion down on the bottom level to act as a powerful opening salvo. In other cases, it’s better to put the champion up on the third level so they can act as a “final boss” of sorts which must be overcome before enemies can reach the Pyre.
And speaking of bosses, proper boss fights in Monster Train stack on the pressure even more, not only by unleashing their boss-specific abilities during the normal minion vs. minion rounds, but also during the final mano a mano confrontation where the boss slowly moves up from one level to the next. Once a boss in their final form has resolved a level, they freeze it over completely, creating a tense do-or-die final stand where the player must inflict as much damage as they can and hope it’s enough to slay the boss before the Pyre falls.
Granted, players will most likely lose their first dozen or so Monster Train runs, which is totally ok. Playing through multiple runs and learning the nuances of different deck strategies and synergies is part of the fun, and Good Shepard makes sure that fun is constantly bolstered through a generous series of progression features, alternate game modes, and in-game modifiers.
Keep Coming Back
Along with the meta-objectives tied to unlocking other clan decks (which are guaranteed to take a few runs at minimum to complete), Monster Train takes great pains to appeal to virtually every type of deck-builder/roguelike fan. As they work through the game, players will level up clans and unlock new clan-specific cards as well as neutral “clanless” cards to help them further experiment with each clan’s playstyle.
There are also optional combat-based trails that buff a single encounter’s enemies in exchange for a powerful reward (assuming the player survives). Later on, a ‘Covenant Rank’ meta-progression system slowly turns up the proverbial heat even more, providing a well-balanced difficulty curve for players to work through. Players who want to really push themselves (or just go a little nuts with the rules) can also participate in daily and custom challenges, and there’s even a competitive multiplayer mode called Hell Rush where eight players see who can best master a pre-set scenario of cards and enemies.
Again, Monster Train can admittedly be a little much to take in at first, especially for those who are brand new to the roguelike deck-builder genre. However, there’s so much content baked into the game and so much potential for replay value thanks to its randomized components that players who stick with it are absolutely guaranteed to get their money’s worth. Plus, the sheer thrill of executing a perfect card-play combo or winning a tough boss encounter by the skin of your teeth makes for a game that wholly embraces the “just one more run” mantra and then some.