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Monster Train Review: Snowpiercer Meets Slay The Spire

A card battler with an amazing amount of replayability under the hood, Monster Train is a game that can easily devour hours of your time pursuing "just one more run." Far from being just another Slay The Spire clone, Monster Train incorporates elements of card battlers, roguelikes, and tower defense into an explosive experience all its own.

Monster Train Review PC Cover

Shiny Shoe’s Monster Train is a card battler with exiting new elements previously not seen in the genre. One can only assume that the design team was equally binging on campy horror movies and Snowpiercer on an endless loop to create the conceit for the game. The ultimate battle has occurred, the angelic forces have won, and hell has, indeed, frozen over. The player takes the role of the commander of a train, of all things, carrying the last remnant of demonic forces, on a mission to carry an object known as a pyre. It is the last thing that can be used to reignite the fires of Hades and return the cosmos to warring forces of light and dark.

Only the combined forces of Heaven stand in your way.

Not only will you be dealing with the traditional RNG difficulties of a card battler, but your choice of a starting hero is further enhanced by the selection of a second deck worth of supporting forces. This creates an even weirder potential for unusual card synergies, as well as potentially game-breaking combos.

Monster Train is now available on PC via Steam.

Monster Train - Announcement Trailer

STORY – A LOST WAR AND A TRAIN OF DEMONIC REFUGEES

The scene is set: a train rolling along an endless, frozen wasteland.

Except the train is not filled with tired refugees, but the last remnants of the Great War between Heaven and Hell. Quick hint: your side lost. And you are not representing the good guys.

Instead, you are commanding a ragtag bunch of demonic rejects. Your mission: cross all of the circles of Hades to relight the fires of hell, using a mysterious device known as the Pyre.

All that stands between you and your ability to reignite the toasty warmth of eternal hellfire are the combined hosts of Heaven. You know, the same guys who just finished kicking your collective asses in the last Great War.

Somehow, you are going to have to turn a random collection of troops, leftover artifacts, and random spells into a successful defense of your rolling home.

Your Final Enemy. What a Twerp.

Your Final Enemy. What a Twerp.

GAMEPLAY – DEFENDING THE LAST MOVING BASTION OF EVIL

The “card battler” genre has come a long way since the days of Ascension, but the general idea remains the same. You start with a deck of weak cards, and then try to develop a functioning deck strategy depending on the cards you uncover through gameplay. Since Slay The Spire and Meteorfall, we’ve now come to expect a light “Rogue-like” experience as well. Once you are dead, you’re done. There is nothing to do but return to the main menu and start over from scratch.

Monster Train takes all these elements and turns them up to ten. Your ability to unlock new elements is hidden behind a list of objectives that will take many playthroughs to accomplish. You will unlock five “deck types”, represented as factions. There are also individual cards within each faction that only become available as you gain more experience. Even the factions themselves represent a new development in gameplay.

Standing the customary “good vs. evil” trope on its head, you are not playing as a lone soldier of Heaven. Instead, you are playing as the Conductor of the Train. You are carrying your demonic forces through a series of encounters and decisions across the rings of Hades. Seraph, the Archangel, commands the troops responsible for preventing your train from reaching the final ring of Hell and reigniting the ancient flames.

Now, THERE'S something you don't see in every video game...

Now, THERE’S something you don’t see in every video game…

You are eventually given the choice of one of five troops: Hellhorned, Awakened, Stygian, Melting, or Umbra. You will then choose between two (out of three potential) heroes to act as the anchor point for your strategy.

In another interesting twist, you also get to pick a second group of troops to act as auxiliary forces along the way. This gives you a total of 10 potential combinations of troops. Given the number of heroes available, as well as the 40+ cards available for each army, this provides a very robust amount of replayability.

You will then drive your train through the “rings” of hell, meeting ever-tougher collections of foes who will enter your train from the lowest (of four) floor and proceeding upwards through your defending troops. This adds a very interesting, almost tower defense element as you try to decide the most advantageous positions for your troops to take. The fourth (and highest) floor contains the object you are defending, the “Pyrestone.” Rather than being a defenseless artifact, the stone has its own health and attack values, being able to attack every foe that makes it to its room at once. The Pyre is a capable adversary on its own during your early levels as you develop your army and your strategy.

The Pyrestone. Right before it blows up.

The Pyrestone. Right before it blows up.

A MULTITUDE OF PATHS TO CHOOSE

Your path through the Underworld, though on a train, is not exactly “on rails”. After each successful defense, you will enter a new Ring of Hell, with a branching pathway. The route you choose will also determine the development of your deck. Do you select the shop where you can upgrade your troops? Or the alternate railway, which might hold a health upgrade for your damaged Pyre, and maybe a small amount of currency to boot?

There are even “mystery” encounters in frozen blocks that could lead to any number of scripted events, frequently incorporating their own decision trees.

The Cliffs of Fallen Souls. Decisions, decisions.

The Cliffs of Fallen Souls. Decisions, decisions.

Card combos are the order of the day here, as in most card battlers. You will look for increasingly powerful cards and combos to use against your angelic enemies. As you travel deeper into the bowels of Hades, you will also encounter “Artifacts”. These are powerful items that provide passive effects that can be game-changers in their own right. But, is the combination of health and the ability to remove superfluous, weak cards from your deck more valuable ? Only you can decide. Hint: You will frequently choose incorrectly.

THE HANDICAP GAMBLE

Surely, 10 extra Armor isn't that bad. Right?

Surely, 10 extra Armor isn’t that bad. Right?

As you move between encounters, you have the ability to select the option to make your enemies even tougher. They may spawn on every floor immediately, or each troop may damage your troops any time they are hit. Accepting one of these handicaps will result in a reward – sometimes currency, sometimes a free unit or artifact. You must constantly weigh potential benefits against each other.

Interspersed through these floors are three Boss encounters. Each boss spawns with a variable set of abilities. A successful boss fight means the chance to upgrade your Hero unit. The power upgrade is necessary in order to deal with the more stringent challenges ahead.

When this is all you start with, you've nowhere to go but up.

When this is all you start with, you’ve nowhere to go but up.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND – HEAVY METAL WHEELS ON RAILS

The graphics are bright and colorful, with animation similar to Darkest Dungeon used to indicate combat. The animation is crisp, and the cartoonish aspect of the characters belies the intense combat you will be going through. Throughout the process, the train continues to give the impression of movement via background animation. Honestly, the gameplay will have you ceasing to notice this effect within the first hour of play.

The combat sounds are absolutely visceral and over the top. The underlying atmospheric soundtrack usually begins with ominous synths and then explodes into raucous heavy metal as combat begins. It adds up to an immersive, exciting experience that will have you deciding to play just “one more round”, resulting in bleary eyes and wide smiles.

Monster Train was reviewed on Steam for PC.

Summary
If there was any concept that the card battler genre had completely tapped out with Slay The Spire, Monster Train proves that assumption wrong. Combining scaling difficulty, combo troops and cards, and an amazing amount of replayability under the hood, this is a game that can easily devour hours of your time pursuing "just one more run."
Good
  • Great graphics and sound
  • Excellent replayability
  • Experimentation is key
  • Humor and setting is unique
  • Plans for further development and DLC, including new heroes and cards.
Bad
  • Very little support for multiplayer out of the gate
  • Some troops feel less powerful than others, though the developer is aggressively pursuing rebalancing
  • Some combos can feel amazingly broken, though lucking into them is actually part of the charm.
9
Amazing

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