Goin’ Off The Rails On A Monster Train…
The idea of the digital card game is one that’s boomed in over the last few years, no thanks to Blizzards immensely popular and actually quite fun game, Hearthstone. We’ve had digital versions of the Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering TCG’s, card based gamification in the likes of FIFA’s FUT mode, but one of the stand out titles for me in recent years has been the fantastic Slay The Spire, a single player roguelike with a deck building twist. Shiny Shoe’s Monster Train, recently released on PC takes some clear inspirations from Slay The Spire, but also mixes in a bunch of other game mechanics that elevate this above a mere clone and into something fresh and fun.
Of course there’s a story here; hell has frozen over. Literally. The Infernal Pyre that powers Satan’s domain has gone out, sabotaged by angelic forces. You play as the last bastion of Hell’s legions, travelling through the frozen wastelands in the titular train, carrying your precious cargo of the last shard of pyre to reignite hell’s fires. The only problem is you’re under attack from those aforementioned angels who are… heaven bent(?)… on destroying the shard – it’s up to you and whatever demons you can muster to protect the shard at all costs.
On the surface, Monster Train is a fairly straightforward premise. Your train is represented by a number of carriages, each stacked on top of each other to make the UI easy to work with, with the shard in the final carriage. Angels enter at the front of the train and work their way through each carriage before reaching the shard and dealing it damage. If the angels deal the shard enough damage, it’s destroyed, at which point it’s game over. Each round consists of a number of waves of basic angel enemies followed by a boss and it’s up to you to set up your troops throughout the train to defeat those angels before they reach the shard. So, immediately Monster Train gives off a tower defence vibe, a genre that seems to have been somewhat overlooked of late. The methods you use to get your troops onto the battlefield as well as get better and different troops, however, is where the charm of the game comes in.
Your primary weapon is a deck of cards. Each card in your deck represents a specific creature type or spell that you can deploy on your turn. Creatures are deployed into carriages to act as defenders, while spells either effect your creatures, enemies or entire carriages. At the end of your turn, you discard your current hand of cards, combat begins and you then draw a fresh hand to start another round of strategic placement. The initial trick here then is to try and make best use of the hand you’re dealt on each turn – cards cost energy to deploy and you start each game with only three energy per turn, so wise use of this to ensure your best cards come into play is essential. Because you can’t hold back cards for later turns, you need to constantly make sure you’re immediate strategy is your best one, and that might not always be about brute force.
Brute force, however, is very satisfying indeed. Monster Train’s combat lifts a little from the Darkest Dungeon playbook. Enemies enter the train in a line and your monsters will always attack the first enemy in that line. This also works the opposite way, so a careful stacking of your troops to provide the best offence and defence is critical. Enemies will also have buffs and abilities on them, such as spikes, or an ability to skip their squad up two floors; usage of spells to take these enemies out of the equation then is also essential to safe progress. The beginning of each encounter will show you not only the types of enemies you will meet in that specific scenario, but also what boss you’ll be taking on meaning you can plan ahead; and planning is one of the most important parts of Monster Train!
A session of Monster Train will start with you selecting a primary and secondary faction to play with – two are available at the start of the game with more unlockable as you progress. Your primary faction will determine what hero character you have in your deck, so it’s important to understand what your main strategy is. Some factions are focussed on aggressive combat, while others will take on a more defensive role. Between encounters you’ll move the train along the track, picking up new cards and special artefacts to give you active buffs, levelling up your cards and heroes and making random discoveries; yes, Monster Train is a roguelike, with each run taking on a different form based on the cards and artefacts you earn as you travel towards Hell’s doused inferno. Planning and strategy is important for a successful game, so random purchasing and levelling up is completely out of the question. Like any good deck building game, if you don’t have a strategy for the cards you’re acquiring you’ll quickly end up with a useless set of cards that aren’t going to help you at all.
Now, don’t get me wrong; at first glance Monster Train might not be a game that factors on to your particular radar at all. Visually it riffs heavily off Hearthstone, particularly with its card designs. The cartoony visuals, while not bad to look at, don’t particularly stand out; but the mechanics of the game, the “one more go” mentality that accompanies each run and the mesh of ideas that on paper shouldn’t really work in practice is fantastic. Monster Train feels perfectly suited to pick up and play sessions which isn’t exactly easy on a PC (although I will admit to playing on a laptop so I could carry my runs round the house with me) so here’s hoping for a release on more mobile formats in the future (cough… Switch…)
As well as the hugely replayable single player mode, Monster Train also has a multiplayer option. Basically played as a simultaneous speed run type game which sees players racing through encounters, this mode is unfortunately not quite as compelling as the more nuanced and focussed single player challenge. But that’s not a bad thing – there’s so much to unlock and so many potential combinations of factions to experiment with, Monster Train is an excellent addition to both the roguelike and deck builder genres, with plenty of ideas borrowed from across the gaming gamut that it never ceases to surprise.