Monster Train is a deck building roguelike. The attackers from Heaven are laying siege to one of the last Pyre shards that is powering a train on a mission to save Hell. To win, players will choose randomly selected cards, upgrades, and artifacts as they battle past eight bosses.
The story is very simple as it only provides enough context for the player’s repeated runs through Hell. The developers were more than happy to blur the lines between the forces of Heaven and Hell, which makes for a richer world. The lore is fleshed out over multiple runs through random events and flavour text for some enemies. As a game that revolves around short runs over the same course, the light story is to be expected, but I wish they compensated a little more with richer world building.
As a deck building roguelike, players start each run by selecting their primary and secondary clans to determine their starting deck. The primary clan will add a hero, creatures, and spells to a deck, while the secondary clan will only provide spells. Clans are organized in the five colour format popularized by Magic: the Gathering. Each clan have their own specialized mechanics, monster types, theme, and hero. Those with background in Magic: the Gathering and similar style games will be right at home building decks. Veteran Magic players will need to adjust for certain creature mechanics like trample being shuffled to different colours and Melting Remnant playing more like black decks and Stygian Guard playing more like blue.
Once the game is underway, players will constantly be bombarded with choices. All new cards, artifacts and upgrades offer a choice between three random selections from the current pool of unlocked items. The path the train takes is also in the player’s hands, as there are always two routes to choose from populated with randomly selected events.
Combat is set on a train with four levels. Creatures are played on the first three levels of the train, while the fourth is reserved for the Pyre. Enemies usually appear on the bottom-most level and fight their way upwards. Bosses will often harass the player with a variety of abilities, before finally appearing on the train as part of the last wave. Enemies will ascend a floor after each wave until they reach the Pyre room. Enemies and the Pyre will do damage to each other, and the run ends when the Pyre health reaches zero. Early bosses are randomly selected from a pool, while the later named bosses do not change.
The main strategy in Monster Train is creating a well-rounded deck with synergizing cards and then paring down that deck as small as possible. This allows the discard pile to be cycled back into the draw pile quickly so the powerful synergizing cards can be played as many times as possible. While this strategy may be common sense to long time players of trading card games and deck building games, newer players may take a while to figure it out. An extra tutorial or a strategy guide specifically designed for those new to the genre would be helpful.
The game offers a singleplayer mode where each difficulty level adds more cards to the starting deck. There is multiplayer, but not in the traditional sense. Multiplayer uses the same gameplay as singleplayer, but players either race each other to finish their run first or attempt to top the leaderboard in a variety of daily and custom-made challenges.
Monster Train has an addictive gameplay loop. The constant flow of new cards combined with the large number of possible deck combinations from the primary/secondary clan system offers many hours of gameplay. The randomness of the game is at a good place. No run will ever be perfect, and a few will be absolutely horrid, but at least players have a level of control that feels about right.
The game’s balance is decent, but it needs some adjustment. While no clan needs a complete overhaul, some are significantly weaker than others. The Awoken is likely the strongest of the pack, as they are incredibly well rounded as a primary and secondary clan pick. The Umbra on the other hand are in the direst need of a buff due to their over-reliance on the Morselmaker and the Morselmaster to make their signature mechanic viable.
The game’s graphics are enjoyable. The game uses an illustrated 2D style that isn’t as cartoony as Hearthstone’s exaggerated aesthetic but isn’t as realistic as Magic: the Gathering’s traditional fantasy art style. Each clan has a unique look that can be identified by style alone, though each card has a coloured frame to signify the clan. The frame is so subtle that it can be completely overlooked, but luckily clan affiliation is not a core mechanic of combat.
The sound effects are decent, but the game engine plays sound effects way too often at a slower game speed. During boss fights, players may be stuck listening to the same one or two injury sound in quick repetition for a mind numbingly long period of time. Things improve quite a bit once the game speed is increased to Ultra or Super Ultra. The soundtrack is enjoyable as it is reminiscent of old combat music from JRPGs. There is no voice acting beyond the well voiced introductory cut scene.
Monster Train takes the familiar framework of Magic: the Gathering and adapts it into a compelling roguelike. The addition of multiplayer challenges adds even more replayability to the game. While there are some balance issues that need to be ironed out over the coming months, a large majority of the game is still balanced within reason. Monster Train is a fantastic pick for fans of the deck building genre.
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