Review: Slay the Spire

by Zvi Don't Worry About the Vase6 min read9th Dec 20181 comment

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Epistemic Status: Many hours played

Spoiler-Free Bottom Line: Slay the Spire is an amazing single-player roguelike deckbuilding game. When I wrote that Artifact was the most fun I’ve had gaming in a long time, the only alternative to give me pause was Slay the Spire. Each game, you work your way up the spire, with each room an opportunity to improve your deck, either with rewards from battle or other opportunities. Each turn of each battle, you see what the enemy is going to do, and by default you have three energy to spend on any combination of five drawn cards, to prepare to block their attacks while dealing damage back. If you die, that’s it, time to start over.

Early plays ideally involve discovery of what cards are out there, what decks are possible to assemble, what enemies there are and what they do, and everything else the spire has to offer. As you gain in skill and experience, you play it on additional levels and in new ways.

I highly recommend playing the game, and I highly recommend not learning more or reading further before doing so. Figuring the game out is half the fun.

My Mostly-Spoiler-Free Journey Through the Spire

I started off knowing the basics above, but nothing else. The game was in (earlier) early access, so a bunch of the details were different, but aside from missing the third class (The Defect) the game was largely the same as it is now.

I played my first few games as The Ironclad. At first things were tough, but a little experience went a long way. My first run ended on the Act I boss. My second run ended on the Act II boss. In my third run, I managed to get all the way through and win.

That surprised me quite a bit. Rogelike games are supposed to be way harder than that! I put it up to a lot of luck and a lot of deckbuilding game experience, and moved on to the second character class, The Outcast.

Once again, there was a learning curve, but once again it didn’t seem that hard, and on my second try I got all the way through. I assumed I was fortunate to win so fast, but it seemed powerful things would come my way reasonably often.

At that point, I stopped playing. What more was there to do? I saw some talk of trying to win *more consistently*, and there was the option to use ‘Ascension’ to make the game harder, but I did not see the appeal in either approach. When The Defect became available, I tried it and won on the third try. So after eight games, I had won with all three classes. It had been fun. At $20 I felt I’d had more than my money’s worth, but I figured that was it.

Later articles on the wesbite Rock Paper Shotgun, which I use as my main source of computer gaming news, convinced me to give the daily climb a shot. In each daily climb, all players are given the same random seed, which contains the contents of the spire and a bunch of modifications to spice things up. Then you compete for the high score, as determined by whether you made it the whole way but also by how elegantly you did it. You get rewards for killing extra elite monsters, for not taking damage, for building a bigger deck and so forth. With points to maximize, there’s a constant balance between going for more points, strengthening yourself for later on, and not dying. I spent a few weeks playing the daily climb each day, but after a while that too started to feel repetitive, and once again I was ready to move on.

Then, a few weeks ago, the game released the ending. Five games later I had won with each of the three characters again, and it was time to start gathering keys on my climb to the final boss. On my second try, I reached the fourth and final act… and promptly got completely destroyed. I’d brought a relatively poor deck that was fortunate to get that far, so I tried again. Two games later I was back with a much stronger deck… and I got completely destroyed again.

Finally, we had a challenge I could get behind. If you came with a relatively normal deck, it was clear you were going to have a bad time.

Further games were not about the first three acts. The first three acts contained checkpoints, and ways you could die if you got too aggressive, but they were not the point. The point was to win that final fight. A third try did a little better, but was still not close. A fourth had a lot going for it, I thought I had it, and then I had to use one card too many on the last turn, couldn’t find what I needed, and died to exact damage the turn before I was going to win.

 

Damn.

 

Several tries later, and after several important lessons learned, the plan came together and the heart died in a barrage of Static Lightning.

 

Two attempts later, The Outcast too was victorious, thanks to a truly absurd amount of poison damage.

 

I still haven’t quite won with the Ironclad. I actually should have, but I forgot that the heart had an artifact, chose the wrong attack, and came up exactly two points short on the last turn. The Ironclad has the toughest path, but there are doubtless still ways.

 

Perhaps I’ll try some games in ascension mode. Interestingly, the first ascension level is more likely to kill you, but arguably makes it easier to kill the heart, since you end up with extra relics.

What Makes Slay the Spire Work

The player has all the fun.

Even when you are first discovering the game, it is easy to understand what is about to happen and why. You get a steady stream of meaningful choices. If you choose wisely, you get to do lots of cool things.

Slay the Spire’s central innovation is enemy intents. Giving the player all the fun is its genius. Each turn, you can see what each enemy is planning to do – attack you for some amount, defend, use a buff, inflict a status. At first actions other than attacking and blocking can be mysterious, but you still have a general idea of what is happening, and in time you learn the patterns of each enemy and how they tick.

At first, I thought lack of enemy diversity was a fatal flaw. There were only so many fights, so I would quickly tire of them. Later, I came around to this lack of diversity being actively good. Consider the difference between planning for a wide-open Magic metagame, where you could face anything at all, and planning for a particular metagame with a handful of opponents. Both are interesting in their own way. You get to enjoy both, with a wide open and unknown metagame early on, then a known set of enemies to target later on.

Slay the Spire offers the same. In your first explorations anything can happen, then later on you are planning for the exact enemies and patterns you will face. Your own deck is constantly changing, it is good, once you have enough experience to use the information, to know exactly what you are up against and must do. That is why the game shows you, at the start of each act, which final boss you will face at the end of that act, to allow you to plan and prepare. Later plays of Slay the Spire are all about having a plan, getting what you need to face down exactly the challenges coming your way, and pushing yourself as far as you can but no farther. In my recent playthroughs, there was be a laser focus on what my deck must do to claim victory in the final fight, knowing exactly the attack patterns and challenges I will face.

Another huge advantage of Slay the Spire is simplicity. The game could be simpler, but not without sacrifice. Every bit of complexity counts. You draw five cards a turn, you can play three energy worth of cards (most cost one, some zero or two, a few cost more or scale with what you spend), they mostly do damage or stop the enemy from doing damage, and the complexity is added slowly from there by the cards and relics.

Slay the Spire also lets you do tons of good, powerful things all the time. You start with a basic deck, and every move makes you stronger. Relics give you special abilities and advantages, cards are upgraded at forges, you get a new card after each battle and so on, and there is no attempt whatsoever to balance those cards. The good cards are already a welcome relief compared to the starting cards. The great cards are fantastic.

You get a mostly random set of relics, and can choose what path to take and which of a few options or cards to take at other junctures. You have enough customization to have a ton of influence over how your deck develops, but you are also at the mercy of events and forced to make the most of what you are offered. Again, there is zero attempt to balance things other than to make them fun, so often you’ll face a choice between the more powerful thing and the thing you actually want. Other times, you’ll be handed a huge gift, and other times still you’ll have no use for the relics and cards you’ll find and even sometimes intentionally pass them up (which you are allowed to do). In one recent playthrough I chose not to take a boss relic from the Act 2 boss, which is a huge kick in the nuts, but that’s the way it goes. Building your deck around the relics you are granted is a huge part of what keeps Slay the Spire interesting and fresh.

This general idea of ‘give you lots of choices, each a randomized multiple choice’ pays big dividends. You get a choice of three cards, or a dozen things for sale at the merchant, or which of your fifteen cards to upgrade. Random events usually give you two or three choices. The story of the sum of these random choices becomes the story of the climb. So is the general story of figuring out how to get super powerful things out of your deck when you get the chance.

Hearthstone’s Arena pioneered a similar simplified form of drafting, giving only three choices at a time and not forcing you to adjust to what others around you are doing. It lacks the richness of Magic booster drafts or Artifact drafts, but is much richer and more interesting than it first appears. There is likely much room to enrich such formats while retaining this simple essential nature. Even in Magic booster draft, you still are choosing one from up to fifteen options, so the difference there is mostly in degree – the lack of dynamic opponents is the bigger fundamental distinction.

Slay the Spire also does a great job giving you lots of goals each climb. If you’re not sure if you will beat the Act 3 boss, that’s the goal. If you know you can’t, you can try to get as high as you can. If you know you’ll beat the Act 3 boss, you can try to score more points, or later to set up for the finale. It’s up to you and I found all the goals and the battles satisfying. More than anything, the game does a great job of making the battles fun, and not giving you too many with any one deck or against one type of opponent, before the game ends.

Conclusion

Slay the Spire is highly recommended. It shows how to use simple choices and abilities that combine in unique ways to create varied, interesting and fun puzzles. Its emphasis on letting the player have all the fun, and ensuring there is lots of fun to be had, is even more central than I had previously realized. Slay the Spire offers lots of lessons and innovations that can be used by other games, including multiplayer customizable card games. This is especially true in their limited formats, and for the creation of unique and interesting leagues and special events.

I have strategic thoughts on the game as well, but have cut them from this review. I may or may not choose to write them out at another time.

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