What a time it is to be a card game geek. As someone who’s pumped more cash and time into games like Magic: The Gathering than we’d care to admit, it’s exciting (and cheaper) to see them hitting the Xbox. In particular, games like Slay the Spire have opened the door for a new-ish brand of card game called the deckbuilder, where you incrementally improve a deck of cards as you play. In the past year, we have had Signs of the Sojourner, Fights in Tight Spaces, Monster Train and Nowhere Prophet in the subgenre alone.
But if there’s a fault of the deckbuilder, it’s unfriendliness. Almost all of the examples we’ve given double down on the nerdiness and complexity. They’re dense with demons and dragons, and have more keywords than a casual player would care to memorise. It’s a failing that Rise of the Slime and its sole creator, Bunkovsky, are acutely aware of. Rather than out-strategise Slay the Spire, Rise of the Slime is concerned with simplifying the recipe and opening the door wider to different players.
You play as a slime, employed to rid the kingdom of enemies. All of the characters are lollipop stick-puppets in a cardboard theatre. It does a great job of layering on character and friendliness: no tentacled blobs from alternate dimensions here. The side effect is it has trouble conveying bigger threats, as bosses look similar to the run-of-the-mill enemies, but you can brush that off. Generally it’s all very lovely.
Also appealing (and original) is that Rise of the Slime wants you to actually be in control and, you know, play. We’re used to tapping away on interfaces or moving pieces on maps in this kind of game, but Rise of the Slime presents itself as a side-scrolling adventure game. You move left-to-right, and you’re commonly opening chests, smashing urns and manually crossing paths with enemies. More rarely, you will channel your inner-Indiana Jones and clear rooms with spike traps or falling boulders. Get hit, and your life takes a dink, just when you didn’t want it to.
It feels good to have full control over your character, and it creates a sense of place that a top-down map never can. But while it offers up a smidge of originality, it could have amounted to so much more. Rise of the Slime never fully commits to the side-scrolling, and mostly presents you with shops, life-fountains and battles that require you to trundle up and press the A button, before moving on. Even the trap rooms, which sound exciting on paper, are burdened with cumbersome controls and design (most of the damage you take will be friendly fire, as you step on unavoidable obstacles from an earlier battle, or you accidentally hit yourself with an urn). It’s easy to imagine a more playful set of levels, leaning into the action, and it would have claimed the originality that it’s so clearly aiming for.
Movement is also present in the battles. Rather than just playing cards, the placement of your Slime is a thing: you can move your Slime, getting double damage for backstabbing your enemies from behind, or switching places with an enemy so that they belly-flop into poison or fire. You get a guaranteed movement card every turn, but it costs one mana, so you’ll be weighing up the opportunities it offers.
It kind of works, and it’s welcome at first, adding a layer of strategy. Plus, it sits comfortably alongside the side-scrolling identity of Rise of the Slime. But it quickly becomes one-note. It’s mostly down to Rise of the Slime failing to commit to the idea. We only found a couple of cards that offered different moves, so you’re not exactly parkour-ing everywhere. Most decks are built around damage over time, rather than direct attacks (more on that in a mo), so positioning becomes redundant. And you quickly stop using movement to avoid things: levels become swimming pools full of poison and fire, so there’s no good spot to stand. Once our decks became efficient, we only used movement in the first few turns, when our deck was at its most vulnerable. That was to run away and hide, so enemies couldn’t attack us, which is probably not how Bunkovsky intended us to use it.
The side-scrolling and movement could have been Rise of the Slime’s trump cards, so it’s a shame to see them land limply. They don’t damage the experience, but they certainly don’t add much either.
That’s not to say that Rise of the Slime is worth avoiding; not by a stretch. While the innovations don’t leave a lasting impression, the conventional deckbuilding and battling is good, if familiar. You’re given a fresh hand every turn, and three mana to spend on cards. The choice is between attack or defence, and you’ll be reacting to symbols above your enemies’ heads, as they indicate the moves they make. If they’re planning defensive moves, you’re safe to all-out attack, or even move to their rear for some backstabbing. If they’re attacking, you might want to hunker down with some defensive moves. It’s all very Slay the Spire.
There are four flavours of deck to choose from at the start: basic, poison, fire or random, with the latter grabbing a selection of cards from across the game (we never had success with a random deck, so good luck there). Then, you are adding to the deck after each battle with your spoils of war, and buying, upgrading or removing cards at shops. The decks themselves are fine, but nowhere near as varied as its celebrated peers. It’s slightly bemusing that both fire and poison decks are built around damaging over time, which only stirs the decks together into a homogenous slime. There are other ways to win, like increasing your Strength or moving damage stacks from yourself to others, but they’re harder to pull off, and we found ourselves bungeeing back to damage-over-time decks because of the sheer number of cards that push that strategy.
But what makes Rise of the Slime shine is the pets. You get one at the start of a run, and they act passively every turn. They might give you a little extra defence, or chuck some poison at the front enemy, meaning you get a free handout. But as the runs go on, you might encounter mutators or spells that increase your pet limit, allowing multiple at once, and upgrades that improve them. This is when Rise of the Slime gets pyrotechnic, as the pets do a lot of the heavy-lifting, making you a powerhouse without having played a card. We had great fun tinkering with the pets, even if there were only four or five of them, and we’d have loved to have seen more.
But these are mostly all frills on the core experiences. The cards are good, and the decks are fun. There are opportunities for imbalance everywhere, which is what you want from this kind of game, as you pull off combos that make you effectively untouchable. The engine cranks into gear, you get the cards you need, multiple pets hovering above your head, and you churn through battles without a concern about losing. We’d have paid good money to speed things up – runs often took a couple of hours, particularly on the longer Challenge and Old Path modes – but Rise of the Slime nails the basics.
So we come to the final asterisk: longevity. Having reached the end a couple of times on Old Path (the closest to a campaign) and maxed out on several runs of Short Mode (a more rogue-like and harder interpretation), we didn’t have that hunger to play again that comes with the genre. A lot of that’s to do with the lack of things to unlock – you get pretty much everything from the off – but it’s also because of the more limited card set, and the similar decks. It’s best to treat Rise of the Slime as a one-off distraction from better deckbuilders, rather than something that will eat your free time.
It’s an unusual take-away from a game that aims to revolutionise the deckbuilder and bring it to a new audience: Rise of the Slime doesn’t actually revolutionise anything, and it’s not doing much for a new audience. The innovations are all throwaway and never properly embraced, with the best elements of the game all available elsewhere. It may look simpler than your average Xbox card game, but it’s perhaps even more complicated, thanks to its movement mechanics, so we couldn’t make a case for it being an entry-level deckbuilder.
It’s when you revise the pitch that Rise of the Slime becomes more of a recommendation. If you’re a deckbuilder convert who is looking for a fun distraction, a throwaway riff on your favourites, then you could do much worse. Rise of the Slime has some quirks in the side-scrolling and character movement, and just enough newness in the pet system. Just don’t be fooled by the presentation: it may look like this slime has its own personality, but most of it has been absorbed from other games.
You can buy Rise of the Slime from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S