I ignored Monster Slayers when it came out in March. Cutsey graphics and too many roguelike elements kept me walking with a level of disdain I learned from my cat when I dare offer kibble instead of Fancy Feast. I noticed it when it seemed like all a Steam friend was playing for a few days. When we chatting next he asked if I’d like to try it out as he had an extra copy. I wasn’t sure, it still looked like the wrong kind of game, but it had caught my friend and he played the sorts of games I enjoy so I said sure.
Should you buy it?
Yes. If you like CCG’s you’ll like it. If you’ve never played a CCG this is about the friendliest introduction I can think of. It’s also a roguelike in the sense that your heroes are meant to die as you bounce off the increasingly difficult dungeons. For CDN$10 you get a ton of gameplay and the design is so efficient and focused that you’ll be able to tell whether you’ll enjoy the rest of the game after the first 10 minutes.
The core game loop couldn’t be simpler. Make a hero from one of six typical fantasy classes. Pick a dungeon and off you go. The presentation and movement scheme bring Darkest Dungeon to mind but the mood is far lighter. Monster Slayers is to Darkest Dungeon as Lego Batman is to Nolan Batman. Most nodes cause conflict and combat is played out in quick deck battles that are thematically appropriate for your class. My Rogue is a squishy, spinning dervish of death while the Knight is a defensive tank. Win and you gain XP, upgrade and carry on. Lose and you perma-die (but get Fame to progress your overall power) and start over.
The thing that makes Monster Slayers so good is how it handles deck building. You start with a basic class appropriate deck and build and refine as you complete the dungeons. Finding a chest gives you a choice of a new card or gold. A healer can either fix you or let you delete a card from your deck. It’s a great mechanic. It takes what is normally a daunting barrier (deck building) and turns it into a series of interesting, impactful decisions throughout your exploring. It enhances both sides of the game and removes impediments to fun.
If you manage to complete all 3 dungeons your hero faces the Harbringer. It took about 8 or 9 playthroughs with the Rogue before I beat him. The game isn’t finished at that point, it’s just getting going. You unlock advanced versions of the 6 classes and open up different game modes.
When I looked up what Survival Mode was I saw screenshots of people playing with advanced cards doing 20x as much damage as I was doing with my boss-beating rogue. If you’re enjoying the game there is a huge amount to progress through. I still have 11 classes to play with and a lot of cards to test.
Exquisite balance keeps the whole thing addictive and satisfyingly frustrating. You never know how designers stumble onto bits of perfect design. Some get lucky, some are naturally gifted and some test and refine until perfection. I suspect large amounts of the last two factors here. My biggest complaint about Steam Tactics, the last game I reviewed, was the uneven balance. I had lots of easy fights, some fights I got demolished in and not enough close thrilling ones. You’ll eventually breeze through the first two dungeons but once you reach the sweet spot you’ll have nailbiters. My favorite was a series of fights ending at a boss with a very damaged rogue and no chance at healing. I had to play defensively for the first time and was surprised at how capable he was. It was a fun lesson to learn.
When you lose it will almost certainly be your own fault. You’ll either lament some earlier choice that now saddles you with an inefficient deck or a combat decision that failed to account for something you should have seen coming. This self improvement loop gets a hook into my brain and I simply must try again with the intention of not making mistakes. It’s far worse than Just One More Turn syndrome – a turn takes a few second. This is Just One More Playthrough Syndrome, a crippling condition that takes at least 40 minutes to abate. Even now, as I’m typing this, I keep glancing around and feel a strange itch in my mouse finger. I want to spin it up and do a quick run so I can unlock my new assassin’s advanced cards.
As a small potential warning – my friend seems to be having a harder time beating the 3rd dungeon than I am. He bought the DLC at the same time as the main game so he’s facing extra monsters and bosses and they’re the ones killing him. It sounds like the balance assumes you’ve already finished the game. I’m not sure but that makes sense from a timing point of view so you might want to play with the plain version for a while first.
Presentation & UI
As you can see from the screen shots, it’s a cute “big head” kind of graphical style. Like Darkest Dungeon (although not to the same masterful extent) they get a lot of mileage out of a handful of animations. Combat effects are quick, bright and cheery. It’s all good. Nothing revolutionary but fun and effective.
Likewise the UI is competent. Maybe slightly lacking in inventory management (which is not a big deal – you do very little equipment shuffling) but perfect where it needs to be. After my first playthrough the game even asked if I wanted to speed up combat animations. It makes me feel like the designers did endless life improvement passes and only stopped once they got to granular details. As an old arrogant fart I appreciate that.
Sound design is also great, particularly your character’s voice. You have a few to choose from for each sex and class and all the ones I tried were funny and not annoying even after repeating lines.
Although the majority of the game is spent in deck combat all the other bits are excellent as well. It’s by now a mantra that interesting decisions make for interesting games and everything here is a tiny, important decision. Gold is scarce so merchants require deliberation. You have to balance long term gains (buying equipment that stays hero to hero) with short term ones (new cards or deleting current ones) that will help you finish the level.
Even something as mundane as camping gives you a tiny mini-game that really tests your discipline and resistance to greed. It just takes a second but it’s never boring or routine the way camping always is (Darkest Dungeon also made camping fun – more good similarities despite the opposite tone and goals of the two games).
Companions are another little morsel that make you think. You have a choice between two and you get another after your first dungeon is completed. They follow your main guy around and provide singular powers usable once every 2 or 3 fights. They’re roughly on par with a good card; every once in a while they’ll save an entire run but for the most part they just give you a little extra punch.
Go Try It
Steam’s 2-hour game time limit on refunds is plenty for this game. Buy it, play it for 20 minutes and you’ll know. If you enjoyed yourself you’ll continue enjoying yourself for many hours more. If you didn’t there’s nothing else in the game that will carry you through. It’s completely open and honest about what it does and the only thing it hides are layers of subtlety. There isn’t a single element I haven’t seen anywhere else but it comes together like a favorite dish spiced in a tasty new way.
I got this game as a gift (not from the developer but from a friend). I completely ignored it when it first came out as something I wouldn’t likely enjoy. While I like TCG’s I don’t like cute, I don’t like repetitive games and I tend to not like roguelikes if they are too much like Rogue (in the move a square at a time sense). I was wrong. This is instantly engaging and highly addictive. I’d venture to say anyone who likes games will be hooked. How long the spell holds will vary but I’m sure you’ll get $10 worth. So, an 80. Just good enough to appeal even to people who don’t usually like the genre but still a small game that focuses on one thing (and does it very well).
I mentioned in my last review how competent and polished indie games have become and this is a very strong example of that. Aside from the graphical limits defined by the indie budgets there is nothing amateurish or self indulgent. When I chatted with my new Steam friend about our shared experience we both commented about how long it’s been since we properly played a AAA game. He couldn’t remember his and mine might have been the last Battlefield. But that’s not because we stopped trying AAA titles. Both of us owned too many games at full $60 retail with an hour or two played that we never came back to. The indies have just been better at engaging.
Even now, when the review is finished and I should move on to a new game I don’t really want to. I want to try the merchant. It’s my friend’s favorite class but before I can unlock it I have to “finish” the game again. You can unlock them all for $2.45 which is a pittance but I’d rather do it the long way. This time with a mage.
Where are the notes?
Um, I didn’t make any. I got the game as a gift so I just opened it up to take a look. Then I played it some more, with the intention of opening up a notes page but then I just kept playing. I thought I’d do fresh notes when I finished the game and started a new class but that didn’t happen either, on account of all the playing.