Game Review: Slay the Spire

It’s difficult to gauge the full shape of Slay the Spire, because the game intentionally makes itself such a mess of RNG. Ostensibly the game’s challenge comes from its randomness. The player’s advantage comes from the chance to build a deck of complementary cards that stack together to form a barrage of death to mow down enemies. This is especially evident in the first of three decks the game hands the player, wherein strength and direct combat are the keys to victory. When playing as the Ironclad warrior class, the game’s mix of random chance and strategy hit a sweet spot. It’s only when you move on to the next class that things become a bit hairy and a bit more problematic.

Roguelike games require the developers to craft a replayable loop. Each time the player fails they are forced to begin again, perhaps with a few added advantages such as foreknowledge of the challenges ahead or a few items or abilities they clung onto from the previous run. Slay the Spire, with its dozens of card combinations, allows the player to feel powerful and clever as you stack together card powers that feel overpowered when used in unison. In fact, the game plays best during those rare instances where the RNG works in your favor and you accrue the perfect assortment of cards and relics to make it feel like you’re cheating. In every other instance, you’ll wonder why you aren’t allowed some advantage from previous runs, a single card of your choice, a relic or something else. It becomes quickly clear that the game has been designed with the Wizard of Oz-like stratagem that the player must never see behind the curtain, where the truth of the carnival game lies. In order for Slay the Spire’s loop to be replayable and not easy as pie, the developers needed to make the player’s odds of success so slim they have no choice but to play over and over hoping for that one sweet run.

The basic gameplay is simple enough and should be familiar for fans of Magic, Pokemon: TCG, or Hearthstone. You won’t be buying new card packs here, but you’ll be gaining cards each time you defeat a foe. This works simply and perfectly in the Ironclad run, where the deck consists of basic shields and sword attacks. When you try The Silent, aka the rogue deck, things start to fall apart. You’re supposed to be using sneaky tactics, poison and shivs, but your base card set doesn’t provide you with any of those skills, so you’re forced to grind for them. Of course your chance of picking up any cards that you might need for a successful run are random, even as you select from a few options after each fight or buy cards at the merchant’s shop with your accrued gold. That means you’re already starting at a deficit with your basic deck, unlike in the warrior’s deck where the basic skills you needed to succeed were handed to you. Even a successful-seeming-run can be ended suddenly by a chance encounter with a particular enemy type, and then it’s back to the beginning with your progress undone.

The game tries to seem fair and more roguelike by allowing you to accrue “unlock EXP” which takes forever to do anything, and when it does finally unlock something it merely adds the chance of a few new cards or relics being added to the pool in each run. A magic whale-thing will give you a few seemingly helpful options at the beginning of each loop, but the benefits of each choice are minimal, and when playing as the rogue would be easily outweighed by the addition of a few shiv or poison cards from the offset. The reason for this lack of generosity appears to be because the overall game is incredibly shallow, and if the devs made the odds in the player’s favor you’d be done with Slay the Spire in an hour. To make the game feign depth, the devs decided to screw you over at every turn, giving you more time to ponder why the artwork looks like construction paper.

As a ‘free’ game via Game Pass, this was a fine find, as the initial character’s path through the spire was a fun and engaging one. The parts are definitely there for a fun and addictive game, but the overall experience is more like a slot machine or carnival game, where the fun comes specifically from the player’s ability to ignore how easily they’ve been sold down the river on a boat with a hole in it. If you’re the kind of player living in denial, unable to understand the way the mechanics function, capable of convincing yourself that despite your repeated failures and lack of chances to succeed the developers really do have your best interests at heart, then sure, Slay the Spire will captivate you for hours to come, in the same way a bright light dancing on the wall might captivate a kitten. For anyone with a more thorough understanding of strategy, this game feels broken or half-finished at best.