I’m not quite sure how they did it, but Slay the Spire makes flicking cards at 2D monsters feel as good as letting loose with a flurry of fists in a fighting game. I came to the table expecting tactics, I got tactility on top.
There’s usually a trade we make when choosing turn-based over real time. Delayed satisfaction over immediate thrills. The dramatic fist pump when all the pieces fall into place, vs the constant pumping of our fists into the faces of heavily armored bastards. Take note, fellow clicking-on-things fans: Dropping a row of beefed-up attack cards onto a weakened enemy in Slay the Spire feels both brainy and meaty, like a big brain meat milkshake. This game is crack, is what I’m trying to say. I hope you like crack.
You kick off Slay the Spire by choosing a character. Initially, only the warrior-like Ironclad is available. You’ll unlock a second – the poisonous rogue, Silent – after a few runs of spire slaying.
The Ironclad is your basic Rock Solid Dungeon Lad™. Wears a lot of metal. Hits things hard. Is possibly some kind of bird. All the classics.
The Silent is more of your sneaky, stealthy, offer you a chip then shank you in the leg with a poisoned dagger kind of class. Nice bloke. Both classes play massively differently. Not just from each other, but round to round. I’ll get into all the juicy digital cardboard details in a bit, eager as you must be to taste the juice from this digital cardboard. For now, I’ll just say that the variety on offer between the two classes is massive, and a third is set to arrive with the full release.
Each class has a different starting relic. Relics are (mostly) permanent treasures that bestow your chosen spire lad with various special effects. Get the right combination of cards and relics, and you start to break the game in the most enjoyable ways. The Ironclad starts with Burning Blood, which heals him for a small – but significant in the early game – amount of HP after every battle. Please do not attempt to set your blood on fire with the expectation of medical benefits. Thank you.
The Silent starts with The Ring of The Snake. A classic combination of fantasy-flavored nouns if ever I saw one. This USEFUL ITEM of the COOL ANIMAL THAT SUMS UP THE GENERAL FEEL OF THE CHARACTER allows The Silent to draw two extra cards each round. It’s probably time I explained why that’s good, actually. Deck Building aficionados might want to skim this next paragraph.
You start Slay the Spire with three energy. Each card has an energy cost attached. The core of each deck is made up of cards that do damage, and cards that defend. You draw five cards by default. Unused cards are discarded after the round. Enemies give tells, or ‘intentions’, on their next move, and it’s up to you to decide how to react. You’re often told exactly how much damage an attack will do. If you gain enough block, you cancel out the attack completely. The earliest battles are generally a matter of patience, but as you collect more cards through combat, merchants and treasure chests, Slay the Spire starts to open up.
Any damage you take, you’re stuck with, even when the battle is over. Slay the Spire harnesses the real power of the Roguelike here. You can feel the weight of the whole spire bearing down on each of your choices. With few exceptions – which are fun to discover, so I won’t spoil them here – the health you start with has to last all the way to the top. You sometimes pass by health-restoring bonfires, but not only are they infrequent, choosing to heal means foregoing a powerful upgrade.
It’s all starting to sound very oppressive, and it is, but it’s balanced out by the constant sense of improvement and discovery. Points you collect after each run carry over and unlock new sets of cards and relics to be found. This baked-in progress is nice, but it’s the subtler, personal progress you make that keeps you returning for more. I’m constantly discovering new synergies or more efficient ways to play. Slay the Spire‘s deceptively simple systems hide some serious depth.
The battles themselves are often nail-biting, but the real tension in Slay the Spire is a battle against your own build. As previously mentioned, unused cards at the end of a round are discarded. If you run out of cards in your deck, your discard pile becomes your new one. Early on, when you’re unlikely to have much synergy built up, this doesn’t matter. As you gain more cards and relics that work well together, any weak cards – or even strong cards that don’t play into your build – become dead weights. There are opportunities to get rid of cards, but they’re both rare and expensive. Therefore the earlier you can identify your build and start ignoring irrelevant cards, the better. This desperate hunt for new cards or useful relics as enemies get stronger creates an engaging meta-game that makes every choice in Slay the Spire significant.
Praise the Whale
So, is it perfect? In a word; of course not. Videogames are shitheads, and what one hand giveth, the other taketh awayeth and laugheth in your faceth. For all its tight systems, there’s something about Slay the Spire that feels woefully unfinished. The overall tone of the writing and aesthetic is charming, but flimsy. You’ll encounter a moment of genuinely funny, Pit People esque goofiness, then the game won’t even try for a while. A particularly interesting random encounter might start to give you a sense of a bigger world in the background. The next three will feel lacklustre. These may well be early access issues. The real draw here is the rule set, but it’s hard not to notice that an engaging setting would have lifted Slay the Spire from very good to an absolute classic. The whale is good though. Praise the whale.
Should You Buy It?
It took me a long, long time after I started playing Slay the Spire to come to my senses and drag myself away from the monitor. This deck builder is elegant, deep and very difficult to put down. I’m still discovering new builds, new synergies, and new foes after my 10th hour with the game, and I can’t see myself quitting any time soon. It’s crack, is what I’m trying to say. I hope you like crack.