Slay the Spire ★★★★ | Review

Slay the Spire is the world’s first deckbuilding roguelike. If you favour video games, you may recognize one of these terms. If you prefer board games, the other. Chances are, you won’t know either! However, there’s no need to. Its fusion of the digital tradition of dungeon crawls with the innovative card-play of the tabletop is excellent on its own.

DUNGEON ASCENT

The goal of Slay the Spire is to ascend a tower and vanquish the evil within. There is no larger plot. Our choice of adventurer takes into the tower, gets a small blessing from a strange, whale-like creature and prepares for battle. As we plough our way through countless enemies, small events and quirky shopkeepers, the opposition keeps getting stronger. Worst of all, we only get one chance.

Like in Rogue, the 1980 computer game that lent its name to the genre, death is final. Once our hit points go to zero, we are kicked to the start screen and forced to try again from scratch. There’s no grinding or chance to go walk back our progress, either. Every step carries forward. Allowing ourselves to take hits early, or taking the easy path up, may spell doom later on.

To overcome these challenges we are given a small deck of cards. It contains attacks and defenses, as well as a few special effects. Each turn we draw five of them, play as many as we can and discard the rest. With only three energy points at our disposal, balancing defense and offense isn’t easy.

Fortunately, if our deck runs out, we just flip the discard pile over and start anew. That’s where Dominion‘s deckbuilding mechanic comes in. Instead of going up a level, winning a combat gives us a choice of three new cards to add to our deck. This way, we can learn new skills, chain better combos and permanently upgrade our character.

It’s a perfect combination. The one life dungeon crawl breathes new life to the dry efficiency of deckbuilding games. It gives them a more interesting goal than mere victory points do. Similarly, deckbuilding provides a stronger framework for both battle and character development than traditional mechanics would.

In most video games, “going up a level” results only in larger numbers. Both Pyro and Pyro ++ are identical, one just deals more damage than the other. But dealing more damage to numerically embiggened enemies only gives the illusion of progress. In Slay the Spire, however, the evolution is real. Our character changes, not by becoming a damage sponge, but by combining abilities.

LEVEL-UPS

However, Slay the Spire‘s success shouldn’t be attributed just to its core mechanics. The bulk of its design rests elsewhere. The curated collection of cards, the gamut of bosses that changes from run to run and the plethora of trinkets and one-use potions are superbly executed as well. Crafting hundreds of elements so they work well together while being engaging on their own is no small feat.

Above all, Slay the Spire isn’t afraid to have fun. The Watcher can switch to different combat stances, doubling or even tripling her damage output. Enemies can be poisoned, weakened or prevented from dealing damage at all. Card draw is powerful and cheap, but scarce enough to leave us wanting for more. And none of this breaks the game thanks to its superb balancing.

The enemies are brilliant, too. Each has a different gimmick, from changing the cost of your cards to curling up in a defensive ball when we hit them. My favourite is the elite mook only known as the Gremlin Nob. He stands laughably tall and attacks every single turn. Perhaps expecting us to fight the same, he gets angry if we use any special skills, including our defenses. Beating him to the punch without losing all our blood is a fantastic challenge.

Even dragging battles has subtly been made unviable. And it’s all fair. We are told, in advance, what enemies intend to do and how much damage they’ll deal. There’s no need to memorize events, either. The dialogue choices inform us of all possible results. While luck plays a part in the game, most defeats will come from our own lack of skills, not chance.

THE HANNIBAL CURSE

Sadly, Slay the Spire suffers from what I call “the Hannibal curse”. That is, like the wargame classic Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage, it’s fantastic, but only 80% of the time. The rest, it’s middling or even boring. Not all battles will play with strategic efficiency and, while won’t always run with the game, a powerful deck can flatten most enemies you come across.

Most notably, the first act is also the most boring one. Armed with only two special cards, the initial deck has little to it. Yet, this is the section we end up playing the most. After all, it’s where we start whenever we are defeated. Having to trudge along the first few battles is a chore, even with fast mode toggled on. They play the same from run to run and have the least nuance to it.

Ironically, the end game suffers from a similar issue. Every time I’ve faced the final boss, I was either too weak or too powerful to enjoy it. Winning because you crafted an unbeatable combo or losing because you drew the wrong combination of cards isn’t that fun. And while these little moments aren’t overly common, they do chip away from its overall quality.

Still, I would happily recommend Slay the Spire to anyone, board game and video game fans alike. It’s the rare fusion of genres that will seem refreshing to fans of both. Thanks to snappy play on either PC or on mobile phones, it’s hard to dislike. It has become a staple in my commutes and the perfect example of how digital and tabletop games can become greater by supporting each other.

SLAY THE SPIRE (2017)
DESIGNAnthony Giovannetti
Casey Yano
SOUND & MUSIC
Clark Aboud
DEVELOPMENTMega Crit GamesSCORE i★★★★

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