Here’s the thing about the deck-building genre: They’re all almost exactly the same. It used to be that when Slay the Spire rocked up to the scene with its simple yet deceptively deep mechanics, that it was the only one on the block worth looking at. Yet the longer the genre has been around, the more competitors have raised their heads and almost all of them offer a near identical experience.
Sure, they all have unique hooks and slight gameplay adjustments that set them apart from the others in the same space, but what they all share is a worryingly similar design philosophy. You could say the same thing about any genre, I suppose. Yet something like Battlefield and Call of Duty, two very similar games, play so differently that they differentiate themselves from one another easily.
The issue with deck builders is that they all share such a similar aesthetic and, for want of a better word, “game-feel” that they’re all starting to blend together. At first glance, Monster Train has this exact problem. Its aesthetic is one that is remarkably similar to Slay the Spire, so much so that you’d be forgiven in thinking that it’s some kind of spiritual successor. Yet if you can look past those obvious comparisons, there’s a decent deck-building experience in Monster Train that offers up a lot of content with some excellent tactical depth that has yet to be seen in this genre.
You’re a band of demons, occupying a train running through Hell. It’s not a leisure trip though, as your dark domain has frozen over and you need to reignite the fires below by guarding and transporting the last burning pyre into what remains of the inferno, and essentially turn the heating back on. The forces of heaven will do their best to stop you, but with your arsenal of minions, magics and artefacts, you should hopefully push past their reserves and reclaim your land.
That sounds much more fanciful than the story actually is, because much like most other games in the genre, the narrative is thin at best. Which is fine, the setting of travelling through Hell is a flavour for the tried and tested mechanics of unlocking and improving cards, progressing through a level of enemies and growing stronger as you hone and refine your deck. Standard stuff, yet where Monster Train differentiates itself is within the layout of its battles. With the pyre at the top of your train, you’ll have to manage the enemies advancing up the levels in a bid to destroy it. Placing units on the three floors is the best way to slow down the advance of the enemy, juggling constraints such as how many monsters can exist on a floor at once, how much ember you have to play cards (essentially a mana system) and the individual attacks and health of your units.
If you’ve played a deck-building rogue-like game then you’ve no doubt experienced the core of Monster Train. Yet what sets it apart from others in the genre is the level of moment to moment strategy between the monsters you summon and the spells you cast. Having three separate tiers to focus on, with certain bosses taking advantage of this layered level design by splitting your attention between the levels of your train. While other deck-builders are satisfied with tactics that come from playing hand-to-hand, Monster Train blows it out into to a much broader context. The philosophy of “do your best with what you’ve got” is certainly present, just taking into account the build of your deck as a means to win isn’t enough. Unit placement and management all of sudden becomes something that requires constant focus. This distinction between named units and a massive variety of spells gives the game more of a Collectible Card Game feel, something that automatically makes the experience more personal and addictive as you strive to expand and grow your collection.
Yet perhaps the strongest aspect of Monster Train is how much raw content is under the hood. While all the numbers of cards, artifacts, factions and encounters look great as marketing material, what actually makes a difference is the progression of unlocking all of these items. Deck builders often try to dump as much content on the player as once, with every item in the game being “discoverable” rather than “unlockable”. It’s a big difference as discovering something never feels quite as good as progressing through the levels and unlocking it. That’s where Monster Train feels like a more engaging experience than other deck-builders, gating off content in a way that’s satisfying to progress through. There are five different factions, each with unlockable artifacts and cards to progress through. Sure, you actually getting those cards in a run is totally random but just knowing that there’s a chance of something new is fun! You can argue that something new can also always be discovered but you never worked for that.
Monster Train’s biggest weakness is its presentation, incorporating animations and sound effects that don’t necessarily hit as much as they miss. There’s something…cheap to the game’s presentation which turned me off, like the animation was ripped out of an early 2000’s Nickelodeon cartoon. Its saving grace is that the unit design is, generally speaking, “cool”. All the factions also play fundamentally different and the ability to bring in a secondary faction to enhance the original’s deck means that there are arguably more options for diverse interactions and replayability than any other deck-builder on the market. After logging more than two dozen hours inside of it, the different primary and secondary deck combinations never yielded the same strategies. As someone who’s played loads of these kinds of games, it’s refreshing to have true variety within a deck-builder, something that is often lauded as a feature but never lives up to the promise.
Yet this variety of in mechanics and unlockable items is also a bit of a slip-up for Monster Train, as it fails to effectively communicate the meaning behind many of the status effects behind the playable cards. While a handy pop-up does explain what everything on a card does in context to the actual game, it’s often difficult to parse what all of that information means when you’re in the heat of the moment. This flaw isn’t helped by the naming conventions, which often do not give a decent hint to any actual meaning. It’s a small issue, I know, but with every faction having specific cards with unique values, it can often be difficult to keep track of what they all do outside of the starter Hellhorned class, easily the most basic (and fun).
There are plenty of deck-builders floating around the Internet right now, coasting on the seemingly simple design philosophy of the breakout success that was Slay the Spire. Most of these have been…not great, failing to develop or elaborate on the sneakily intricate mechanics of Slay the Spire. Monster Train, while borrowing many ideas from the aforementioned Grand-Daddy, implements enough new ideas, mechanics and design elements that ensures it not only stands up to comparison with more established games in the genre but often surpasses them and delivers an experience that feels continually fresh. Monster Train isn’t just a great deck-builder but a fantastic rogue-like in it’s own right.
A staggering amount of content, variety and tactical depth makes Monster Train a must-play for fans of the deck-building genre, despite it struggling to explain its dense collection of mechanics and often lacklustre presentation.
Last Updated: May 28, 2020