HIGH Masterfully elegant, easy to learn and satisfyingly complex.
LOW Randomness plays too large a part.
WTF Talk about an unexpected glow-up.
I first saw Slay the Spire at an indie expo a couple of years ago, and it was looking rough. The graphics were bad, the interface was bad, and I just didn’t see what the developers were going for. I wasn’t even sure why they were showing it. I walked away with a terrible first impression, but as time went by I kept hearing people mention Spire in glowing terms. I was quite confused – it couldn’t be the same game?
Clearly, the developers at Mega Crit have been hard at work since then, and their effort has paid off in spades. The version of Slay the Spire I’m reviewing today is a world apart from what I saw at that expo, and I’m glad they stuck with it because their duckling has certainly become a swan.
Mechanically, Slay the Spire is a roguelike deckbuilder that is, as the saying goes, easy to learn but hard to master. The player can choose between three characters — the Ironclad (melee attacks), the Silent (agility and poison), and the Defect, a robot who channels elemental magic. Although some cards are common to all three, they each primarily employ cards that are specific to them. Essentially, a player will need to learn three different decks if they want to master Spire as a whole.
While some may assume that playing a deckbuilder means fussing with complex rules, grinding for new cards or dealing with pay-to-win DLC, Slay the Spire bypasses all of those things with one of the most streamlined and elegant systems I’ve come across in some time. All that’s necessary is a little practice, and the game takes care of the rest.
Regardless of which character is selected, they each start with a basic deck at the bottom of a tower. There are several routes that branch, crisscross and ascend to the top, and each floor offers a choice between several things — a battle, a battle against an elite enemy, a shop, a campfire to rest, or a mystery area that offers a random event.
At this point, it’s up to the player to map their own path up with the knowledge that each successful battle will award some cash, sometimes a potion offering various effects, and most importantly, a new card to add to their deck. However, this is where the roguelike element comes in – the cards the player can choose after each victory are random.
With all of these factors taken into account, there’s quite a learning curve to Slay the Spire, but not in the usual sense – simply understanding how to play is easy, but the key is learning how the cards behave, finding synergies between them, and how to factor for meta elements like specific bosses or when it’s more advantageous to refuse cards (or even to remove some) from a deck instead of adding them.
One aspect that makes Spire so easy to get into is the user interface – it’s rare that I call UI out as a high point in a review, but in this case it’s absolutely warranted. The devs have clearly put a lot of thought and refinement into it, and this often-overlooked foundation of game experience is one of the things that makes Spire sing.
At any point during the player’s turn, they can move a cursor (via the left stick) over any of the onscreen elements to see an informational pop-up that explains the thing in question. Can’t recall what that little icon that looks like a sundial does? Highlight it and find out. Forget what being hit with the “Frail” ailment means? Cursor over it.
Similarly, if the player tries to perform an action that isn’t possible, their character will literally say (in a text bubble) what the problem is. Before the player makes a choice, they are shown exactly what will happen, so if they can’t remember what a particular thing does, the Spire puts it right out there before the player commits.
This transparency of systems is absolute brilliance, and every developer should copy it immediately. Not only does it save players the annoyance of having to go into menus or codexes to review info, having everything upfront dramatically speeds up the time it takes to get familiar with play. I adore how Slay the Spire does so much heavy lifting and doesn’t leave a player hanging if they can’t recall every small detail.
While so much of Spire is absolutely on point, I did have some concerns about its difficulty. I’m no stranger to roguelikes or deckbuilders, but after putting a sizable number of hours into it, I’m afraid that randomness holds a little too much sway over the proceedings.
When starting a run, the player has to decide what style of play they’re going to attempt, and then choose cards that fit. For example, the Silent can lean on poison-based damage-over-time or a deck that’s about discarding and triggering effects. However, it’s easy to want to go for one thing, only to have RNGesus refuse to play along. The result can be a deck that’s full of buffs for cards that never show up, or a deck that’s wholly ineffective because the necessary balance was impossible to maintain.
Similarly, Spire awards random “relics” during play that offer effects (damage reduction, extra card draws, etc.) which can literally make or break a run. With near-zero agency to acquire specific relics, a lot of time and effort can be thrown away on bad gets. Many modern roguelikes understand that adding just a little bit of persistence can turn a frustrating experience into a satisfying one. While there’s a separate mode that offers a variety of toggles for variant rules, I’m a surprised that Slay the Spire doesn’t let players modify standard mode runs in a more persistent way over time apart from unlocking a few cards and relics that get added to the random mix.
While I have concerns over its difficulty and I’m not sure that I’ll ever fully complete the entire campaign, I remain quite impressed not only at the way the developers polished their work until their gem was revealed, but by how clear-eyed and elegant the final product is — there are a lot of lessons to be learned here, and my hours climbing the Spire were well-spent.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Mega Crit Games and published by Humble Bundle. It is currently available on PS4, XBO, Switch and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 50 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed with two (of three) characters. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Blood and Violence. I suppose a T is accurate since this isn’t a game with bubblegum visuals, but I have a hard time taking issue with anything here except perhaps for a few cards that feature mildly violent images on their artwork.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There is text for all dialogue, but there’s almost no talking in the entire game. I played all 50 hours on mute and had no problems, this game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody's looking, and his favorite game of all time is a toss-up between the first Mass Effect and The Witcher 3. You can catch his written work here at GameCritics and you can hear him weekly on the @SoVideogames Podcast. Follow Brad on Twitter and Instagram at @BradGallaway, or contact him via email:
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