Game review: Slay The Spire on PS4 is the card game of the year
The PC indie hit comes to PlayStation 4, with a highly addictive mix of deck-building card game and dungeon-crawling roguelike.
It must be awful for an indie developer to spend months and years of their time creating a game with too little money and too few resources, only to find that when it’s eventually finished nobody even notices that it came out. Dozens of indie games are released every week and when Slay The Spire first launched on PC it went completely ignored by everyone. Then, a little while later, it sold over a million copies.
It’s not hard to see why the game was initially ignored. The artwork looks like it’s been drawn by a (reasonably talented) teenager and the combination of roguelike and card game seems like a dubious mix, likely only to appeal to hardcore fans. But while there is a lot to get you head around when you first start, Slay The Spire is actually very accessible and extremely entertaining even if you don’t usually like either of the individual genres.
The structure of the game is fairly standard for a fantasy-themed roguelike, as you try to make your way up through the floors of the titular spire, fighting randomised enemies along the way and defeating bosses at the end of each floor. Getting to the end doesn’t take more than an hour if everything goes right, but it never does and that’s where the fun begins…
Resolving turn-based combat using cards is not a particularly novel concept in itself – SteamWorld Quest was one of the more recent examples to use it – and Slay The Spire works in a similar manner, except that it’s only you that’s actually using cards and the monsters you face are more like standard role-playing opponents. Each turn you get dealt a new hand of cards, and three energy points, enabling you to play whichever ones you want as long as you have enough energy to power them.
The cards themselves are largely as you would expect, with a mix of straightforward attack and defence cards, and those that either buff your character or debuff your opponent. There is, perhaps, a little too much emphasis put on fighting a defensive battle but the good thing about the different characters is that their cards are very different and trying to set-up some of the more OTT combos is both exciting in the build-up and hugely satisfying when you pull it off.
All the cards are very well designed and balanced but the other great pleasure of Slay The Spire is not so much the combat itself but, literally, dealing with the cards you’re dealt. Since you never know what cards or relics (also assigned at random and imbued with a wide range of different special abilities) you’re going to start a game with you have to adapt your tactics on the fly and make the best of what might be a bad deal.
In some ways, the worse the deck you’re lumbered with the more exciting the game is, as having less than ideal cards really tests your knowledge and skill with the game. And rather than just spamming enemies with more powerful combos you have to really work for your victories. Some decks are so bad they really do feel unfair though, and certainly some players will balk at the amount of randomness inherent in most aspects of the game but, well… that’s card games for you.
The enemies you face come from a dizzying array of nerd influences, most obviously Dungeons & Dragons but also everything from H. P. Lovecraft to Douglas Adams. The artwork is unsophisticated but there’s a lot of character to it, matched by a keen sense of humour in the dialogue and written text. The most important aspect of the monster variety though is that they do all play very differently, and it can take several encounters before you get a feel for their abilities and attack styles, even though the game always gives a clue as to what their next move will be.
Defeating an enemy means three new cards to add to your deck, and other assorted loot, while failure means having to restart again from the bottom of the spire – just like a roguelike. That’s also going to frustrate a lot of people, except it doesn’t feel like losing everything and having to start from scratch in a regular video game; instead, it’s more like losing a game of poker and being anxious to use what you’ve learned by immediately starting another game.
There are some things to unlock between goes, even if you fail, including new relics and cards, but mostly it’s just your own personal experience that’s increasing with each game. And if you start to get cocky there’s also a challenge mode that adds restrictions to make your task even harder, as well as daily challenges to measure yourself against other players.
Previously, card-based role-playing games have always been rather niche, but Slay The Spire is so good it could well inspire a whole new sub-genre. Except, one of the best things about the game is how effortless it makes everything seem, when really an awful lot of time and effort was put into balancing (the game was in early access for two years prior to release) and fine-tuning. It’s absolutely paid off though and Slay The Spire will have you a card-carrying member of its fan club in no time.
Slay The Spire
In Short: An excellent mix of turn-based dungeon crawler, roguelike, and card game whose perfectly balanced combat will have you constantly coming back for more.
Pros: Extremely well balanced cards and a wide variety of pleasingly different opponents, both visually and in terms of gameplay. Very accessible, with plenty of unlockables and alternate modes.
Cons: The random aspects can frustrate even committed players when they reach extremes.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Nintendo Switch, and PC
Publisher: Humble Bundle
Release Date: 21st May 2019 (Switch TBC)
Age Rating: 12
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