Monster Train by Shiny Shoe
With the runaway success of Slay the Spire, it was only a matter of time before we got more card-based Rogue-likes. The genre’s even begun attracting the attention of some industry juggernauts.
While there’s currently no shortage of fun entries in the genre, one, in particular, has been leading the genre since its initial release in 2020. And it just keeps getting better.
One-Way Ticket to Hell
Heaven has successfully conquered Hell, and the few remaining demons are desperate. Their solution? Load the last remains of Hell’s power source onto a massive train and drive it straight through their enemies to the center of it all.
Monster Train tasks you with defending that power source against waves of unique and increasingly dangerous foes. You do so via a deck of cards, which either summon monsters into one of the locomotive’s three floors or act as instant abilities. It’s immediately understandable to anyone who’s played a digital card game before, but there are a few key tricks to it.
After your monsters and your foes have traded blows, the enemies will inevitably move up a level along the train. If they make it to the top floor, they have a clear shot at your power source, which can fight back but can’t heal itself.
This turns Monster Train into something of a combination of an RPG and a tower defense game, and there’s plenty of strategy to be thought of. Where you choose to place your demons and when to use your powers can make all the difference to whether you live to see the next round. This not only keeps battles tense but keeps the game moving at a pace not unlike, well, a runaway train.
It helps that the game’s difficulty is well-balanced as well, constantly challenging you to think carefully but rarely feeling like a constant uphill battle outside of the game’s massive boss encounters. Any time I was worried I was running away with things, the game would send something new and unexpected that often made me regret being complacent.
Of course, the key to any great card game is the deck-building, and Monster Train gives you plenty of ways to make each run uniquely fun. You choose your initial deck from two of five clans of demons (six with the DLC), each of which has strengths and weaknesses that complement each other in interesting ways. Some are powerful but costly, others might be better at weakening enemies than attacking them, etc. Each clan is fun to play around with, and mixing them gives the game plenty of replayability.
Each of your cards can be upgraded in a number of ways as well, leading to you often creating plenty of seemingly broken combos. Add in the game’s myriad Rogue-like elements, like having to choose which upgrade emporiums you want to visit or whether to push your luck for a random reward, and the name of the game here is choice. If you’re someone who loves optimizing every card and every action, you’re going to love this system.
From a production standpoint, Monster Train is spectacular. The creature designs and animations are reminiscent of a dark and twisted version of Hearthstone, and Jordan Chin’s orchestral-meets-electronic score is one of the best I’ve heard in years. I thoroughly recommend spending the extra money for your own copy of the soundtrack.
Speaking of extra costs, since its release, the game has received not only a free content expansion but also a paid DLC pack called The Last Divinity. For the extra $12, I think the new mechanics on offer, including a new demon clan to play with, are well worth it, but maybe not essential. Try the base game first, and see how you like it (though I’m pretty sure you’ll love it).
The comparisons to Slay the Spire are inevitable with a game like Monster Train, but I think this scratches a different itch equally well. To borrow board and card game terms, Monster Train is the “Ameritrash” to Spire’s “Eurogame.” It’s a flashier, more streamlined, and even more forgiving experience, but which one you prefer will ultimately be to your personal tastes.
Comparisons aside, Monster Train is just a fantastic entry into one of the best new genres on the market. If I had one warning, it’s to bring a snack when you play. This train has a tendency to speed off with the rest of your day in tow.
Monster Train is available via the Microsoft Store, Steam, and GOG.
Watch the trailer for Monster Train below: