Ever since Slay the Spire landed to critical and public acclaim way back in 2017, the Deckbuilding Roguelikes have flocked to copy its formula and emulate its success. Naturally, all these pretenders have failed. Along comes Monster Train by Shiny Shoe and suddenly, everything changed.
ALL ABOARD! HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!
Whilst on the surface Monster Train could be mistaken for a slay-the-spire-like, that initial belief and dismissal would result in you missing out on the best Roguelike to come out all year, and the best Deck Building in the last four. Monster Train can be summed up almost entirely by its title – you are in control of a train, and it has monsters. Narrative “depth” comes from where the train is going, and who is assailing your demonic locomotive. Spoiler, it’s Hell, and they are Angels.
Little to no time is spent on the story in Monster Train, and as is the genre staple, it is simply a means to an end. A backdrop to give the game a bit of thematic flair. Angels, demons, monsters, sentient wax people, and trains – it all makes for quite the setting, even if it’s all surface level. Thankfully, Monster Train is much more than its fancy setting and steam-powered chugging.
Gameplay in Monster Train has you doing, as a general rule, two things. You are either picking where you are going on the bilinear map screen and engaging in whatever your path chooses OR, you are engaged in battle with the forces of Heaven. That’s it, but that “IT” is very compelling.
Let’s start with the combat first. In Monster Train you are presented with 3 floors in which to duke it out. Floors can hold a certain number of monsters represented by little golden pips, and enemies (typically) spawn on the bottom floor and move up the train towards the inaccessible fourth floor – the Pyre. If the enemy destroys the Pyre, it’s game over. So far so simple. The game is split into turns, and each turn new enemies spawn on your train, each with their own unique abilities, formations, and all that jazz. You also draw five (or more) cards that contain all the things you can do on your turn.
You have access to various spells, train upgrades, monsters, and even a power clan-specific (more on those later) Champion. What you can do is limited to your imagination, your hand, and your mana pool. The latter two can be heavily manipulated with a bit of cunning, whilst the former can be built upon with practice. Spells tend to provide temporary or instantaneous effects. This can be healing, damage, or powerful buffs. Monsters are where it’s at, however.
Unlike a traditional cardstock battler, in Monster Train you have very little control over your minions. Your role is to plonk them down, maybe support them with buffs, but they will attack automatically in a very predictable way – they will smack the thing in front of them. Enemies will also smack the thing in front of them. Floor formation is therefore incredibly important. Monster Train is less about controlling the action, more about manipulating the rules of battle before it starts.
Going Off The Rails
The best way to describe the combat would be a mixture of traditional deckbuilding and an idle title from your local mobile marketplace. It comes together to form quite the potent mix, and, whilst it may seem rather simple at first, the game ramps up massively as you play. Your first win might come quickly, but Monster Train, once its fires are suitably stoked, will offer up quite the challenge for those who seek it.
The battle system wouldn’t be all that interesting without a bevy of awe-inducing cards to ponder and play. Monster Train has you covered and slowly drip-feeds new cards as you play. The game totes 300+ cards, but splits that pool across several clans, or factions. Clans are heavily themed subdecks that try to push you towards a specific set of strategies whilst introducing radically different mechanics. The Hellhorned tend to have lower health, but hit like a truck and can often attack multiple times per turn. On the other hand, the Awoken tend to be much tankier, have potent buffs, and have mechanics that reward you for healing – beyond the obvious health gain. There are six clans, and each unlocked clan only gets whackier.
The more you play a clan, the more cards you unlock, and eventually, extra Champions and starting spells become available, further increasing the options and replayability. You don’t just select one clan when you start a run of Monster Train, however. You pick your primary, which includes your Champion, and you choose a secondary. Secondary clans allow you to dabble in the strengths of another clan to cover up the weaknesses or enhance the strengths of your primary. More replayability, more choice.
Make Your Own Rules
Whether you are dabbling in the ever-burning Melters, or the cannibalistic Umbra, one thing no clan can escape is the other half of Monster Train – map navigation. The map is split into three phases. First, you pick what path you want to pick, then, you exhaust the benefits of that path, before finally fighting to move onto the next map. Rinse and repeat until you get to the final boss.
Path selection is quite the brain bender of course, as each path will nearly always contain something you want, and rarely does one path contain everything. Do you upgrade your spells? Enhance your monsters? Heal your Pyre? Replenish your treasury? How about adding a new unit card into your deck, if so, which clan? Monster Train is all about meaningful and impactful choice, and it’s damn addictive.
Just to quickly touch on the upgrade system, Monster Train makes you feel like you are breaking the game, but never feels easy. Upgrading a weak AoE spell to suddenly deal floor clearing damage, or turning a glass cannon into a tank, or making expensive cards free – whilst not endless, there is plenty of potential for tinkering here. Powerful rare upgrades can also be found, such as the ability to make any card appear in your starting hand, or force a card to always return to the top of your deck, or make a monster endless – the list goes on.
Enough Stuff To Drive You Insane
If that wasn’t enough, there are also powerful trinkets that apply potent passive effects to your run. These can be as simple as increasing the potency of spells and monsters, to cataclysmically powerful clan-specific relics that can tear the game in half. What about wagers? You can increase the difficulty of any battle to increase your reward for victory – is it worth the gamble? Boss fights force you to engage in mind-bending brawls that alter how brawls, spells, entire floors, or the whole train operates. Layer upon layer of stuff – and it’s glorious.
The Switch version of Monster Train comes with the swanky First Class subtitle, and this represents the Last Divinity DLC. If Monster Train in its base form was loaded with content to gubbins, then the included DLC dials it up to ludicrous levels. It adds a new clan, a new last boss, the ability to engage in Pacts which provide unfathomably powerful boons but increase the game’s difficulty mid-run. It also adds 20+ floors of additional difficulty modes, each on adding a new layer of trickery – and they are cumulative. You can turn the DLC off, but I saw no reason to since it added so much to an already hefty package.
The only downside to Monster Train I could reasonably levy against it is the overall presentation. They just didn’t click with me. That’s not to say they aren’t good, or that the style isn’t striking. It’s all very bright, and each clan is suitably varied in their design, it just looked a bit shabby. Animations boil down to 1 frame, Dark Dungeon-esque judders, but I don’t think Monster Train quite nails the impact of that game. The UI is also a bit tricky on the Switch. Oftentimes I was unable to see what I was doing because popups were obscuring the playspace. It’s manageable but undeniably irritating. Finally, the music, whilst fitting, was very forgettable.
Overall, Monster Train is outstanding. The few issues I have with it are minor at best, and what the game delivers shines through with ease. This is not only the best Roguelike I’ve played all year, but quite possibly the best game. Period. It’s taken four long years for the genre to move beyond Spire, and Monster Train manages to stand beside that titan and carve its own path to greatness. This is highly recommended for any Switch owner.
MONSTER TRAIN IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Many thanks to Good Shepherd Entertainment for a Nintendo Switch review code for this title.
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Forged in the rainy wilds of northern England, I carved a path of mediocrity through generations and genres. My play style is often described as: “optimistically awful”.