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‘Slay the Spire’ – Get Good or Have Fun Dying

Slay the Spire’ is an addictively challenging game that combines the best of deckbuilding and roguelike into one tight package.

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It’s hard to attach value to a subjective experience. Now more than ever are the concepts of playtime and replayability important factors considered in-game purchases. Board games are no stranger to these issues. As most tabletop games run at least the cost of a AAA title, designers have had to figure out ways to give players the most bang for their buck. MegaCrit Games, the creators of Slay the Spire, draw inspiration from both the digital and tabletop worlds.

The devs have taken the best of the deckbuilding and roguelike genres to craft an immensely deep, frustrating, and gratifying experience. Slay the Spire is a perfect example of “easy to learn, hard to master”. You’ll enter the Spire as a neophyte pawing at cards and items that confuse and overwhelm you. Only by learning, adapting, and taking risks can you emerge victorious.

Ascending the Spire

Like many games where mechanics are at the forefront, Slay the Spire’s narrative is simple and broad but effective for what it needs. The title says it all: you are a champion tasked with slaying the Spire. You must reach the top and overcome anything and everything in between. Along the way, you will encounter traps, treasures, and a host of enemies eager to kill you. The game is divided into three distinct levels, each boasting several different branching floor options.

The genius of the game’s modularity is readily apparent in the way the narrative unfolds. No two runs are the same, thanks to well-placed instances of RNG. Like many other roguelike games, (e.g. FTL, Binding of Isaac, Risk of Rain), the narrative develops in tandem with your progression. In one run, you may be a rampaging berserker who deals out massive damage at the cost of his own health. In another, you may be a crafty rogue dancing around your opponents while they wither away from poison damage. The overwhelmingly diverse combinations of items, cards, and events make every run unique.

A Delightfully Morbid Blend of Gothic and Cartoony

For such morose subject matter, Slay the Spire features a vivid color palette, fun enemy designs, and cartoonishly gothic visual designs. The graphic design of the game makes use of morbid subject matters but presents them in a fairly lighthearted tone. In addition to the painted, colorful quality that suffuses the visual art, Slay the Spire’s implementation of stylized graphics and animation deepens that dichotomy. The slightly stilted unit movements and cartoony visuals play on this notion of suggestive storytelling. It’s up to the player to fill in the gaps.

The world of Slay the Spire acts a context for the mechanics to function in. However, that’s not to say that it takes a backseat. Like FTL, Mario, and the Binding of Isaac, the narrative is there to provide flavor and explanations, both of which feed off each other. Larger, more imposing enemies will be animated slower and appear more threatening, with equally devastating skills to back them up. On the other hand, smaller enemies like slimes and imps will be tiny, skitterish, and comparatively harmless. Every enemy has a unique skillset that corresponds to their appropriate flavor: thieves can mug you for gold, winged enemies can fly and avoid damage, while automatons can shrug off debuffs.

Likewise, the cards and items in the game follow a similar philosophy of form tied to function.  As in other card games, flavor, art, and the card’s effect are all closely tied together. Every card in Slay the Spire has unique art that effectively encapsulates the central idea to said card’s function. After a few runs have gone by, you start to recognize cards based purely on the visuals alone.

This seems small at first, but there’s quite a bit of tactile learning that goes into playing the game. With each run, you grow more familiar with the enemies, cards, and items to the point where you’re spending less time figuring things out and can focus more on developing effective strategies. UX was an important aspect of the game that the devs paid close attention. In a game that makes heavy use of iconography to convey meaning (cards, items, map symbols, etc.), it’s easy for the player to get lost if the information is not readily apparent or available. Slay the Spire has no such problem.

A Sturdy House of Cards

Any tabletop gamer will tell you that learning how to play a board game is probably the worst part. Especially with modern tabletop games, rulesets can quickly become overwhelming. By striving for deeper strategy and gameplay, more mechanics need to be established and placed into systems that make sense. What this means for the player is that the game requires both an intimate understanding of the rules and how to effectively enforce and play by them. Not the most elegant solution, but RPG rulesets with dozens of volumes are proof that humans are more than up to the task.

In recent years, however, designers have experimented with different ways to bridge the gap between digital and tabletop gameplay. Rather than strictly residing in either camp, taking the middle of the road approach and use the best that each medium has to offer. Tabletop mechanics augmented by technology create a smoother experience while still preserving the spirit of board games.

Slay the Spire epitomizes this design philosophy by taking mechanics from a number of other games and re-purposing them for greater depth and synergy. There are three distinct systems to manage: cards, relics, and the map. All three systems play into each other, offering variation through randomized encounters and loot. Fortunately, the RNG is such that while it can still give negative results, the player has a healthy amount of options to mitigate that risk.

Ascending the Spire functions much the same as FTL‘s map and event systems. From an initial node, the progression goes through subsequent nodes that branch out. If you are feeling particularly confident, you can try to tackle an Elite enemy or head straight for a campfire if you’re not. Specific encounters and events will be randomized, but most of the time you can plot out a safe path if caution is a greater priority.

The two currently available classes possess uniquely different sets of cards that further open up variety in playstyles and strategy. The Ironclad is a bit more straightforward and focuses on mechanics like heavy damage, blocking, and health management.  The Silent, on the other hand, is more of a rogue or assassin archetype. She boasts tech-intensive playstyles that can either deal heavy bursts of damage or whittle the enemy down with poison and debuffs.

A full run will take you across three different levels, each with their own enemy pools and end with a random boss. The boss fights act as a good benchmark for how your deck will perform. If you struggle against a boss, chances are you won’t make it very far to the next level. Your performance depends highly on the items and cards you obtain. Fortunately, the game is generous with how many of both you can find and pick up.

Upgrades come in the form of relics with unique passive abilities, similar to Binding of Isaac‘s and Risk of Rain‘s powerups. The relics are large in number and varied in effects: some will heal or damage, some will change mechanics, and all of them open up unique strategies. Most apparent, however, is where Slay the Spire draws inspiration from card games. Hearthstone, Magic, Dominion, Netrunner, and a plethora of other card games manifest in Slay the Spire’s mechanics.

The combat is fairly straightforward: a random assortment of enemies spawn while the player draws their opening hand. Energy, like mana in Hearthstone or Magic is the resource used to play cards. In the first few fights, you’ll have a small assortment of abilities to play and only three Energy to spend each turn. But as you progress up the Spire, you can find a variety of different cards with different mechanics based on keywords. Managing their effects, costs, and synergy is key to success.

The cards’ keywords make for interesting combat, as the developers have created the framework for a number of creative strategies to develop. You may want to focus on a milling deck that draws and discards to create optimal plays. Another run, you may instead choose to play it slower with a control deck and poke holes in the enemy’s defense. The game encourages experimentation but also demands improvisation, a design philosophy that permeates its design.

Wide as an Ocean and Just as Deep

Slay the Spire’ is an addictive, challenging, and gratifying game that combines the best of “deckbuilding” and “roguelikes” into one tight package. There are so many different systems and mechanics in place that play off of each other in consistently surprising ways. In many respects, it’s a lot like Dwarf FortressEven when you do lose, the game does an excellent job of turning frustration into motivation. In your run, you’ll see cards you haven’t really used before and wonder how they work. When you eventually try it out, it’s readily apparent that the card is good, it just doesn’t work with your particular build.

Pretty soon it’s 3 AM and you’ve finally made your deck work. You understand the intricacies of how all the mechanics play into each other, you’ve accounted for its deficiencies, and you’re at the final boss of the game.

Yet somehow, you still manage to die.

But that doesn’t stop you.

You go back into the Spire, confident in this run and your ability to make it further.

You will hate your enemies. You will hate your deck. You will hate this game. But for those brief moments of strategic glory, for the serendipitous card draws and satisfying combos, you will come back.

The Spire calls and you must answer.

Kyle grew up with a controller in one hand and a book in the other. He would've put something else in a third hand, but science isn't quite there yet. In the meantime, he makes do with watching things like television, film, and anime. He can be found posting ramblings on liketherogue.tumblr.com or trying to hop on the social media bandwagon @LikeTheRogue

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

Earthnight is an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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Game Reviews

‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off

The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.

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Life is Strange 2

Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.

Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.

Life is Strange 2

The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.

To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.

Life is Strange 2

In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.

On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.

By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.

Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.

Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.

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