Review: “Slay the Spire”

(I should start by saying that I’ve never played the most popular deck-building games like Magic: The Gathering, so I don’t know how much of this game is innovation and how much is convention. I am writing another post about the game’s rule system.)

Slay the Spire is a “roguelike” virtual card game with a sword-and-sorcery theme. I would say my favorite aspect of this game is its approachable complexity. It has 4 playable characters (the most recent was added in January 2020). Each character has a different deck, which largely determines their powers and abilities, but some have unique gameplay mechanics which are (normally) unavailable to the others. The play strategies are thus very different for each.

The following is a gameplay trailer. It won’t give you a complete picture of the game, unless you freeze every frame, but it will at least give you a sense of the game’s flavor.

You start with the most basic cards and “level up” by acquiring more powerful cards by defeating enemies in combat, purchasing them from merchants, and simply finding them as you explore the dungeon. You can also collect potions, which are single-use, and relics, which add passive abilities, some of them relatively complex (such as clearing all your negative effects if you play a card of each type during a single turn).

The artwork is not the slickest, but it’s good enough for its flaws to look endearing. (Keep in mind this was developed by a small studio.) They’ve offset this by applying a lot of visual polish. For example, each character and monster have a single set of bitmaps which are animated through deformations (e.g., a writhing, pouncing snake is just a straight snake that’s twisted into the appropriate poses; one character has a sash which blows in the wind). Cards act as though they exist in 3D. And over time, the game has gone from plainer to more detailed images. Occasionally I’ll notice that they’ve added minor details like flickering torches, more elaborate wall carvings, or dust falling from the rafters.

The soundtrack, by classically-trained composer Clark Aboud, is simply beautiful. It’s arranged as though for a small orchestra with synths, and could work as the score for an adventure film. (Contrast this with the music in Gratuitous Space Battles, which sounds like a pastiche of sci-fi movie soundtracks.)

The variety in play styles adds a lot to the game, and it’s interesting to experiment with different strategies. The initial character, the Ironclad, can rely on simple might. Others depend more on passive effects, such as poison (the Silent), and on strategically spending action points in the current turn to gain more in future turns. The Defect has a collection of slots which can hold passive actions, some of which are latent and become stronger over time. The Watcher can assume various “stances”, some of which increase attack strength at the cost of increased vulnerability; this adds risk, since it is not always possible to change stances in a given turn. Adding a new character to the game requires a lot of work because completely new game mechanics are being introduced, and these must be fine-tuned so that they are neither too easy nor too hard to play.

Although the game is different each time, there are still only three levels and about 50 random encounters. These sometimes add surprising new elements, such as turning the character into a vampire — weakened, but with the ability to heal by feeding. Still, I wish there were more of them, considering how many hundreds of times a fan is likely to play through the game. They hint at a strong backstory that could easily be developed further.

Verdict: if you like complex strategy games with rule expansions over time, you should definitely check this out.