Back in the 90’s, one of the more accessible resources for delving into fantastic realms was trading card games, specifically Magic: The Gathering, among others. One could marvel at the artwork, creatures, and actions depicted on these cards, but they could also craft them into devious decks highlighting certain themes. This was one of this reviewer’s earlier passions, though I also experienced a resurgence in interest during my years at college, when vampires, werewolves, and zombies were all the rage in Innistrad. The experience of buying a booster pack of MtG cards was always a thrill- though there was a level of predictability in the wave of cards on the shelf, as well as the distribution of rarity within the pack itself, you never truly knew what you were going to get, or if it would even synergize well with what you currently own. One might say it was the excitement of the unexpected.
My MtG days gradually evolved into browsing TappedOut and ordering what cards suited my tastes, and the thrill of randomized loot vanished. It might be surprising to hear that, until I started playing roguelikes in earnest on the Switch, I was a bit skeptical of the concept. After all, I was something of a low-tech roguelike fan, myself. But I’ve since come to acknowledge the appeal of the genre, and sink way more time into a few games than I probably should. So when an indie darling and successful card-based title like Slay the Spire made its way to the Switch, I had to take up arms and join the quest myself. Will you find yourself having a slayful time on Nintendo’s latest hardware? Read on and find out.
Slay the Spire starts with a single playable character, though completing- or failing- a single run with the Ironclad will allow access to the Silent and the Defect. Each of these characters has their own starting deck, consisting of 10 cards, and must complete three acts of various enemy and event encounters in order to get to the point where they can say they’ve slain the spire (or tried, at least). Upon starting a game, you’ll see a scroll laid out that details all the routes to the boss waiting at the end of the act. Some of these routes interlink, some are separate, but all feature a variety of enemy, elite, random, shop, and campfire encounter points. While random encounters can be any of the other variety, each encounter that is labeled guarantees an engagement with one of the aforementioned fights, although there can sometimes be a “mixed” encounter with a variation of an elite battle that mixes in normal enemies. Once you’ve picked a route, you’ll need to complete all the subsequent encounters on that path. It’s fairly straightforward, but the decision-making often comes during each event, as well as after some of them as well.
Every type of encounter featured in Slay the Spire offers the player a choice- whether they are dialogue trees with risk and reward options, shops with high prices that only allow for a few choice services, or the tense decision-making present in combat. There are thousands of randomized scenarios that could result in a variety of builds for each character, and because of that, each choice does carry a degree of weight that might feel a bit disproportionate, due to the pacing of the game. You may find your run ending rather early due to a poor distribution of resources, though this also might be a result of attempting to acquire too much. There is also often the opportunity to forego picking up an item, which is just as sound, and perhaps strategic, as adding more to your cache. But, we’ll get to that in a second.
Encounters are slightly randomized, with certain kinds of enemies appearing in specific acts, as are elite battles, which act as mini-bosses with more intense abilities. During combat, you’ll draw five cards as a starting hand and a number based on your energy count for each subsequent turn. Energy is mana, and though you’ll start with five cards, you may only be able to play one or two in a single turn. Cards usually range from costing zero to three energy, with some exceptions on the higher end of things, and are divided into three groups: attacks, skills, and powers. Attacks are just that, dealing damage and often debuffs, while skills can range from defense-oriented to draw-based abilities. Powers, on the other hand, are single use cards that apply buffs that last through combat, and are often extremely powerful. Cards can possess a number of unique mechanics, such as exhaust or ethereal, which cause them to vanish from a deck if used or unused respectively, or retain, which allows you to keep a card in your hand after your turn ends, as extras are always discarded.
Other times, they can grant powerful debuffs like scorch, poison, or weak. When using a skill that adds defense, the number acts as an armor-like buffer for HP, stopping damage that is less-than or equal to it from taking from your precious life-force, until it shatters and you are left exposed. Each turn is a delicate balancing act of selecting the right cards, and can become more complex due to the rewards granted after enemy and elite battles. While both encounters have a chance to drop gold or potions, elites always drop relics, powerful constant buffs that last throughout the entire run rather than just in combat, which makes them a precious source of run variety and a huge factor for success. Additionally, each successful skirmish offers the opportunity for you to add one of three randomized cards to your deck. These cards are pulled from the character’s overall collection, which requires a bit of explaining.
When you first start using one of the game’s three characters, they will have a collection of cards available, which are a bit meager and don’t allow for exploration of their most powerful abilities. With each run, however, you’ll gain experience that allows you to unlock more cards for that collection, which can then be pulled in subsequent runs. Your starting deck will always remain the same, however, and it is a limited one. But your first successful skirmish will often determine the kind of build you want to encourage in your character, as stacking your deck with cards that don’t synergize with one another will get you nowhere fast. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t always want to offer you cards that blend well together, so you can either choose not to grab a new card, or test out a combination and hope to encounter a shop later on, which offers an extremely pricey, but rewarding one-time-per-visit card removal. Shops also sell relics, colorless cards (a group of universally-shared cards with unique effects that may or may not mesh well with each character’s collection), and potions, which are one-time consumables with various beneficial effects, but only during combat. All of this is meant to keep the player second guessing, and even revising, their setup during each run.
Narrative and Aesthetics
While the game’s goal is fairly straightforward (slay the, um, spire), there are a number of dialogue-driven random encounters that the player will come across during their run. Though you’ll become familiar with all of them rather quickly, they are delivered with a morbid whimsy that is often meant to accentuate the tireless plight of the characters as they continue to attempt to slay the, um, spire. Some are overtly silly, while others are macabre, but you’ll rarely find yourself surprised once you’ve seen each of them after fifteen-or-so runthroughs. There’s a bit of underlying lore here, as the spire teems with parasitic slimes, devious bandits, and unspoken horrors, but its never explored beyond aesthetic implications and a few screens of dialogue.
Similarly, the aesthetics of the game are simple, yet unobtrusive. There are a number of grotesque monsters on display in the spire, but the art style avoids things becoming too raunchy. Card art is straightforward, but there are a few uncharacteristically silly examples, like the Silent’s bouncing flask. Overall, the combat doesn’t appear all that flashy, but it doesn’t need to be, as an uncluttered UI that focuses on symbols to communicate each debuff is all that’s necessary. Scrolling over a character will reveal information about the specific effects of each of their buffs and debuffs, however, which is nice. The hand of cards can sometimes become something of a nuisance, though, as sometimes you’ll pull up a card for use and end up blocking the information of a specific enemy. The solution is a simple scroll left or upwards, but it is still irksome.
Impressions and Conclusion
Well, Slay the Spire is certainly a roguelike, and its slow unlock process, which factors in how many enemies have been slain, rooms visited, and more, only makes things more random. As you level up, you add more options to your collection, which means there’s more of a chance for new synergies just as much as there are opportunities for utterly failed setups. Careful and safe planning can result in some favorable outcomes, though, and certain characters just seem a bit better suited for the journey than others. The Defect, for example, starts with a set of cards that allow for strong defenses and consistent damage, and it only took me about three failed attempts before successfully completing a run with the character. The Silent, on the other hand, either feels to bloated or too passive, though that may just be a strong preference on this reviewer’s behalf concerning playstyle. No matter which of the three you end up starting a run with, though, the experience and decision-making required are extremely difficult. The Defect feels the most alien, though as a renegade piece of magitek, it makes sense. The Ironclad is fairly straightforward, while the Silent feels equal parts stealthy and tanky in odd ways.
The game offers not only its solo campaign, but online leaderboards that track success rates and other information, as well as an individual’s performance in the daily task. This is a separate mode that challenges players with a specific format and setup, gauging their ability to make things turn out in their favor. There’s also a custom run option, which is fun enough for the hardcore deck builder, but more of a laboratory for checking out specifically broken deck designs.
If you’re a fan of card games, Slay the Spire might prove equal parts extremely addictive and aggravating. A run can turn sour due to a variety of randomized occurrences, from act boss choice, to enemy selection, to rewards available. The thrill of creating something dangerously broken, however, is more than enough to get a player excited to continue pushing at just one more run. This is assisted by the speed-boost mode that ramps up the tempo for faster runs. This quicker pace does not mean you won’t have to take a moment to think over your choices, however, and if you keep that in mind, there’s no reason you wouldn’t continue to have fun with this title.
The continuous growth and increasing variety in both card collection and available relics- as well as a friendly whale (serpent) creature who gifts you with a random additional buff at the start of each new run means that Slay the Spire is a deliciously addictive experience. If you’re only casually interested in trading card games, this can also be an extremely valuable tutorial for deck stacking and various optimization techniques for more serious play, as well. Just don’t get too salty about losses, and you’ll find plenty to love as you journey onwards and upwards.