This review was written by Skylar V. Lalonde
Slay the Spire is what we in the indie gaming community would call a “runaway success.” It’s one of the most well-known and popular indie games that I’m aware of, up there with the likes of Hyper Light Drifter and Risk of Rain 2 and regularly pulling thousands of viewers on streaming sites like Twitch. I’m tired of “doing research” and “writing about the indie game industry,” though, and I’m sure at least one of you doesn’t care enough to miss the absence of that particular content. So more importantly, Slay the Spire is really, really fun.
Though not quite the pioneer of the genre, Slay the Spire (or STS) is a “roguelike deckbuilder.” Like in most roguelikes, gameplay consists of individual attempts, or “runs,” in which the player tries to fight their way through a procedurally generated dungeon. But instead of bullet hells or tactical positioning, combat in STS is done as a card game. I know dense descriptions of game mechanics can be tedious to slog through, so I’ll break down the various elements one at a time. At the beginning of a run, the player chooses a character and receives a small generic starting deck with a handful of character-specific cards. Every time they win a fight, they are offered a chance to add one of three random cards from their character class to their deck. This kind of deckbuilding is what gives STS its replay value: unlike other deckbuilding games like Magic the Gathering, the player has no control over what is available to them, nor can they assemble the whole deck at once. Crafting the perfect deck is an imperfect process, which keeps the player on their toes and forces them to choose between complementing what they already have and exploring new possibilities.
Combat itself is turn-based and happens every time the player enters a room containing an enemy. Each of the game’s three Acts has its own pool of enemies, which differ in abilities, health bars, and sometimes special status effects. At the beginning of each turn, all enemies in the fight declare what move they will use, then the player draws their hand for the turn and receives a limited amount of energy to play cards with, almost like a cross between Magic and a JRPG. Cards may attack enemies, protect the player from incoming damage, or advance one of those goals more indirectly. Once the player has ended their turn, usually because they have run out of energy or played all their cards, the enemies use their moves, dealing any unblocked damage to the player’s health bar. The cycle then repeats until either all enemies are dead or the player is. Player health is preserved between fights, so taking damage means later enemies will have a better shot at killing you, and healing is rarely free.
Not all rooms are enemy encounters. Random events offer chances to add, upgrade, or remove cards, gain gold to spend at shops, regain health, fight supercharged enemies for rewards, and so on. At the top of each Act waits one of several possible bosses, which put your planning to the test and offer a rare card and a powerful relic if you make it through. Then it’s on to the next Act, ever up the Spire. If all of that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. A new player will sometimes struggle to understand what some cards or enemies are doing, let alone plan ahead, and most early runs will die in Act 1. It’s only through lots of attempts that you can start to recognize the enemies and cards you encounter and how you should approach them. When you finally make it to Act 2 or 3, you’re assailed with a whole new set of even more complicated fights and events, and even if the stars eventually align and you defeat the Act 3 boss, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to do it the next time, or the next after that. The progression of skill in STS is defined solely by game knowledge: being able to recognize which option will be best for your deck, which cards you should play each turn to give you the best chance of staying alive, and at higher levels, which paths through the dungeon you should take to maximize potential reward without jeopardizing the run.
I tried to find a few holes to poke in the game design—it wouldn’t feel like a real review if I didn’t—but even after careful consideration, I couldn’t come up with anything. If too many more cards were strong all-around, winning would feel less rewarding, and if fewer were it would be too grueling. Everything is balanced well enough to present a real challenge without becoming a Mensa-only feat. Once in a while, the developers will tweak a card or two to keep them from being must-picks or never-picks, but those changes are few and far between. If enemies seem too challenging, it’s usually because the player isn’t planning for them or approaching the fight optimally. Luck plays an important role in card and event offerings, of course, and a single bad draw can kill a promising run, but fighting the RNG and making the best out of bad situations isn’t a byproduct of gameplay; it is the gameplay.
STS perfectly captures the magic formula that keeps my ADHD-ridden ass coming back to only a handful of games day after day: no matter how discouraging or tragic the loss, there’s the feeling that the perfect run might be right around the corner. After a couple levels of unlocks per character, there is no functional difference between any two runs: you have the same chance to get the same cards, events, enemies, and so on. Every time you click play and generate a new Spire layout, everything might just have lined up to get you to the top. And even when you defeat the Act 3 boss and take a whack at the Heart of the Spire, adding your score to a personal and global tally, your journey still isn’t over. Getting there with all three base characters unlocks Ascension levels, which require you to take on increasing debuffs and sacrifice rewards throughout the run but add the possibility of reaching Act 4 and defeating the super-powerful final boss.
But no matter what, win or lose, your character blacks out and you return to the title screen. After the first few hours, there is no permanent progression in Slay the Spire. The only thing to keep you coming back is the desire to play again, to see how the next run goes or if you can break your unlucky streak—and that’s always been enough for me! Last month, I could not catch a single break: I played dozens of runs, only to have each and every one die before I made it to the top of Act 3. I would play for hours every week, trying again and again until I finally found The Run and blasted my way to victory with a deck that felt like it couldn’t ever lose. And then I kept playing, because Slay the Spire is really, really fun. The personal grind to figure out what’s good when, improve your consistency, and reach new levels of achievement is almost as fulfilling as coincidentally assembling a perfect deck and killing enemies in a single hit or never running out of energy. I have nearly 200 hours in STS and probably a hundred more watching professional streamers and YouTubers, and the highest Ascension level I have on any character is still only 14 out of 20. I’m far from an expert, but seeing how far I’ve come from a brand new player struggling to win at all is exhilarating.
Slay the Spire is available on PC (Windows, Mac, and Linux), mobile, and most consoles, but if I had it on my phone, I doubt I would be able to concentrate on anything ever again.
Experience: 170 hours
Rating: Ascension 20