Monster Train is a roguelike deckbuilder in which the player must marshall the forces of Satan to try and break back into the underworld and relight the eternal flames of Hell. You have to do this because Hell is actually full of angels and you have the last shard of the eternal pyre on your train. Yes on your train, did I not mention that you have to break into Hell on a train? Well you do, a train beset on all sides by the forces of Heaven.
I am uncertain that the premise of Monster Train makes even the tiniest bit of sense, if I’m honest. The fiction surrounding roguelike deckbuilders has never really been the main draw though. If Slay the Spire has a story, I’m not really aware of it, and FTL’s could fit on the back of a cigarette packet. Both of those games are amazing though and Monster Train clearly has its sights set on the same kind of godly levels of balance and replayability that its forebears mustered.
The tortured premise of Monster Train is, of course, just an excuse to ram all of your favourite features of the genre into the game. There are, as anyone with a passing knowledge of medieval literature can tell you, nine circles of Hell and your train has to get through them all to get to the centre and relight the eternal pyre (I assume, I have yet to beat the game). At each circle, the titular locomotive will be assaulted by wave after wave of the legions of Heaven, before finally confronting a boss. Who that boss is (there are a good number of options for each circle) determines what type of minion will be faced and what effects they will have.
Many aspects of Monster Train will feel familiar to veterans of Slay the Spire but the core premise of the game offers the opportunity to innovate. Battles take place in the carriages of the train, which are four levels high, with the fragment of the eternal pyre on the top level. Enemies enter at the bottom level. The player can play monsters into different levels of the train (see what they did there?) and, at the end of each round, the forces of Heaven and Hell will clash. Any of the enemies who survive will move up a level and, if they make it to the top, will attack the eternal pyre. The pyre is not defenceless but, over the course of nine circles, it will become depleted and, if it runs out, the player loses.
Being successful at Monster Train requires sound strategic thinking. The forces of Heaven will attack your monsters first so they must be resilient enough to survive, but those angelic gits will also not hang around for multiple rounds of scrapping, so your monsters need to pack enough of a punch to kill, or at least weaken, their foes. Adding an extra layer to all of this is that both sides have rankings within each level. Creatures in the front rank will get attacked before creatures further back, so aligning your troops with toughies who can take the hits upfront and glass cannons further back is important too.
Playing monsters into the levels of the train is only one of many things the player can do with their cards though. There are spells that directly damage the Heavenly host, or inflict status conditions that might stop them from moving or cause them not to attack. There are buffs that will boost the armour or attack values of your monsters or heal them, as well as many, many more esoteric effects that may seem weak but synergise well with other effects in the game.
Synergy is key to success in Monster Train. Cards play off each other, becoming more powerful the more effects of that type you have in your deck. There are also many artefacts in the game too, items with ongoing effects that can feed and bolster these synergies. In some ways the player is beholden to chance regarding what strategies will be available; the cards you can add to your deck and artefacts you can collect are randomly generated. For that reason, flexibility is also key. There are definitely runs of Monster Train where things don’t go right, where key cards don’t show up, where nascent battle plans fall at the first hurdle. When that happens though, all you do is start again. The wonderful world of roguelikes!
In terms of innovations within the genre, Monster Train has some things to offer outside the battles too. Between each circle of Hell, the train will stop at some key points to pick up boosts and extra resources. The player will have a choice of two paths that can provide access to extra cards, shops, free coins, healing for the pyre, special events with interesting bonuses and the ability to upgrade or remove cards from their deck. There’s nothing mind-blowingly new here but a key philosophy that seems to have been to the forefront of developer Shiny Shoe is “MORE”. There is a LOT going on in Monster Train, both at the tactical level of the battles and the deckbuilding and optimisation level. Choosing which boosts and benefits to take is vital to beating the game.
The sheer number of options and the depth of possibility on display here is the main reason to recommend Monster Train. For anyone who is a fan of this genre already, the replayability of this one is high. It is familiar enough that you will instantly know how everything works and it will fit like a glove, but the depth will keep you coming back for many replays. As you would expect, all of that depth can result in some oddities and strange combinations; Monster Train is not as tight and lean as Slay the Spire, but for a card tinkerer or an addicted optimiser it’s a treasure trove.
Much of this depth is unlocked by progressing through or beating the game. The lattermost is something easier said than done, however. I put about six hours into the beta and a few more into the full game (so far) and didn’t get past the seventh circle of Hell. To be clear, this is a good thing. The last thing you want from your roguelike is for it to be easy and Monster Train has a nice difficulty curve that has plenty of challenge but never leaves the player feeling cheated. Every time I lost I was sure I could get it next time with a bit more luck and a bit better strategy.
Monster Train is a slick production and, from what I’ve seen so far at least, is very well balanced. It has enough different going on that it can slot in nicely alongside Slay The Spire, FTL and Into the Breach in my library of high-caliber roguelikes. Many of the concepts are familiar but the devil is in the details here and there is depth for days along with a fiendish balance that will keep you coming back for more.