Game review: Slay the Spire for Steam

In theory, Slay the Spire should be a perfect game for me. It’s a rogue-like card game climbing three randomly generated towers to battle monsters and bosses with one of four unique protagonists. In practice, however, my enjoyment of the game quickly evaporated because it crosses off every checkbox of bad indie rogue-like design: dully repetitive opening levels, a lack of enemy diversity, a stingy in-game economy combined with overpriced shops, and a slew of items meant specifically to fuck you over, and over, and over again.

Let’s start with the initial positives. You start playing as The Ironclad, a typical video game warrior carrying a giant orcish longsword, armed with a deck of the most basic stuff. You can lay out a Defend card to block five damage for one energy (out of three, though later cards and items may grant you addition energy units per turn), Strike for one, or use a Bash card that consumes two energy and applies a Vulnerable status on the enemy, making the next attack cause more damage. At first, sorting out a strategy amounts to deciding how much damage you want to dish out versus how much health you want to lose. So you could deal more damage by not blocking at all, or cast two Defend cards and only take one or two lost health points while dealing 6 damage. But either way, you will be losing some health in every fight.

Beating each monster offers a reward of three cards to choose from, which—again, in theory—should help move you toward a better strategy than just tanking hits to trade blows. Some rooms have a merchant offering other cards for sell, as well as relics that grant buffs or debuffs for the duration of the run, and potions that usually grant an effect only for the current turn. (Some might give you a card that will last throughout the current fight, but will vanish before your next fight.) Beating the boss of the tower offers up a choice of three boss relics, most of which offer a benefit combined with a negative caveat.

Then you unlock The Silent, a shaman with a different set of cards to collect that changes your strategy past the first tower. She favors poisons and spells, some of which can deal a lot of damage. A good shuffle from her deck can end fights on the first tower quite quickly. (A bad shuffle, though…woof. But I digress.)

Next is The Defect, kind of a magic powered robot who uses orbs to channel lightning, ice, plasma, and dark. Each has its own powers, both passive and evoked. For instance ice will passively apply two armor, while evoking it will grant five armor. Plasma grants extra energy per turn, so it is very useful, but unfortunately is very rare. (At least it was in all the runs I made.)

Finally, beating the three towers for the first time with any character unlocks The Watcher, a poorly chosen title for a blind monk whose gimmick is changing stances. The Wraith stance allows her to deal higher damage, but for some reason allows the monster to increase their damage as well. (Quite often I would enter Wraith hoping to finish an opponent, only to miss one health point and have them kill my character with a super-powered attack that I buffed for them. Very much an insult added to injury.) The Calm stance is pretty much useless because it only offers extra energy as you exit the stance. If you can pick items that offer extra energy, then entering and exiting Calm becomes an option. But with the base card to do so costing 2 energy, yeah, it’s pretty useless in most situations. At later stages with a lot of energy, swapping from Wraith to Calm often allows you to play zero cost attacks up to three times. But by that point, the monster’s health is so ridiculously high that even a triple attack from the same card is like an annoying scratch.

It’s entirely possible that before unlocking the final character, you’ll become bored or frustrated by the gameplay loop. This is because every character starts with the same blocks and attacks with two class-specific cards. (Three in the case of The Watcher.) So every run is the same tanking and trading blows no matter who you play as. The floors may be slightly different, but the enemies really aren’t. I could usually predict who I would fight depending on which path I took in any tower, with almost no surprises. These kinds of randomly generated games need enemy variety, or they quickly lose any appeal for players, and this one has a woefully small pool of enemies and bosses.

You’ll arrive at the first merchant after ten or so floors, only to find that you can’t afford the items or cards you actually do want, while there’s a few garbage cards and items on sale for cheap. If you pick those up, you most assuredly won’t be getting good cards or items at the next merchant, who you probably won’t see until the second tower unless the floor layout has decided to be less asshole-ish.

Then there’s the ? rooms. Very rarely, they offer up some helpful stuff, like choosing between healing or gaining a bonus to maximum health. But the vast majority of the time, they’re just one long line of giant “Go Fuck Yourself” options. There’s the room that promises a relic can be found in a mound of acidic goop if you lose a little health, but it always fails to deliver until the third attempt, meaning you lose 18 health for a relic that could be garbage or actively harmful to your run. Or how about the room with a pool of acid that takes your gold and forces you to choose to leave it behind, or collect your shit and someone else’s pittance at the cost of more health. Or the room with an asshole snake who offers a pathetic amount of gold in exchange for cutting off HALF your maximum health. Finally, it might just be another monster or elite monster room, so there’s the faintest hope of a good reward being stomped to death with spiked shoes. It’s like the game developers were thinking. “This game is too much fun, so how can we ruin it?”

This isn’t even getting into fights where the enemies have ridiculous amounts of damage coupled with debuffs that lower the value of your blocks and attacks. So a monster can have three hundred health, do an attack for fifty, and have a special power that increases its damage if you try to use block cards or any skill other than attacks. So if you can somehow throw up five block cards to stop fifteen damage, that fifty damage attack is now seventy. Oh, and your attack is doing three damage because it’s been reduced with a debuff as well.

There’s monsters who have shit-tons of regenerating armor, meaning your little attacks do nothing, and they have items called Artifacts, which negate attempts at debuffing them. Or maybe the room you enter just has five slimes, with four of them attacking for five to ten damage while the fifth casts debuffs to weaken your blocks and your attacks. Then there’s the trio of flying monsters, who ignore some of the damage you deal because they’re flying, and who cast strength spells to do progressively more damage with every turn. I’m lucky to leave that room with half my health remaining, and wouldn’t you know it? Healing potions are also super rare AND wimpy in how much they’ll heal.

Your only real respite from this bullshit is campfires, which can heal thirty percent of your health or allow you to upgrade one card. On the first tower, you might try to gamble and get in one card upgrade provided you haven’t lost too much health. But in the second tower, the game has a tendency to generate five to six enemy rooms before the first campfire, so you’ll be arriving with maybe ten health, if you’re lucky. Otherwise, you’ll lose one the room right before the campfire. Or here’s another variation of agony: there’s a ? room right before the campfire, and it’s an elite with two minions, and you have two health. Again, it’s like the developers were looking for ways to make the experience as miserable as possible.

Even if you do beat the final boss, the ending isn’t really satisfying. Your character finds a giant heart and launches an all out attack that does nothing to the heart. You are informed how much damage you dealt, how much damage everyone has collectively done, and then your character passes out and you are presented with the banner Victory? The only way it could be more disappointing is if a wet fart sound tooted out a “wah wah wah wa-wa-wa!”

I feel like I need to point out that a lot of what makes this game bad is terrible random generation coupled with a pool of mostly shit items and too few gems to make repeated runs worth the effort. To further explain, consider a game like Spelunky. In every room in Spelunky, the first pass of the random generator is mapping out a path to the exit. You might trap yourself with bad choices, but there is always a way to the exit. The second pass litters items around the room, some of which are specific to a region, and others which can be found all over. (ie: bombs, ropes, prisoners to free.) Some of those items are worthless, but in any given run, it’s more likely you’ll find something that tickles your fancy, and lots of runs will give a wildly fun combination that damn near breaks the game by making you too OP. Even the runs that give weaker items are still fun to play by upping the challenge without being unfair. Then there’s the third pass that generates enemies specific to the region. You won’t find the hordes of the hell level in the jungle level and vice versa. Finally, there are secret items and shortcuts for specific rooms that will always be generated, with the actual location moving around to keep things interesting.

If Slay the Spire is judged by Spelunky as the gold standard of rogue-like games, then Slay the Spire doesn’t even earn a medal. I want to give it 2 stars, but there were just enough fun runs that I will give it 3. The problem is, for every one fun run, I had to sit through twenty boring or aggravating runs, and one out of twenty is not a good ratio for any game, randomly generated or not. I’d have a hard time recommending this to anyone, even fans of card games or rogue-likes. There are better games to spend your money on that will provide a more balanced and consistent experience. Hell, even Dark Souls with a randomized item mod is more fair and balanced than this.

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