Do you like deck building? (of course you do!), do you like roguelikes? (you don’t like them, YOU LOVE THEM), then Slay the Spire is definitely a game for you. It’s okay to have looked and dismissed it off the bat early, but don’t let the aesthetic fool you; underneath the simple art style and basic UI lies an addictive deck builder that rewards in all the right places.
Taking control of one of three unique classes, you will begin your run at the base of a tower. The tower itself is inconsequential, as the layout is portrayed in vertical branching pathways with floor markers denoting events and enemies. In fact, the game could be called ‘Slay the [insert vertical object name here]’, as there is zero context to the history or lore of the characters, their goal, or the purpose of the spire. The absence of this kind of information should detract from the game, but the game isn’t about the ‘why’, it’s about the ‘how’, and figuring THAT out is incredibly rewarding.
You see the gameplay in Slay the Spire is a series of turn-based encounters, with you drawing and discarding cards each round. The discarded cards get shuffled back in when required, so you don’t need to worry about the longevity of your deck, just your life total. Your deck is a limitless resource, your life is not. Each round will also replenish your energy, which sits at 3, and relates to the cost of the cards you wish to use. Card costs can range from 1 to 3 (and even X), meaning choosing when to blow a turn on a single card instead of two or more is a real consideration.
Fortunately for our hero, the enemy doesn’t understand the concept of a poker face; they wear their next turns actions on their head (well, floating just above). This also includes damage values, because they are chill like that. Having perfect information allows for more control over each subsequent turn, as you can play defensive cards in the face of an incoming onslaught, or simply rush down the only monster planning to attack.
In Slay the Spire damage persists throughout an entire run, with no cards directly healing the player. The absence of active healing in a fight can have you planning out your climb in the tower meticulously, as campfires can offer a tiny bit of respite when encountered. In the beginning, these events will offer healing as your single action before moving on to the next floor, however, certain relics will unlock other actions to be taken in its place. Do you heal a percentage of your health to see you through the next three floors of enemies, or do you take this moment to remove an unwanted card from your deck? Or upgrade one to its second, more powerful stage?
The lack of healing provides a real sense of risk, and yet the game is perfectly balanced to not feel unfair when faced with your own greed. No single fight should see you going from full HP down to zero (although they can), yet flirting with half a health pool while choosing to instead gain a permanent buff at a campsite can often spell the end of a run as you walk into an enemy your deck isn’t designed to confront.
The enemy pool in Slay the Spire is varied enough that a single approach will struggle to handle them all unless it is concentrated enough. An example being the poison mechanic; attacks and abilities which add a stack of poison to the enemy, harming them for the number of stacks applied at the beginning of their turn. With poison being accumulative, a deck focused on applying as much poison as quickly as possible can be a very potent offense, but applied sparingly is often too slow. Enemies can also employ buffs and debuffs of their own, requiring prioritizing on the players part as to which threat should be dealt with first, and how.
My only gripe with them would be how bipolar their difficulties can feel, they either drop incredibly easy, or they are annoyingly resilient. Balancing your deck can alleviate this feeling, but after finishing the game a few times I discovered I only really cared for the ‘completion’ of my deck, not for the completion of a run. This meant the emphasis was on crafting a rewarding deck which may breeze past some, while struggling immensely against others. It’s a small disappointment to meet an enemy type you can’t handle due to luck (or lack of) when developing your deck, but it is a roguelike after all.
Starting Slay the Spire each time will give each class their starting decks, which never change, but learning the different approaches through trial and error allow you to tailor each run towards a specific strategy. This can, of course, be foiled by the absence of the cards you want in the reward pools, cards earned through victory and the shops along the way, but being able to adjust and make the best of a bad situation is the roguelike’s bread and butter.
Potions also come in various shapes and sizes, offering one-time uses to help you get out of a jam, often allowing for a riskier move to be attempted as potions require no energy. These can range from flat damage to providing block or card draw. As you progress you will also begin to accrue a healthy amount of relics, permanent buffs/debuffs that can take effect in a multitude of ways. These can also add to or take away from each runs strategy, which is refreshing, to begin with, but once you have gained any sense of mastery for the game and the deck types available, the randomness becomes more unfortunate.
As mentioned before, the biggest goal when playing Slay the Spire wasn’t about winning, it was about developing a focused deck that would feel rewarding to play. The relics lacking this form of choice reduces the chance of a play-through feeling truly rewarding for the choices you make, as at best the majority of relics will be fringe, and at worst they will be outright under utilized. It’s no surprise that consistent successes came about by picking a balanced collection of card types, which sounds like a good place for a game to be but in reality reduces the number of viable ways the game can be completed. The encounters are random, so a balanced deck, or one focused strongly on a single theme that it can handle most enemy types, will be the two ways to success. If you focus in one direction and don’t get the cards or relics needed to push it to a tight consistency, you will likely fail.
Despite this, the game isn’t about the destination, but about the journey (have I said that enough yet?). Relics aside, watching your deck grow and change throughout a playthrough feels incredibly satisfying, and having combos go off through card interactions feel immensely gratifying when considering they are there by choice. In 35 hours of play time, I have finished the game three times, and none of the losses have felt wasteful. Of course sometimes the cards just wont be there, and a run can end prematurely from a cruel card draw, but that’s the nature of the beast.
Slay the Spire is essential for those with a love for deck builders, and a fondness for roguelikes. It is rare for a game to feel as rewarding the first time played as it is the last, yet Slay the Spire offers up the perfect mixture of ingredients to keep each session fresh and engaging. There is enough content here to see you exploring the variety of strategies over hours of play, with daily challenges present to nudge players towards experimentation. There is no filler to be found here, it is one encounter after another. You will begin simply wanting to beat the Spire but will end up returning again and again to dominate it.