So here we go again – another week, another card-based indie game. I know we’ve covered a lot of those in the past few months, and it’s only now sinking in just how popular card mechanics have become in games. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends entirely upon your personal taste and the game in question.
This week, the game in question is Slay the Spire, which is currently in “early access.” Normally, I wouldn’t promote an early access game, because it more or less means you’re paying to play an open beta until they decide that the game is “finished,” and that can be anything from months to years. Some games are already rather polished when they hit early access, and Slay the Spire happens to be one of them.
As I mentioned, this is a card-based game, specifically regarding combat. For anyone who’s played Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh!, or Hearthstone, getting the hang of things shouldn’t be difficult. That said, Slay the Spire shares almost nothing in common with the aforementioned games, and if you go in expecting Duels of the Planeswalkers, you will be sorely disappointed. It’s not fair to call Slay the Spire a dumbed-down version of MTG, because that implies it’s of lesser quality, which isn’t the case.
Let’s start at the very beginning. As soon as you open the game, it will give you a few sentences about being in early access, after which you’re taken to a tidy menu screen. You’ll notice from the background alone that the art has that small studio, indie vibe found in games such as Bastion or Braid – that feeling of quality you get from a pair of handmade Italian loafers versus a decent pair of Converse. As you move through the game, you get the sense that the developers really care about it, and I appreciate that.
Next, you’ll enter a name for your profile and select a character for your first run. The Ironclad was the only one available when I started (I managed to unlock The Silent after about an hour), and his starting relic heals him a bit after combat, so no complaints. There is a very brief tutorial the game the will have you read through, and then you’re at the main map.
As far as I can tell, the map is randomly generated every time, as are the various encounters you’ll stumble across. It’s laid out like a bit like a treasure map, with dotted lines connecting encounters, but keep in mind that you can only go up, which means it’s impossible to explore a whole map. You wouldn’t want to, anyway; trust me on this. Any given event could do you in,
even especially when you think you’re doing well. Best to just gun for the boss, really.
Oh, and in case you’re not aware – you will die. A lot. In stupid ways.
From the map, you’ll pick a starting encounter, which will determine the path you begin to take toward the boss. The possible event types include:
- Enemy (combat)
- Elite (harder combat)
- Unknown (text-based event with a choice of some kind)
- Treasure (free stuff!)
- Merchant (not free stuff)
- Rest (heal/upgrade)
Because the map of each area is fully visible from the start, you can plan your route to the top right away. Sometimes you’ll desperately need healing, so making a bee-line toward a rest space is the best option. Other times you’ll want to earn rare cards, so killing Elites will be a better choice.
To give you an idea of what gameplay is like, let me talk you through a combat scenario. Let’s say you’re fighting two monsters of normal difficulty. Five cards will be drawn from your deck to your hand. Each card has an “energy cost,” similar to Hearthstone. Cards allow you to attack, block (create a shield to absorb damage), or do lots of other crazy things. At the beginning of any run, your deck will be exceedingly simple – basic damage and blocking cards will comprise most of your deck. It should be noted that your hand refreshes every round, so don’t worry about saving your cards. Also, block often; healing is infrequent, so you want to mitigate as much damage as possible.
Once you’ve used all your energy, you end your turn and the monsters have a go. They’re not using cards like you, thankfully. While it’s your turn, the game is even nice enough to tell you what each enemy will do next – attacking, blocking, using special abilities, etc. It’ll even tell you how much damage they’re going to do! Because your levels of “block” go away at the start of your next turn, it’s useless to block unless your enemies will be attacking you immediately. Needless to say, paying attention to your enemies’ next actions is crucial to success.
As you get further into each run, you’ll accumulate cards to form a larger and larger deck. For the most part, this is good, as you expand from the super basic deck you began with. Eventually, though, you’ll find that your deck is too large, and you’re not drawing your best cards often enough. There are opportunities through the merchant and Unknown encounters to remove cards from your deck, which can actually cost more than buying a new card. The cards you find will be somewhat randomized, so every play-through will be different. Remember to keep an eye on your deck-build as you go.
In many ways, Slay the Spire is an exceedingly simple game. You can learn the ropes in a few minutes, the graphics aren’t very detailed, and the whole game can be summed up with, “Will I survive the next room?” I love the simplicity, though. Not every game needs to be Dragon Age: Inquisition or Skyrim. Sometimes a straightforward little game like this just hits the spot.
Despite being early access, there is a surprisingly large amount of content available for Slay the Spire. They’ve included one of the most addicting aspects of any game, and that’s unlocking/earning new content as you go. The item system is reminiscent of The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, in that your item collection starts as a list of question marks which are revealed as you find each one during gameplay. Relics are the best, but cards get unlocked as well, and the thrill of seeing my collection grow is enough to keep me coming back for more.
Slay the Spire may still be in development, but aside from a few little things like the third character not being available, you’ll hardly ever notice. There are a lot of little things that made me smile, like when the merchant says, “Stay awhile and listen!” or the way the music/sound effects fade to silence when you alt-tab or click outside the game. I appreciate simplistic, but tasteful, art style. In short, I am thoroughly impressed with a game I expected to be nothing more than a boredom-killer.
At the moment, Slay the Spire is only available on Windows, Linux, and Mac, but I wouldn’t be remotely surprised to find that it’s destined for consoles as well, especially the Nintendo Switch. Current pricing on Steam is $16, but that could very well fluctuate in the coming months. There’s no question that it’s worth the price – I’m fully expecting to sink at least 20 hours into this baby before Far Cry 5 consumes my life.
Have you played Slay the Spire? Perhaps you’ve got opinions on early access games? Share your thoughts in the comments!