Slay the Spire | Principal Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Switch, Xbox One | Developer: MegaCrit | Publisher: Humble Bundle | Genre: Roguelike, Card Game | Year: 2019
As I look back on the 175 hours of my life that Slay the Spire has recently consumed, I find myself wondering how it became such a favourite so quickly.
I knew it had earned a reputation since leaving early access in mid 2019, but it only hit me how truly big the game was becoming after browsing Steam that same Christmas. I didn’t think this because of the flowing critical praise, nor the runaway sales performance, nor the overwhelmingly positive reactions from its established fans. The real moment when I guessed Slay the Spire might be something special came after another digital card game appeared on my Steam feed.
I had never heard of this particular title (Steam recommends me obscure card games all the time), but after giving its tiny thumbnails a cursory glance I immediately thought one thing: this is a clone of Slay of the Spire. Could it be that another unassuming indie roguelike could be so popular that other developers were copying it already? And how is it possible for me to make this connection without actually having played Slay the Spire yet?!
I think the truth lies in the presentation. Slay the Spire is a slickly produced game that presents its typically complex (and bone-crushingly hard) genre mashup in a wonderfully user-friendly way. Consider a combination of FTL: Faster Than Light and Hearthstone as the perfect reference point. This is a highly addictive roguelike card game where players must ascend three randomised floors of the titular Spire, battling monsters and drafting cards unique to their chosen character.
The entire premise relies on random elements and agonising turn-based attrition. Slay the Spire is certainly not an easy game because of that, but it couldn’t be easier for new players to jump in and instantly understand the core concepts. More of the initially daunting card collection is gradually unlocked as players earn points, and the design of individual Skills, Attacks and Powers apes the simplistic styling that Hearthstone made popular. Aside from type, cards have an effect and a cost, and that’s pretty much all players need to worry about. Energy to play cards automatically refreshes between rounds, and there is no complex resource management or jargon to distract from battling critters and having a jolly old time.
However, don’t for a second think that this simplicity somehow inhibits players from cultivating unpredictable decks. There are plenty of impressive card combinations to discover in each character’s inventory as well as a suite of neutral cards that compliment many weird and wonderful archetypes. Adding to this craziness is the presence of relics; persistent items that players gain by defeating tough “Elite” enemies or by spending precious gold at shops. I bumbled my way to a victory on my very first climb, in fact, thanks to a rare relic that made random cards in my hand cost zero energy whenever I played a Power. That got out of hand!
From there you have several diverse characters to master, custom gameplay variants full of wacky mutator rules, and an intimidating list of achievements to freshen up your next climb. As you can probably tell, Slay the Spire is a video game of immense replay value, especially for those who enjoy making things harder on themselves. Only the most committed players will clear the upper echelons of Ascension; an advanced gameplay mode that makes climbs progressively tougher by carefully stripping away the player’s advantages, with deadlier enemies and unforgiving modifiers encouraging shrewd card drafting and decision making.
Outside of the harder modes geared towards enthusiast play, Slay the Spire is very user friendly and easy to suss out. There’s a tremendous amount of psychology in the card drafting (seasoned CCG players will feel very comfortable here), but working out what combos work best and which event decisions produce the most favourable results is really all part of the fun, and you don’t need to be a tournament-worthy “Spike/Star” in order to jump in and have a good time doing it.
Like any roguelike, players do need to understand the genre they’re getting involved with. Slay the Spire is heavy on random elements, to the point where many climbs will be doomed by misfortune. Other times you’ll really want to draft a specific deck – maybe that perfect poison build you’ve always wanted for your Silent rogue – only for the game to never offer you the cards needed to make that engine run.
There will be times when you’ll get frustrated. There will be times when your cunning plans get scuppered by an ill-timed event. There will be times when you die in a seemingly unfair way, likely at the hands of those ******* slaver enemies on the second floor!
Unlike some competing titles though, Slay the Spire handles these moments of brutality with grace. Players select a special boon at the start of every fresh climb, and there are relics and card combinations so powerful as to completely turn some games around. Indeed, I experienced one of my earliest successes during a climb that initially seemed like it was doomed. One Toxic Egg and an Apparition event later, I found myself battling bosses with a character that seemed almost invulnerable!
There are three core acts with a random boss waiting at the end of each one. It’s a tough climb for newcomers, but it’s only after beating this setup with every character that a secret fourth act is unlocked. This is very much like the final acts you’ll see elsewhere: one last insanely hard stretch that has seen genre fans match wits with hugely overpowered bosses and other ridiculously unfair albeit satisfying codas.
Crucially, Slay the Spire’s fourth act is always optional. Players must assemble the keys needed to unlock it during play, but for the sake of actually completing your climb, you don’t need to commit to it if you’d rather play a shorter/easier session. The act is a ‘gut check’ that few strategies will be well suited for, so making it an optional challenge – similar to the hidden levels in Spelunky – affords players a much safer space with which to experiment with their crazy deck ideas. It really is an excellent design choice.
There is so much more that I could go into. From the wild deck combinations and potent card play, to the charming presentation and dashes of humour. Ultimately though, some of the best moments in Slay the Spire come from experimentation; something that card games like this are known for, and something that I wouldn’t want to risk spoiling by saying any more!
A modern hybrid of deck-building card games and roguelikes was bound to be an exciting prospect for someone of my tastes. Encouragingly though, it seems that Slay the Spire is already destined to be a hit above and beyond the perceived ceilings of those same genres. That will act as a testament to how utterly brilliant this game truly is.