Last year, Shiny Shoe released Monster Train, a deck-building rogue-like that I can’t help but compare to Slay The Spire. I’ve put over one thousand hours into Slay by this point. I completed each true ending run on Switch and then lost all my saves, later doing that painful task again on Xbox. I adore Slay and am obsessed with it, still completing runs for fun to this day. It’s lit a fire under me in terms of my newfound passion for deck builders, a genre I wasn’t aware of before but now seek out and find myself spending far too much time on. In the same way that every 3D platformer gets compared to Mario, Slay really has become a gold standard, and comparing the two isn’t unfounded.
In both games, you start with a deck based on your starting character. As you progress, you are given opportunities to add more cards to your deck as well as relics that give bonuses and added effects when triggered. You progress through a series of areas and fight enemies along the way, eventually reaching harder areas on your path until you are met with a final boss. With these comparisons made, I believe where the game truly excels is not in what it shares with Slay the Spire, but in what sets it apart.
The game has a story, lore and text you can read in the logbook. The basics are that angels have frozen over hell and you are trying to return there in your train full of monsters, hence the name, so you can light the fires and restore the underworld to its former glory. I would say more about the deep lore and world-building, but early on I forgot to turn on the option that gives lore information with the cards so I know, basically none of it. Now, cards on the table here, the story in these games has never been the draw for me, but what’s here is a nice bonus that never gets in the way of the core experience.
The reason I play deckbuilders is for the deck building — also so I have an excuse to make deckbuilder puns — but mostly the deck building. You start by selecting two clans, one primary that gives you a strong starter unit and one secondary, with you being able to choose cards from both clan’s card pools throughout the run. You are also given a set of default cards related to your clan as well as some units that are standard for every run, with you later choosing spells and some select units between fights, with stronger units being available in the map screen. You ride your train and select a path that determines what shops and other locations you interact with at any stop. The fights themselves are standard deckbuilder fare to a point, playing cards in order to damage and keep progressing through the map.
Where the tracks diverge and this comparison to Slay is derailed a bit is in the games carriage system. Each carriage starts with five slots, with units taking up a certain amount of those slots; once a carriage is full, no more units can be placed. Placing units in the front of a carriage means they’ll be the first one to act, but also the first unit to be hit. Strategically, you want to place stronger in attack but weaker in health units at the back so that any enemies will get through units with more health first before getting to your damage dealers. A good comparison to make here is something like Darkest Dungeon, wherein a core consideration is where your units are placed and manipulating the placement of your enemies. This can be done by placing debuffs on enemies using spells, killing support enemies or high damage dealers before their turn to attack or manipulating their position on the carriage.
With any deck builder, learning how the core mechanics operate and then learning to manipulate them is a huge part of the game. The best builds are going to feel like an exploit, but that’s the point. The first time you play a deck builder, you take every card you can and fill your deck with cards that sound interesting and seem powerful, however, the trick is determining the fewest number of cards you’ll need that work the best together. You might be able to win with a deck of 30 amazing cards, but a deck of 10 that synergize together might get you a win that’s cleaner and scores higher, as long as you have the right build.
This is where the concept of synergies becomes important. The core of any deck builder is looking at the cards available and finding two or more that play into each other. For example, one clan allows you to do certain effects when healing. So, if you have a unit that becomes stronger when it’s healed, and a card that does damage to enemies based on how much it heals, having a deck with easy access to both is beneficial. The best example of this in my builds is the Draf, a unit that dies after one turn, and a card that reforms units with a one-turn timer placing them back into your hand from the discard. By reforming a Draf over and over its timer goes up, but reforming also makes it stronger every time. If you can keep letting it die, or even kill in early to increase the stat boost and timer, by the end of a fight you’ll have a unit multiple times stronger than when it came in.
Another great example is the Hellhorned clan’s Imp cards. Each imp variant has a summon effect that activates once they are placed in the carriage. This effect can range from a beneficial buff to allies or attacks against enemies, but this only affects units on the same carriage as the imp. So if you build a deck with imps that give armor which blocks damage, along with imps that give rage to friendly units, a buff that gives extra attack that decreases over time, you can build a deck that is constantly making units you intend to attack with stronger and harder to kill. This only becomes even stronger of a build when the Transcendimp is introduced. This little guy will repeat all imp summon effects from any part of the carriage once summoned, meaning the more imp effects stack, the more overpowered units will become. All of this is to say, finding the way these cards fit into a build and how to combine effects for your benefit is rewarding and exciting, with the moments when a build clicks into place being an incredible feeling.
This once again isn’t dissimilar to Slay or a more unconventional deck builder like Dicey Dungeons, but where Monster Train sets itself apart in comparison to both is in the versatility of its cards. In Slay and Dicey, the upgrade path is linear, so when a card is upgraded it can only be improved once with one specific upgrade. This can include things like a lesser energy cost, more damage or added effects like poison that hurts units over time and stacks. In Monster Train, however, unit and spell cards have two slots that you can fit one of many upgrades into. This move away from binary upgrade paths, allows the same card to fit multiple functions in a build or be completely transformed for an entirely different approach.
You can make a two-energy cost card spend for only one or add an energy cost with a stronger version of its effect. You can take a unit and make it endless so it goes back into the deck after death instead of into a discard, or you can make that unit stronger or make it attack before enemies. You can also put two of the same upgrades into a card at once, so a five-energy card that in most builds needs to be very specifically triggered can become a three-energy card, which is much easier to use at any time as you always start with three energy.
The game makes it easy to experiment with cards. In Slay, random events that remove cards are few and far between and the cost of card removal is exponential, but in Monster Train you are constantly given opportunities to add and remove cards after battles. You can make duplicates and remove default cards that take up card draw, meaning that you have far more control in what your build looks like throughout than in most games of this type. While in Slay it can feel like you have to try over and over again to have the chance at receiving certain cards for certain synergies, in Monster Train you have more control over what cards you have access to and what they do, so even if one particular card doesn’t appear you are given options.
In general, a major positive of Monster Train is just how approachable it is. The game can get difficult, especially during its covenant runs which add a new difficulty modifier for each level, but the game never feels punishing or unfair. Every time you restart, you are given the choice of an upgrade for your starter unit, a champion that can be improved through one of two upgrade paths throughout a run, and a choice of two relics at the beginning that alter the rules of the game. If you don’t like the upgrade paths offered or the relics on offer you can restart with no penalty to give yourself a better start. In Slay, restarting or dying before the first boss limits your options, making the early game harder for new players. Monster Train, with its easy mixing and matching of card pools and no penalties for restarting, gives new players more leeway in learning the game and taking it at their own pace.
You can also view the final boss and view the entire map from the start. While exact enemy encounters are obscured, you have perfect information to plan and choose a path that benefits what your deck needs and the particulars of the run. If your train’s engine has taken damage, something that will end a run if it loses all its health, you can heal up before a fight or take another path that has unit upgrades or card removal services. This perfect information also carries over to fights, where you always know exactly what will happen with your current setup once you press end turn. This means that if you know you won’t do enough damage with the current state of a carriage, you can play more cards or more units and instantly see how that changes what will happen next. Having all this information is important because in some builds each carriage may have multiple status effects, attacks and other actions in play at once, so it’s vital the game keeps you informed about what exactly will happen at any given moment.
The covenant system is also extremely approachable. In this mode, you are forced to take five cards which you must either factor into your build or remove with more modifiers like extra starter cards that eat up card draw and enemy enhancements that give them more health or attack being added as you progress through the ranks. While the difficulty does ramp up and the importance of a single, versatile build can become the focus of any run, you are not limited to one combination of clans. Even at later levels, you can switch one clan out for another if a build isn’t working and stay at your current level, without having to make up the previous ones with your new clans. Late gameplay can feel like throwing yourself at a run until the precise cards you need to win randomly appear more so than standard play, but the RNG is about as fair as these games get, and that lack of a penalty for restarting means you can always try to give yourself a better start.
I could go on about synergies, different anecdotes of builds I constructed and wins that were either flawless or barely happened. I’ve put days and days into this game, beat every covenant level and played every combination of clans at least once, at least in the base game. Monster Train is easy to compare to games like Slay, as I have done throughout, but I hope I’ve made it clear that at every turn it sets itself apart and forges its own identity through what it adds and improves on within the genre. Monster Train is on GamePass on both PC and Xbox and I would recommend giving it a go. What Shiny Shoe has done with this game is incredible, and with more content recently released in the form of the Last Divinity DLC, as well as daily challenges and online leaderboards, it seems this Monster Train won’t be reaching its final stop any time soon.
Monster Train sets itself apart by nailing the conventions of the genre, while never failing to iterate on the deck-builders strengths and adding exciting new ideas of its own.
- Variety of modes and challenges
- Not made frustrating through RNG
- Colorful and creative art
- Variety of deck combinations
- Covenant runs can feel repetitive