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Review: Slay the Spire Is a Thrilling Deck-Building Roguelike

There are few greater thrills than discovering a new, powerful combo in Slay the Spire.

4.5
Slay the Spire
Photo: Mega Crit

The Seattle-based Mega Crit’s Slay the Spire is another one of those games, a roguelike that tasks you with trying again and again to reach a particularly difficult outcome, learning as you go. The journey to climb the Spire is long, hard, and just about endless; your progress resets after each defeat in battle, reshuffling monsters, items, and events to provide a freshly randomized start uncluttered with the remains of any prior run. It’s a worn template applied to countless games and genres at this point, notably last year’s Dead Cells. But what sets Slay the Spire apart isn’t just its complex, rewarding card battle system, but how its deck-building reveals the heart of the roguelike subgenre.

As one of three vastly different characters, players make their way from one turn-based encounter to the next. Cards represent the actions of the average role-playing game: attacking, defending, and applying status effects to either enhance player abilities or hinder those of the enemy. The actions available during a turn depend on what cards are drawn and how much energy can be used, from a default of three. In order to attack, you need to have drawn, say, a basic Strike card and spend one of the energy points required to play it. At the end of a turn, you discard whatever remains in your hand, sit through the enemy’s actions, and then your turn begins again, where you refill energy, shed accumulated defense points, and perhaps shuffle and reuse the discard pile if you’ve run out of cards to draw.

Slay the Spire’s hook, and by far its most fascinating feature, is that you build a deck as you progress, starting from a handful of basic cards. Battles, random events, and merchants are all plotted on a map of branching paths reminiscent of FTL: Faster Than Light, and all reward players with more potential cards to add to a growing arsenal. Though the game offers a staggering network of possibilities, those nuances unspool gradually, never overwhelming players with too many complexities, too many cards to consider that supplement too many roles to play. Instead, you take things as they come, developing a strategy scrounged from whatever cards present themselves; for instance, combinations that served you well on a previous run might depend on a rare card that never appears on the next attempt.

The randomly generated nature of roguelikes means that the subgenre runs on the thrill of discovery, and there are few greater thrills than discovering a new, powerful combo in Slay the Spire. But what truly augments that thrill is the game’s willingness to introduce new variables that might upend your play style entirely, making radical revisions to what initially seems like a simple battle system. Items called relics might provide additional energy, guarantee a certain card will appear in your hand at the start of combat, or permanently stop you from discarding your hand at the end of each turn. The basic attack/defense rhythm quickly grows into something more, as players might find themselves discarding half their hands, dealing additional damage with each zero-energy Shiv card they’ve plucked from thin air while designating enemies to explode upon death. Modifiers for daily challenges or custom games might permanently decrease the player’s maximum health after every room or give access to the cards typically only available to the other characters.

But for as much as Slay the Spire is about feeling powerful through near-overpowered combos and realizing that, with the right card or relic, nearly every rule in the game can be altered, it also requires players to recognize their limitations. A large, unwieldy deck might leave combos from the early stages out of reach, as new cards take up valuable real estate in your hand. Disaster awaits when you’re unable to commit to one playstyle because you’re eyeing several others. Just as integral to feeling out new combos is the knowledge of when to stop, when to eschew certain rewards, or outright remove cards from the deck.

Enjoying Slay the Spire doesn’t demand any particular affinity for card games or deck-building, because while it clarifies the appeal of both, the game hinges entirely on roguelike hallmarks: adapting to new circumstances and planning ahead based on knowledge gleaned from prior runs. Deck-building, with its drip feed of new cards and on-the-fly strategizing, becomes the purest expression of the roguelike’s existential core. Stealth games and platformers task players who don’t succeed on the first try with learning level layouts and enemy patterns so that they may overcome challenges that remain the same. A roguelike’s randomization emphasizes that whatever skills and knowledge players gain aren’t necessarily enough, leaving us to plan as best we can for an arbitrary, uncertain, and totally unforgiving future, fumbling in the dark for ways to get the light to burn a little brighter. Perhaps the randomness will buoy you just enough to eke out a victory. Or maybe it will destroy you.

Games like Spelunky, FTL, and The Binding of Isaac provide a highly insulated window into everyday struggle, allowing us to measure whatever knowledge, skill, and stuff we’ve acquired against a potential for ruinous, permadeath defeat. They force us to come to terms again and again with a failure that, while profound, allows us to continue with what we’ve learned, pressing onward into something new, to slay some other Spire.

This game was reviewed using a download code provided by Humble Bundle.

Developer: Mega Crit Publisher: Mega Crit Platform: PC Release Date: January 23, 2019 Buy: Game

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