A modern video game’s journey out of early access is beset by second guesses, by when and where a developer may choose to stick their heels in and state that the product is complete. Certain titles tangle with doubt, customer criticism, and lofty ambitions prior to a neon-bright V1.0 announcement, but Slay the Spire is one of those rare, fully-realized, mesmerizing projects that has completely earned its cash on arrival, delivering a deck-building/roguelike/RPG hybrid that outclasses almost any competition in its field.
Sometimes it feels like CCG-inspired video games are intentionally obtuse, built for a select and sacrosanct audience of gamers who bring their knowledge of Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh!, or any other such physical card game to bear on their structures, mercilessly teasing out the flaws and facets of a system in search of its big-picture weaknesses. Slay the Spire is arguably no different to these, fundamentally, but merges a finely-tuned sense of challenge with confidently positioned RPG and design elements in virtually every possible way and form, turning what could be grating — for instance, the chaos inherent in chance and RNG — into a continuously surprising and gratifying possibility space.
Storytelling is meager, but the title of the game provides the basic impetus: climb the spire, slay the spire. Players choose from three contrasting heroes, all of whom require considerably different approaches from the very first encounter. The Ironclad is a fighter class, and their related cards emphasize attacking and defending, whereas The Silent is a kind of rogue class, using her sneak attacks, poison, and deck-drawing manipulation skills to engage risky, extended turns of combat. The former is a superb introduction to the game, especially for CCG/deck-builder neophytes, since the majority of his cards are straightforward and sensible, using RPG basics to demonstrate how debuffs, buffs, and card exhaustion can lead to victory in as few turns as possible. The remaining two classes require some more finesse to achieve success, though all three are fully viable.
The Defect is the third character class, and uses a series of replenishing orbs to plot out long-game vulnerability with highly specialized play. If this review is any indication, the complexity in Slay the Spire can be dazzling, turning the lowliest turn-based fights with mobs into chin-scratching chess-turns, with just enough added draw randomness to be more entertaining than frustrating. As players ascend the spire, they are given pathing choices which can lead to either enemies, treasure, random events, merchants, or bosses, but are also provided opportunities to rest at a campfire and heal or upgrade cards. The smallest decision on the map screen can spell the end of your run, unceremoniously dropping you back to the title screen to attempt the whole thing again — a fretful possibility, given the 50+ floors standing in the way of victory.
Part of Slay the Spire’s infectious appeal comes from its constant churn of optimism, the continual teasing of the possibility that the next run will reveal a better assortment of cards, a game-changing relic, or a heretofore-unseen synergy with an otherwise underwhelming deck. Much like the very best roguelike games, failures tend to educate and prepare for the next run, or uncover a new understanding of how relics, cursed cards, and other rule-sets once seen as obstacles can actually be wielded to a player’s own benefit. For instance, some skill boosts are temporary, debuffing at the end of a player’s turn, but obtaining a relic or skill which prevents debuffing can enable it to be permanently applied, instead.
The enemies in the game are diverse, though they’re usually guided by a much stricter moveset of attacks and abilities than your own character. Enemies also have considerably more health to draw from, so many battles tend to favor more defensive strategies and out-of-the-box thinking. After a few surprise deaths, even newer players should start to get a grasp of what’s expected of them in combat, or why certain epic builds can breeze through 90% of combat encounters, but be completely buckled by one specific enemy type.
Learning, losing, and thought-craft are the name of the Slay the Spire game. It helps that the set dressing is attractive and individualized, though, with painted animated characters that don’t exactly look like the demons and warriors in any other title. Even simple slime enemies seem far and apart from the thousands of slimes players have grown used to in countless other games, and the imaginative character design brings a freshness, despite the fact that the game’s essential mechanics and flow-state feel highly reminiscent of its peers. No, Slay the Spire is particularly brilliant because it seems to draw from the very best aspects of its influences, while adding its own confident flair and progression concepts to the recipe, where each new card (one can potentially be added after every encounter) can dramatically alter the win-potential of a run.
It might seem strange to use the word “electrifying” for a deck-builder, yet the word befits Slay the Spire’s most graceful state of play. It feels just as magical to completely trounce a high-level enemy unprepared for your deck synergy as it does to sit and ponder for minutes to determine if there is any possible way to outwit an otherwise doomed turn. While its varied content, modifiers, and unlockables are undoubtedly more complex than Into the Breach’s chess-like set of simplified systems, it has a similar boiled-down-to-its-essence quality that is clearly drawn from its time in early access and mindful engagement with its community.
More than any other deck-builder game available, this is thee one, this is the must-play which may very well break the players who’ve otherwise bounced off of all the rest. When Slay the Spire finally gets ported to the Nintendo Switch later this year, there’s a good chance that nobody’s going to ever get any actual work done again.
Slay the Spire is out of early access and available now on Steam for $24.99.