A new genre is emerging. In the wake of games like Slay the Spire, the deck-building roguelike appears to have established itself as a hot new format. Just recently I picked up one of the latest games to ape the format, Monster Train. You play as a variety of demons, protecting a train carrying the “last flame” in a desperate bid to relight the fires of hell. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but after a few hours zooming around hell, I was totally on board (sorry). Let me explain why.
A Little Change Goes a Long Way
If you’re unfamiliar with this kind of game, let me give you a quick outline. You make your way through a series of turn-based combat encounters using various spells and minions, each of which is attached to a particular card you can play. You can get more cards, and upgrade your existing ones by progressing or completing certain challenges. Your deck grows as you play, opening up more and more tactical options and playstyles.
What sets Monster Train apart is the eponymous three-tiered train upon which the action takes place. More traditional games like Slay the Spire have combat take place on a single, static field, but that’s not the case in Monster Train. Enemies enter the train on the bottom level and move up one floor at the end of each turn. There are four floors in total, the top one containing your “pyre” which the forces of heaven are trying to destroy.
Knowing where an enemy minion will be next turn becomes absolutely crucial. It’s all very well packing the first floor with all your strongest monsters, but what about the enemies who manage to slip past? You have to carefully consider where you place each of your monsters, almost like you would in a tower defence game.
As well as having to think in vertical space, you also need to consider the ordering of your units on the horizontal plane. The “Umbra” faction is a good case in point. A lot of what the Umbra do revolves around “morsel” minions, smaller, weaker units that exist only to be eaten by the monster at the front of your group. Upon eating, the player receives one of several bonuses. In addition, a lot of umbra monsters become stronger (in a variety of ways) when they consume a morsel. Making sure you have the right monster at the front is vitally important.
Back when I had my PS3, I remember stumbling across a Capcom RPG called Dragon’s Dogma. It was a mess in a lot of ways, but it also did a few things that stood out as really good ideas. The way the class system worked for example. Rather than simply choosing from one of the old faithful (warrior, rogue, mage, etc), Dragon’s Dogma offered a hybrid system. By drawing on elements of any two of the three basic classes, you could create a third, often much more interesting one.
Monster Train does something very similar. There are five base classes, each with a choice of two champions. Your champion is a powerful monster that you improve as you progress. Each champion has a variety of unique powers which you need to carefully consider how you develop and synergise with your other monsters.
Rector Flicker is a good example. Most of his units are cheap, weak, and die very often. You can choose an ability that resurrects these weaker monsters, bringing them back stronger each time, or one that makes the Rector stronger every time a unit dies. Success will ultimately come down to knowing which cards complement your chosen style and doing all you can to get hold of them.
It’s this build as you go approach that I love about this kind of game. It solves a fundamental game design problem. Consider your typical action game, something like Devil May Cry or God of War. There are a lot of options available to you, but most players will eventually find one strategy they like and stick with it. This can quickly make the game feel repetitive or cheap. Obviously, this is something you want to avoid as a designer. Games like Monster Train simply don’t have this problem. You can’t rely on a single strategy, and as a result, the game feels fresh for a lot longer.
The Devil’s in the Details
Games are often said to be “juicy”. In brief, what this means is that the feedback to the player is viscerally satisfying. Think about your favourite game and you’ll know what I mean. A game like Dark Souls feels as good as it does partly because of the weight behind each blow. So how does Monster Train feel to play? Pretty damn good.
The animation is simple but wonderfully vibrant. The colours pop and the characters are wonderfully realised. In short, it’s a beautiful little game. But it’s not just a looker. There are so many little touches that make the game feel amazing to play. The final blow on a boss playing out in slow motion, the cry of a vanquished angel, it’s great stuff. There’s no visual clutter either, everything is clear and concise and doesn’t get in the way of the action. That’s no mean feat in a game that needs to convey a lot of information.
I also appreciate humour, and there are just enough flashes of it here and there to keep things light, without getting too silly. There are some fun character designs, card descriptions and the like that I really enjoyed. You can also give all the monsters googly eyes if that’s more your thing. I suppose in a world dominated by games about grim growly men in grey trousers, Monster Train is a welcome splash of colour and personality. There’s even a little skeleton dog which is just adorable.
If you want a solid concept done right, look no further. If you’re at all interested in roguelikes or deck builders, this is one you shouldn’t miss. Deep strategy and undeniable charm place Monster Train among 2020’s best.
Click to link if you want to check out the first part of this series covering Hunt: Showdown.
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