A challenging and satisfying mix of deckbuilding games, roguelikes, and dungeon crawlers.
Slay the Spire is one of those games where I found myself sitting alone at my desk just giggling as I played. Not because it’s exceptionally funny – though its well-written encounters can be that – but because some combo of cards that had chanced its way into my hand would just go off, and the result was an absolute thrill. I couldn’t help but laugh because, win or lose, that combo may never show up again. But boy, was it a blast in the moment.
Here’s a genre mix you probably haven’t seen before: Slay the Spire is a deckbuilding roguelike dungeon crawler. Don’t mistake it for a deckbuilding game like Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering; instead, you pick one of three varied but equally exciting characters with unique card pools and start with a super basic deck. As you work your way up the Spire, you’ll fight increasingly difficult monsters to acquire a randomized selection of new cards that slowly build your deck into something better.
Being a roguelike, a run in which you make it all the way to the top only takes about an hour, giving Slay the Spire an addictive loop of picking cards, figuring out how good they are, dying frequently, and then taking that hard-earned knowledge with you into the next run. Apart from unlocking a few new cards and collectible Relics as you play, you never actually get stronger from one run to another. You just get smarter and better at quickly deciding what will or won’t be useful, and the experimentation is one of my favorite parts.
Slay the Spire has an addictive loop of experimenting, dying, and growing for the next run.
It can be as simple as when you choose to play an attack card or a defense card. Knowing when you can afford to take a few points of damage to inflict a few more of your own isn’t a huge deal in the heat of a battle, but it can make the difference in the long run as the Spire wears you down. Those little decisions are deceptively important, and there’s rarely an objectively “right” choice, which leaves lots of room to find your personal play style.
Slay the Spire doesn’t rush you with a timer as you make those tough calls either, so my confidence actually grew from every failed run since. Taking as much pressure-free time as I needed was helpful early on, and pulling up the deck or discard screens even conveniently pauses the action during your opponent’s turn. But the simple animations for playing cards are still satisfyingly snappy, and I could take some turns lightning-fast once I got more comfortable.
Pick Your Poison
While the available characters roughly conform to some general RPG archetype – the Ironclad is the warrior, the Silent is the rogue, and the Defect is kind of like a mage with a bio-mechanical twist – they each have multiple viable play styles you can try to build your deck around. For example, the Silent can pick up attacks that stack a poison effect on enemies which you can then multiply or burst with rarer cards, but its card pool also supports a deck built around generating tons of free Shiv attack cards and then buffing them with other effects.
It feels fantastic when you decide to lean into a certain style and manage to find all of the combo pieces you were hoping for, tearing through enemies with synergies that were specifically designed for each other. But you aren’t always so lucky, and the interesting and ever-changing challenge of Slay the Spire is how you adapt your strategy based on what cards are actually offered to you along the way. And while it can seriously suck to build toward a specific plan and simply never see the key card you need to make it really work, a perk of these short runs is that it’s not too hard to brush off an unlucky loss and try again.
The exciting challenge comes from how you adapt to the randomized cards and Relics you find along the way.
Outside of cards, you can also find consumable Potions that give you temporary boosts, but the really exciting pickups are the Relics. They can be found in chests and from beating bosses or special elite enemies, and they offer permanent (and often significant) advantages. Some are as simple as a permanent attack boost, while others will do things like randomize the cost of every single card you draw. The more you have, the crazier things get. I loved that many of them have drawbacks to go along with their perk, like Relics that increase the mana you have to play cards at the cost of not being able to heal or gain gold, adding to your pile of difficult decisions.
Outside of learning what Relics to pick and which cards to play, it was also fun to figure out Slay the Spire’s monsters and bosses. The art style mixes a million different influences, clearly inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, Cthulhu, and much more to stand as something all its own. As a result, you’re fighting everything from tentacle monsters to creepy slimes to giant bird cultists. Each one is a tricky puzzle to solve in its own right, with a variety of unique attacks and abilities to play around. Because you can almost always see roughly what an enemy will do next – be it attack, defend, or use some sort of buff or debuff – you have the opportunity strategically time your moves to counter their plans.
The enemies are randomly distributed along a simple but amusing dungeon map broken into three main acts, and they get harder and more diverse as you move higher up the Spire. Despite that randomness, it didn’t take long before I started recognizing most of them, which does eventually – in my case after a couple of dozen hours – start to make runs feel a bit too similar. I wish there was just a bit more variety, especially when it comes to reusing early enemies in groups later on. But, on the other hand, I also liked learning how to counter what I knew was coming, and the not-to-be-underestimated challenge those enemies pose was enough to keep things feeling fresh for a long time.
Thankfully, now that I’ve learned its ins and outs, Slay the Spire has plenty to shake things up and keep me amused. There’s a Daily Climb mode that adds wacky modifiers to a set run each day, letting you compare your score to others on a leaderboard. There are also 20 escalating Ascension difficulty levels if things start to get too easy, each of which slowly adds a new layer to screw you over like increasing boss health or forcing you to fight two of them at the end of each act. But even without all that, beating the unchanging final boss in Slay the Spire’s final fourth act at any difficulty is an extremely tall task, and that will likely keep you chasing the finish line for dozens of hours.
But if you do get bored, the modding community on PC has you more than covered. The Steam Workshop is easy to use and is overflowing with custom characters to try, new enemies to fight, and loads of subtle quality-of-life changes. Their quality can be hit and miss, but standouts like the Slimebound character – which adds a slime enemy as a playable character with new mechanics and unique dialogue – make it more than worth diving sorting through the rough to find the diamonds.