This time last year, when countless great games were coming out, I couldn’t escape Slay the Spire. It had me and it wouldn’t let go. It was so successful at making me want to play forever and ever, that I wondered how long it would be before other games pilfered from it wholesale.
So we come to Monster Train, and – on the face of it – it’s riding on the tracks that Slay the Spire lay before it. It’s a deckbuilder where you’re given a default deck of so-so cards to play with, but you soon win new and better cards that slot into the deck. You take that ever-improving bundle of cards on a rogue-like journey where you hope to keep ahead of the curve and defeat enemies who are also improving. Choose your cards well and your deck kicks into gear, as there are countless combos and synergies, offering you the chance to become completely and utterly unbalanced.
So far, so Slay the Spire, as the above description could apply to both it and Monster Train. It shares the pattern of fighting and then returning to a board game-like map between battles too, as you choose the path you follow. But let’s disconnect the carriages from here on out, because we’re extremely happy to say that Monster Train has an identity of its own.
Monster Train’s setting is the first little joy. Hell has frozen over, and you are on a Snowpiercer-like train that’s heading to its centre. It’s carrying something called the Pyre, the last vestige of old-Hell, and you’re looking to use it to rekindle the world’s fires. In your way are the forces of heaven, winged angels and zealots, who are looking to board the train and destroy the Pyre. If it dies, Hell dies.
There’s something wonderfully contrary about being on the side of the demons, and it means that you get to unleash some outlandish beasts rather than whack them. The enemies are self-righteous dudes with big wings and moustaches, and it’s strangely satisfying to nobble them. Being on a bullet-train in an icy Hell also made the board game bits, where you’re switching railway tracks to take the best approach, more grounded and believable. The art is decent if not earth-shattering, but it all combines to make you feel like you’re on a battle-train, which is – you know – cool.
It’s in the battles themselves that Monster Train feels so different. Instead of a single battlefield, you have four – vertically stacked and with the Pyre at the very top. Enemies board in the bottom carriage, and they move up one carriage at the end of every turn. Several of your cards are monsters, and you can place these monsters in any of the first three carriages (the Pyre carriage is full, and doesn’t have room). There’s a limit to how many of your beasts can be added to each carriage, denoted by little interface pips, so you’re strategising about the best fellowships of monsters.
The idea borrows a little from Tower Defense games, as you’re effectively creating and upgrading towers in anticipation of waves of enemies and, ultimately, a boss who comes at the end. It’s a fusion that works brilliantly. You might want to soften up enemies in the opening carriages with debuffs, but then slice them up in the latter carriages, or you want to batter them in the opening carriage and let your weaker units mop up the rest. Most games of this type have limited scope for where you can place an enemy, and what impact that placement has; in Monster Train, placement is everything.
Other, similar games also give you the same decks every time, or a basic few decks, to start each run with. Monster Train makes sure that every single run feels utterly, bewilderingly different. First you choose your Primary Clan, which makes up two-thirds of the deck’s identity. Then you choose the Allied Clan, which fills in the final third. Then it’s on to your choice of Champion. Each Primary Clan has two choices for a Champion (the second is unlocked after progressing the Clan to level 5), and you get to choose from two different flavours of that Champion (you might want to go for a flavour that tramples through opponents, or one that allows for more monsters per floor). After that, you are randomly allocated some starter cards from a pretty big range of starter cards, plus an artefact that acts as a global buff, and you are off.
The degree of opening variety is crazy. Even after dozens of hours of mastering Monster Train, you will still be poring over your initial setup to see what strategy is best exploring. There is no chance that you can come into a run with a preconceived notion of what your deck’s going to do – Monster Train will pull the rug from you and fail you hard.
If there’s a criticism, this variability and number of choices makes the opening few hours of Monster Train a mess. You’re thrown a coach-load of options at the very start, before you even know what kind of game Monster Train is, and tutorialisation is relatively light. Even after a few games (and hundreds of hours of experience in the genre), we found that there were so many different variables that we were effectively picking randomly and hoping. Keywords meant nothing yet, new unlocks meant nothing yet, and more besides. When handholds start forming and you get a bit of knowledge, you’ll feel like A Beautiful Mind, computing everything and creating plans, but it’s a trudge to get there, and some won’t bother.
We mentioned Champions earlier, and they form another innovation that works a treat. They overcome one of the biggest downfalls in card games: if Lady Luck doesn’t shine on you, you can have a duff opening hand, and when margins for error are so small that duff opening hand can mean you’re never able to recover. It would have been doubly problematic for Monster Train, as the health of your Pyre is persistent across the entirety of the run, so – like a bad hole on crazy golf – you can be so far behind that you’ll never catch up.
Your Champion is always in your opening hand, and they cost 0 Ember (the ‘mana’ of Monster Train) to play. They’re also hugely beefy, and have game-changing benefits that you can build decks around. They’re the deck’s linchpin, but they also mean that – no matter how bad your opening hand is – you will always have a dominant unit on the battlefield. It’s a simple but brilliant change to the formula, and we suspect that most similar games will follow suit. There’s still a minor issue, in that it kicks the Lady Luck-can further down the road: if you have a bad hand and your Champion ends up dying because they’re exposed, then you are as good as dead. The Champion doesn’t get reshuffled back into your deck, and as so many combos focus on the Champion their absence leaves a hefty vacuum behind them. Champions don’t completely remove the bad luck mitigation, then, but they do mean that you’ll feel kickass at the start of every battle.
Monster Train does such a good job of making each Clan feel so wildly different, and you’ll soon form favourites. Our personal default was the Umbra Clan, and their Venom-meets-Voldo champion Penumbra. The clan relies on ‘Morsels’: tiny creatures that you can spawn in a carriage, and any monsters you’ve placed in the carriage with them will ‘Gorge’ on them, gaining their benefits. Some of the units get additional benefits for eating, so you’ve got this banquet-battle going on in your helltrain (a phrase we likely won’t repeat in a while). The Champion, Penumbra, latches onto this by having perks that allow more monsters in the same carriage, so she can become a hulking glutton powered by morsels, and her Trample ability means that she slams that bulk into every enemy in front of her.
There’s also the Melting Remnant clan, who are all made of wax and burn out in quick order, so you’ll need to make the best use of them while they’re on the field. The Stygian Guard clan are Cthulhu-like beings who like to soften opponents with debuffs and then slam them with damage-dealing spells, while the Awoken clan have an ent-y thing going on, and soak up damage, regenerating themselves and then hitting back with group damage. You can probably sense how some of these synergise with each other as Primary and Allied Clans, and it is absolutely one of Monster Train’s many wonders.
A note on the board game bits – the paths that your train takes before encounters. In Monster Train you are limited to two paths between each encounter, but each path offers you a hamper of amazing benefits that massively improve your deck. Excuse us for invoking Slay the Spire again, but one of its issues was that your deck would only improve incrementally, and runs could last a couple of hours as you fight battle after battle. In Monster Train, there are only ten battles, and your deck will ratchet up in power incredibly between them. You’ll have up to four stops before the next battle, and those stops will include shops to upgrade spells and monsters, health boosts for your Pyre, gold, Champion upgrades, random encounters (all positive) and units. Your deck may be unrecognisable by the time you reach the next battle, and that feels exciting – you’re always eager to see just how much of a glow-up your deck has had.
If you’ve played Slay the Spire as much as we have, then the best way to explain Monster Train is to use a slightly hokey sports analogy: Slay the Spire is cricket to Monster Train’s basketball. Where Slay the Spire is more ponderous, taking you hours per run, it is also slightly more cerebral, as you are making tweaks per battle and honing your strategies until you’re a world beater. Monster Train, on the other hand, is a bombastic thirty minutes per run, compacting everything and making it more exciting. There are pyrotechnics, and everything just feels that little bit more chaotic. The compromise is that slightly more is taken out of your hands, as a single mistake can end an entire run, and your deck changes so much between battles that you’re often hoping it coalesces into something good. You’re riding your luck a little more, and your tastes will differ about whether or not that’s superior or inferior.
But, let’s be honest, why choose between the two games? There’s enough room for both, and while Monster Train may start on the same track as Slay the Spire, it soon takes enough turns that it finds itself somewhere different. For newcomers to the genre, we suspect that the myriad levers to pull and strategies to choose will be off-putting and Monster Train won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But bulldoze past them and keep failing ‘til you start winning, and Monster Train may well be the smartest trip you’ll make for a long time.
It says a lot about a game when writing its review makes us want to close the laptop, boot up the Xbox and return to play it. So it is with Monster Train on Xbox, which chucks out a lot of Slay the Spire’s baggage to create a ride that’s more breakneck and exhilarating. Monster Train is more-ish to the extreme, and we’d worry about our social lives, if there was any social life to be had right now. So buckle in, blast through any initial complications, and you’ll find that Monster Train may be the only game you need to play these holidays.