Monster Train is a game about combinations. There’s much more to to this, of course, from the quad-tiered battlefield of the train itself to an upgrade structure that consistently pushes you into new strategies. But if you’re the kind of player who enjoys buffing units to ridiculous degrees through clever synergies, causing 500 damage in a single attack, and remorselessly exploiting OP tactics, then Monster Train is going to push a lot of familiar buttons in a lovely way.
The all-important plot: hell is in trouble! You’re in charge of a train taking some devilish shard back in order to restore it, and a bunch of heavenly enemies invade said vehicle in order to stop you. The Monster Train itself has four levels, with the top reserved for the shard, and almost all of the play takes place on the lower three levels: enemies enter the train at the bottom floor, and after each attack phase move up a level.
So the goal is to protect the shard by killing all these angels before they can get up there and start wailing on it. Monster Train‘s combat is card- and turn-based: you use ember (mana) to place defenders and use spells, then after every turn your unused cards are discarded and combat plays out. There’s a big influence from Slay the Spire here (no bad thing) but with a focus on multiple units and their positioning across floors: you can’t move your troops after they’re placed without specific spell cards, so each round you’re committing to a defensive setup that will largely persist across a given level.
Combat is a simple matter of the angels whacking whatever troop you have at the front, before your lot reply in kind. At a basic level this means enemies enter with a big dude in front and weaker but more damaging troops behind, and you’ll probably have something similar going on.
Much of Monster Train‘s appeal lies in how you build and use a deck in order to upset these formations, and how you deal with more esoteric abilities. Overloading on the bottom floor, where a lot of the combat will play out, is the kind of thing that seems like a good idea but will come back and bite you; many enemies are tough enough to survive at least one round and start climbing through the floors, while others have baked-in abilities to subvert your welcoming committee.
The greatness is in how you construct a deck over each run. At the start of a new game you choose one of five clans as a main, alongside another allied clan. Your main choice dictates your champion for that run, a strong unit that can be upgraded along the way, and after each round you’ll get to pick one card from each of your clans and add it to your deck. Between each fight you also choose one of two routes for the train, each of which has various boons (merchants, extra cards, card upgrades, shard health, and so on).
This style of building a deck forces players to adapt across the run to whatever Lady Luck might throw up. Playing as the starter Hellhound clan, one might be tempted to overlook the tricksy but weak imps in favour of humongous axe-toting brutes. This was me, until one run threw up an excellent imp card early, and I ended up building a hugely powerful army that depended on flooding the battlefield with imps, using all their boosts to get out cards I couldn’t normally play, and then blowing up the imps in the angels’ faces.
On another, I acquired a unit that attacked twice each turn, hit every enemy in a line, and inflicted three stacks of frostbite every hit (one stack = one damage a turn). I then upgraded this card so it was doing more damage and would return to my hand every time it was destroyed, then cloned it twice, then started collecting frostbite spells. Each turn these three units would inflict multiple stacks of frostbite across every level of the train, and I’d have the spells to exploit that exact status: it reached a stage where I had something like 150 stacks of frostbite on a boss before they’d even entered the door.
The bosses are Monster Train‘s way of redressing the balance: each stage has one presiding spirit, some are on-screen the entire time and some just turn up at the end. Each one has a particular ability such as being able to remove buffs from your units or place a bomb behind their troops, and each run also adds a randomised variant of this core ability. They’re also huge and hit hard.
You play each stage with this final encounter in mind, because it’s where things can go badly wrong. All bosses are ‘relentless’, meaning that combat repeats on each floor until either they’re dead or all of your units are. The nature of Monster Train means it’s next to impossible to fortify a floor and make it awesome on a single turn, so if you don’t prepare in advance then a boss can quite easily slice through all three levels and either destroy your shard or do some serious damage. Conversely, it’s a great pleasure to see some god-bothering beefcake waltz in and get demolished on the ground floor.
I had my first successful run on Monster Train on my second attempt, but this is by design. The game here is also the meta-game of levelling each clan (unlocking new and more powerful cards), unlocking new clans, and then participating in the covenant system. The latter unlocks after your first completion, and features 25 levels of increasingly difficult modifiers that layer atop a run and increase the rewards. There’s also a mini version of this in the runs themselves, with each stage offering an optional modifier and a reward for accepting it. It treats the player kindly, in other words, before allowing them to choose exactly how much of a challenge they want.
Monster Train‘s big achievement is making each run feel different. It helps that a given run is shorter than its equivalent would be in Slay the Spire, so in each session I’ve been managing two or three tilts at the heavenly host. The clans use tried-and-tested formulae from card games, but each has their own distinct identity and playstyle, while the ability to mix them leads to wild and unexpected decks (who doesn’t love a train full of monsters eating each other for buffs?). Each run will also throw up artifacts that grant permanent boosts for the duration, and sometimes they’ll just be nice background bonuses and other times they’ll be so OP you build the whole deck around them.
Finally, Monster Train includes an eight-player multiplayer mode where you compete against other players with the same deck to see who can finish a run the fastest. I enjoyed this for what it was, though personally I enjoy taking my time to scheme in singleplayer.
The Daily Challenge is based on a similar principle, except here you can see a global leaderboard, and there’s the very nice touch of updating you on the progress of others who are playing at the same time. There’s something strangely pleasing about noticing xXxB0ngSm0kAxXx pop up every now and again as they clear stages in tandem, as well as the rather dark satisfaction of the notification when they eventually stumble.
This is an inventive and varied take on the smooshed-together genre of deck-building roguelikes, and even feels like it improves on the few aspects of Slay the Spire I didn’t enjoy (such as run length). I haven’t had one run that felt like another, nor am I close to seeing everything it has to offer: after eight hours I’ve only unlocked three of five clans. Monster Train‘s great joy is that, even if it’s on rails, there’s no telling where you’ll end up.