EA SCOUT the last line of defense for buying on Steam's Early Access
by Joel France
previewed on PC
A WELCOME CHANGE OF PACE
I make no secret of my love for the revived roguelike (or ‘roguelite’) genre - the hours I’ve sunk into the likes of Spelunky, The Binding of Isaac, & Enter the Gungeon paint a clear enough picture. There are few more satisfying experiences than the thrill of gaining a comprehensive intimacy with the mechanics of a game that at first seemed so unknowable, as each death brings you not failure, but knowledge. A strong commonality in these games is their fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat nature - so it’s a surprise that what’s currently capturing my attention is deck-building roguelike Slay the Spire, from Seattle-based developer Mega Crit. Gone is the frantic reflex-driven gameplay, replaced with a tightly designed game loop which sees you relying on a reactive, but methodical playstyle.
For those who have any experience with Final Fantasy, Persona, or even Pokémon, the presentation of the turn-based combat here will be a familiar one - there is an enemy in your path; hit them till their health goes to zero, but don’t let them do the same to you. Where Slay the Spire immediately diverges from this formula is the method by which you choose your approach. The often complex menus of attacks, buffs, and items at your disposal are replaced by a deck of cards, which on each turn provides you with a hand that you use to action your chosen strategy. The physical nature of these cards provides an easily understandable framing of randomisation which many of the more conventional RPGs formats, with their hit percentages and hidden stat modifiers, fail to effectively convey.
'THAT'S ENOUGH READING - YOU HAVE A SPIRE TO CLIMB'
Slay the Spire wastes little time getting stuck into the action. After a brief tutorial (seriously - blink, and you’ll miss it) you are straight into your first combat encounter. This is where the accessibility of the core gameplay really shines, as you puzzle out the first few encounters, becoming your own tutor in the mechanics of the game. As you progress along your climb, you encounter various colourful characters, such as merry merchants, gambling gremlins, and mysterious monks. Whilst these encounters do provide some entertaining flavour, the ‘story’ of Slay the Spire is sadly somewhat limited - what little lore exists seems mostly left to the players' interpretation.
Combat in Slay the Spire adheres to a strict principle - strategies can be complex, but calculations should be simple. Every single attack, block, and status works in straightforward integer values (what I like to call ‘chunky’ numbers) so if you gain three strength, every attack you play will deal three more damage. On the player’s end, there are no more complex mental calculations required than that. Enemies show their intentions for their next turn, damage amounts included, and if you are given a status effect, such as being made Vulnerable (meaning you take an extra 50% of damage), those indicators are updated on the fly - so at the point you end your turn, you can see at a glance exactly how much damage you are about to take. An issue I have with some turn-based games is that you’re not sure of an opponent’s next move, forcing you to play conservatively in case they use their strongest attacks. In Slay the Spire, since you have the inside scoop on your enemy’s intentions, you can play an entire turn without defending - confident in the knowledge that the enemy your facing poses no threat to your limited health.
One of the most satisfying aspects of many great roguelikes is the prospect of a ‘broken run’; a situation where the dice rolls controlling your fate (such as which items appear, or what enemies you face) seem to be all but rigged in your favour. Slay the Spire is, happily, no exception to this, with massively overpowered card combinations that can allow you to defeat most combat scenarios in a turn or two. In a more conventional deck-builder game these strategies might be seen as an issue that needs addressing - either by removing the cards in question, or severely limiting their effectiveness. This is not the case for Slay the Spire, since the chances of being able to access these ridiculous strategies on any given run can be infinitesimally small, relying on layers and layers of good fortune or an almost clairvoyant sense of foresight.
This isn’t to say developers Mega Crit are taking a backseat in the game’s development. They promise an ‘ever-changing Spire’ on their Steam page and from the multitude of content being pushed through in weekly updates and balance changes, it’s evident they have a clear vision of what they still want to achieve with their title. Tweaks to existing cards and relics rarely prevent these fantastically overpowered combos - they just keep each individual component from being too powerful in isolation.
Adding to the variety are the wealth of ‘relics’ you are able to pick up - items which are equipped for the rest of your run and provide benefits such as applying block at the start of each combat encounter, conserving your energy between turns, or even resurrecting your character when they are slain. The interactions between these relics and the cards in your deck greatly enhance the opportunity for interesting strategies from unlikely components.
Slay the Spire is one of the more inventive titles I’ve had the chance to play in the past year, and is certainly one of the most well-supported Early Access titles I have seen - no small feat for a full-time dev team comprised of just two people. The easily digestible presentation of the game is a blessing to newcomers, while the simple building blocks bely the depth of strategy they offer. All this, along with the impressive amount of content which increases on a weekly basis, makes Mega Crit’s debut title an easy recommendation to anyone who is at all interested in card games, roguelikes, or flexing at a goblin until you’re strong enough to crush him in one hit.
There are no guarantees - but we'd bet our own money on this one. If you're going to take a chance with yours, odds are good this one will deliver.