Monster Train is fighting an uphill battle right out of the gate. Its name is bland, its character models are generic, and from a passing glance it looks a bit too close to Slay the Spire for comfort. In short, Monster Train makes a bad first impression. That’s unfortunate, because it’s hands-down one of the most impressive deck-builders on the market–you just need to look a bit beyond the surface.
There are two popular types of deck-builders: collectible (Magic the Gathering, Plants vs. Zombies: Heroes) and roguelike (Slay the Spire, Dicey Dungeons). Monster Train effectively melds the creature-collecting elements of the former with the on-the-fly randomness of the latter to create a unique card battling blend all its own.
The setup for each run is simple. You’re on a train carrying the last shard of the Pyre, a flame needed to rekindle the fires of Hell. Your goal is to fend off legions of Heaven’s warriors and deliver the shard to Hell in one piece. The train has four floors with the shard at the top, and enemies (generally) enter from the bottom and work their way up to damage it. If you can’t eliminate the assailants before they get there and whittle down the shard’s HP, it’s the end of the line…literally.
Play a Card, Any Card
The core combat is fairly standard. Players randomly draw a hand of cards from their deck with different costs and can play as many as their max energy (symbolized by the flame in the lower left-hand corner) will allow. Once every monster and spell has been played and you end your turn, the combat phase begins and your characters battle it out against foes automatically.
What really sets Monster Train apart is twofold: its wave-based structure and the train’s multi-level configuration. After every combat phase, a new wave of enemies enters the train with varying offensive, defensive, and movement-based buffs. If they’re not defeated that same turn, the surviving enemies advance a floor and get ever closer to your shard (a.k.a. your overall health). Thus, every battle becomes a balancing act of trying to defeat new foes while staving off existing ones.
This loop becomes as thrilling as it does hectic, and opens the door to fresh deck-building strategies dependent on upwards progression. This tenseness shines especially bright during boss encounters, wherein intimidating angelic leaders hammer away at your troops nonstop during the attack phase until the level is cleared, completely ignoring the typical turn-based structure. Once it clears out a floor, that floor is gone for good.
Choose Your Fighter
For as refreshing as Monster Train’s combat loop is, its deck-building elements are nearly identical to its contemporaries. Though players start out by choosing two factions (one main, one allied) and a game-changing artifact, the early matches of every run will feel a bit samey since each starting deck has the same generic attack spells, healing spells, and minions. This can drag the experience down after building a highly customized deck throughout a run, but consistent opportunities to shop for upgrades and gain new cards means the slog doesn’t last more than a few battles.
While the early game isn’t as immediately engaging as it could be, one of the more compelling design choices is Shiny Shoe’s inclusion of special Commander cards. Each race has its own unique Commander that appears in the first hand of every battle and can be upgraded down two distinct paths (e.g. a more attack-focused route with multi-strike abilities, or a more perseverance-focused route with higher armor stats).
Since it’s the most useful card in your deck at the start of every run and is one of the first cards to be played in every battle, it’s hard not to grow fond of your Commander over time. They grow in power at certain points during every run, so by the time you’ve weathered the gauntlet and built a battle-hardened deck, your Commander is a powerhouse right there alongside you. It’s a small addition on the surface, but it goes a long way in conveying progression and appreciating certain clans over others.
Nuts and Bolts
Outside of the standard single-player runs and stat logs, there’s a nice collection of bonus modes to dive into. The most comprehensive of these is Hell Rush, which locks all battles at 3x speed and has you race through a run alongside others online to see who can rack up the most points within the time limit. There are also daily challenges (complete with global leaderboards) and the option to create custom challenges with game-breaking modifiers to share online with friends and randoms alike.
As a final note, something has to be said for Monster Train’s absolutely top-notch production values. Though the character models themselves might not be especially stunning, the cards, train, and environments all look great. This is doubly so for the fantastic UI design. Everything you could possibly want to know is always easily readable, and every single bit of information on-screen (be it an enemy, gauge, icon, card, building, etc.) can be hovered over to bring up a succinct explanation. In something as technical as a deck-builder, this is an absolute godsend.
Despite wearing its influences on its sleeve, Monster Train is one of the most polished, meticulously detailed deck-builders out there. The game balance is solid, there are well over 100 cards to unlock through accruing experience points, and everything you’d need to know is communicated clearly right on screen. Though new runs can take a bit to pick up steam, the mid- and late-game action–particularly boss encounters–more than makes up for it. Whether you’re a fan of traditional or roguelike card battlers, there’s a great deal of fun to be had here.