I feel like roguelike deckbuilders are going to be the new hot genre. I think it makes sense, after the success and popularity of Slay the Spire, that others would come in and try their hand at it. Monster Train gives me severe Slay the Spire vibes while being its own thing entirely. Now, I can’t say for sure that Monster Train is going to be a big deal, but I think it deserves to be.
Monster Train is a deckbuilding roguelike. You play as the forces of hell, attempting to drive a train straight into hell’s heart, carrying a pyre with which to reignite the now frozen core. The only problem is, there are nine circles of hell, and each one is occupied with angelic defenders trying to stop you, and extinguish the pyre carried by your hell train. As long as your pyre burns, your train can keep moving—even if your champion falls. Even though your pyre is not entirely defenseless, you will need to protect it.
To fight into hell’s heart, you’ll have to choose which clan of hell to take into battle. You will usually choose two clans, a primary and secondary. As I mentioned before, there are five clans to choose from: the damage forward Hellhorned, the casting-based Stygian guard, the morsel buffing Umbra, the constantly regrowing Awoken, or the wax legions of the Melting Remnant. Whichever clan you choose as your primary will determine which champion you bring into battle, with the secondary clan potentially bringing all of its units and spells to the fray. Of course, each playthrough the deck you will use, even if you go with the same clans, will end up looking much different—but the fact that you can mix primary and secondary decks together leads to a crazy amount of variation, and some truly gnarly synergy that can absolutely destroy your enemies. If you want the ability to respawn units quickly, but you want the large damage numbers that the Hellhorned provide, you can match them with the Melting Remnant deck. If you like the buffs that the Umbra provides, but prefer the Awoken’s champion, you can totally do that.
On top of the ability to mix and match decks to create crazy combinations and different levels of card synergy, you can upgrade every card at least twice (sometimes more if you have an artifact for it), and some of these upgraded cards are so powerful it feels like you’re cheating—that is, until you meet up with the perfect angelic foil to your great deck. The enemy encounters you meet will be different each run, and depending on luck, you may breeze past them, or end up fighting groups that are perfectly able to defend against even your most powerful cards and combinations.
In Monster Train, unlike Slay the Spire, you don’t just fight a room full of enemies at a time, but waves of them. In fact, the enemy setup is a bit convoluted, and takes some getting used to. Instead of just fighting a single encounter, waves of enemies enter your train, (usually) starting on the bottom level, working their way up to the pyre room at the top of the train. If they reach the pyre, they will fight with it until they are destroyed, or the pyre is. Your goal is to stop them from getting to the pyre room, or slow them down significantly so that your pyre can take them out while suffering minimal damage. You can throw every single unit at your enemies, and as long as the pyre survives, you win. Unfortunately, if you lose a unit while so doing, that unit will be unavailable for the rest of that encounter. Each enemy encounter is capped off with a boss enemy that forces your units to fight until dead, instead of just trading blows. If they finish off the defenders on a floor (or find it defenseless) they will freeze that floor, making it so you can’t deploy units there anymore—until they make it to your pyre. If that happens, it’s usually game over—unless you softened them up enough for your pyre to finish them off.
Your train isn’t just on a single track to the center of hell, there are a few choices you can make along the way. Branching paths will allow you to decide to visit merchants, participate in random events, get new cards, or even duplicate cards—even your most powerful ones. You will pick up powerful artifacts along the way, too, that work similarly to Slay the Spire’s relics—they are items that stay with you, and sometimes significantly change the circumstances of a run. There is a lot of opportunity to mess with your decks between encounters, and you’re encouraged to make your deck as efficient as possible, especially if you want to reignite hell.
Whether you manage to ignite hell’s heart or not, you will make progression after each run. Each clan of hell has a level you can increase, which gains you more cards—with some of the most powerful and fun cards showing up after you have a chance to unlock them. Each clan has ten levels to unlock, and as long as you’re playing as that clan—as your primary or secondary—you will get experience for it.
For even greater difficulties, there are twenty-five covenant levels. The higher the level, the higher the difficulty—similar to Slay the Spire’s ascension system. If you’re not into working your way up the covenant levels, or want a different type of challenge, there are weekly and daily multiplayer challenges. You can play directly in real-time against other players—something I personally haven’t had the chance to test yet– and match yourself against them on a leaderboard.
Monster Train is great. I played it much longer than I needed to for review. It has five champions to choose from, each with a deck that has a unique playstyle—and with the option to choose a second clan to supplement that deck, the number of interesting and fun combinations is staggering. If you’re a fan of the genre, or of Slay the Spire, Monster Train is the train you’ll want to catch.
Monster Train is available tomorrow on Steam.
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