Review: Slay the Spire

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Review copy provided by developer

I’ve been playing card games of all kinds for decades at this point, but deckbuilders are a relatively new experience for me. It’s a fantastic concept for a video game, assembling the deck you use to overcome challenges as you progress and molding it into the perfect tool to see you through to the end. There’s a lot of ways such a concept can go wrong, and it appears that Slay the Spire has avoided all of them. Not just content to have you collect cards, this remarkable game accents every part of the experience with additional tactical considerations, complications, and details to keep you engaged. As good as other card-based roguelikes have been in recent years, it’s hard to find one that comes together as well as Slay the Spire does.

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There’s a big, ominous spire in your land, and you’ve got to slay it. Seriously, that’s about all the narrative direction you get upfront, and I’m not about to spoil what slaying the spire actually means. What matters is that you take your chosen class up into the many floors of the tower to battle foes and claim riches on the way to your destiny. You’ll find plenty more cards to add to your deck to aid you in this endeavor, as well as powerful relics and potions that grant special effects, and gold that buys you all of the above from the charming little merchant. There are even some stranger encounters where you’ll have to make some tough decisions regarding the forces of the spire, and they’ll often leave a powerful mark on you and your deck.

Your deck is your lifeblood, both your tool for defeating foes and your primary method of progressing in power. You begin each run with a dozen or so basic attack and defense cards, drawing five every turn and playing as many as your limited energy points will allow. Every time you win a battle, though, you get a choice of one of three cards to add to your deck. These prize cards help you gain powerful new abilities and build your deck into a deadly, carefully-tuned weapon, but it’s not as simple as always picking the most powerful cards. Your deck can balloon out to unworkable size, so it’s also important to abstain from taking new cards sometimes, or even removing them through the merchant’s service or incidental events.

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That’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of strategy, though. The relics you find from beating tougher monsters and spending loads of gold in the store can have incredibly dramatic effects, powerful enough to build decks around. You’ll find potions that provide important one-off effects that synergize with your cards. At camps you can rest to restore your health, or forego healing to upgrade one of your cards to its enhanced form. And random events can cause even more incredible effects, like replacing all your attacks with vampiric ones, or transforming a bunch of your cards into other ones, and so on. There are so many aspects to your build that it can seem daunting to keep up with, but Slay the Spire at least makes it easy to see what you have and what you’re getting through its clean and orderly interface.

All these considerations exist before and after battles, but the real genius of this game is found in the card brawls themselves. Your enemies are some of the most creative and varied creatures imaginable, from haunted books to giant donuts to magical urchins to severed stone heads. Each turn they give a general indication of what they’re going to do to you, whether it be attack or debuff you or defend or enhance themselves. You’ll need this info to make the most of your cards, building combos that keep you from taking too much damage as you whittle away at your opponents. There’s a lot to learn about enemies and their habits, and some fights can prove to be the polar opposites of ones you just fought. But it’s all part of the great strategic puzzle presented here, one that never seems to lose its spark.

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With three very different classes to play and runs taking several hours at a stretch, Slay the Spire offers an incredible level of depth and variety that isn’t often seen in card titles. This creativity is compounded by the striking presentation, the matte colors and bizarre creatures that inhabit every stretch of your journey. The sound design is just as good, with rich, gratifying clicks and chimes for all of your actions and some surprisingly epic tracks to battle to. There’s very little to pick at with this title, unless you get deep enough in to really pull apart the strategy. But even then, you’ll have had such a ride to get there that I can’t imagine you’d regret any part of it. Slay the Spire takes the concept of deckbuilding and roguelikes and elevates them to a new level with complex strategy and compelling gameplay.

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