Monster Train is a roguelike deck builder. Anyone familiar with that concept has likely played Slay the Spire, a game that Monster Train takes hearty influence from. For newbies, Monster Train’s concept revolves around constructing a deck of cards of monsters or spells to defeat waves of enemies before they can reach the train’s “Pyre”, which represents your health in the game. Once enemies do enough damage to it, your run is over, and you must start from the beginning.
While Monster Train does owe Slay the Spire for the popularization of the genre, Monster Train does put some novel twists on the roguelike deck builder formula that make it interesting enough on it’s own rather than a cheap imitation. The primary difference between Monster Train and Slay the Spire comes down to the geometry of the battle environment and the cards themselves. While Slay the Spire has a set hero character, and the cards consist of playable attacks, spells, and powers, Monster Train splits the battleground into three levels, and cards consist of monsters, who defend each floor leading to the pyre, as well as spells, which can damage, heal, or apply buffs to your characters. There are 5 playable clans, ranging from the damage, healing, and spell-based clans, along with 2 oddball classes that play with interesting twists. Each run has one combine cards from two clans, and with 25 combinations in total, Monster Train remains incredibly replayable, as a good roguelike should be.
There are a few elements that hold Monster Train back. While the clan combinations allow for a great deal of experimentation during new runs, the various bosses encountered during each seldom change, and make consecutive playthroughs feel samey. Inversely, balance issues are something that did sour my experience a bit. Some clans feel so powerful that winning with them is trivial, like the Awoken, while others feel harder to make work without the right purchasable upgrades from the shop. RNG is a factor, and it can be frustrating that certain runs end not because of decisions you make, but because you did not roll the right way. Some upgrades like Multistrike are so powerful they can make or break runs, and when you miss out it feels like you are playing with a significant handicap. On the standard difficulty, this is hardly an issue, but when adding covenants, modifications that allow players to increase difficulty, only the strongest combinations and upgrades will succeed. This is where it may feel like you are playing against random generation rather than the enemies you are fighting.
Even for these flaws Monster Train ultimately succeeds in delivering a fresh and innovative experience. While it is not the most impressive looking game, the creative team did a good job crafting a wide variety of memorable monsters, ranging from adorable imps to the hideous Penumbra. Small touches encourage experimentation, such as the card mastery concept. Players can unlock gold card backgrounds upon a successful run with those cards in deck, so in subsequent runs one is encouraged to use cards they may have not necessarily been drawn to otherwise. This kept things fresh, and I am very glad they included this feature. I found myself picking up cards to add to my deck for no other reason than that I had not mastered them yet, only to discover these cards were highly powerful and synergistic in ways I hadn’t initially thought.
Ultimately, whether you enjoy this game may come down to if you enjoy roguelike deckbuilders. I’m not sure if this game will convert those who did not take to similar games, but if you’ve enjoyed games like Slay the Spire, Monster Train will enamor you. I have found myself sinking many gaming sessions experimenting with different clan combinations, new cards, and the daily climbs that are offered. For the price of $25 on steam, Monster Train is a must buy for those who enjoyed Slay the Spire, or deckbuilders in general.