Monster Train review

Release Date
21 May 2020
Shiny Shoe
Good Shepherd Entertainment

If there’s a metaphor about life to be found in roguelike games – with their emphasis on failure, perseverance, and never-ending cycles – then I’ve been too busy playing them to find it. I’ve spelunked, slayed spires, and bound Isaacs with the best of them, stopping only for water and the occasional tearful intervention. So, when I heard that Monster Train combined run-based deck-building mechanics and tower defence, I knew I was in trouble.

To paraphrase a certain GTA protagonist in mom-friendly language – oh dear, here we go again.

Monster Train is scientifically designed to scratch the pleasure centres in my brain. Each go-round sees you building a deck of monsters and spells to defend your train as you race to restart the fading fires of hell. The features list reads like a 2010s indie hits compilation, mixing Slay The Spire’s deck-building, Plants vs. Zombies’ lane-based unit placement, The Binding of Isaac’s persistent unlocks and potential for chaos. That last one is important for me, because the small chance of finding an ultra-powerful combination of run-altering artifacts is just enough of a dangling carrot to help me push through a seemingly doomed run.

Rather than cheap imitation, Monster Train blends its inspirations in smart ways to create a slick and cohesive experience. After each battle, the player recruits new units, upgrades spells and monsters, ditches or duplicates cards, or encounters random events – but never all at once. None of these mechanics jump out as original, but Monster Train makes them all feel like viable paths to victory.

The game’s best feature is its factions, each designed around a different strategy or introducing a unique mechanic. Your primary faction provides a lead unit but is backed up by a supporting faction that gives access to its cards and artifacts, providing a huge amount of variety when building a deck. My favourite, the Melting Remnant, is a bunch of gloopy Victorian candle gangsters who get stronger when they are extinguished and resurrected. Do you build up a bottomless horde of candle zombies, or pick a few to buff to unstoppable levels? Both are viable, and importantly, both are fun.

If there’s a bump in the rails of Monster Train, and it really is a small one, it’s the presentation. The art is cartoony and colourful, and it’s easy to read unit types just based on their design, but it sometimes struggles to create a sense of character and spectacle. Card-based games typically rely on a degree of abstraction, but it wasn’t long before playing spells felt less like hurling fireballs and more like seeing a bunch of maths scrolling like so much Matrix code. While the final boss is challenging – and comes in different flavours that affect your strategy – the game doesn’t do quite enough visually or mechanically to feel like an epic final clash, which can make even the hardest won success fall slightly flat. After my first victory, the final “cutscene” was so brief I thought I missed it.

That said, it feels unfair to dwell on the wrapping when the contents of the package are so good. I have barely touched on the many brilliant ways Monster Train encourages players to keep challenging themselves, like gilding cards used in a winning deck, or escalating difficulty modifiers which pitch you against your Steam friends on a progression ladder. If there’s a measure of how successful a roguelike is, it’s seeing how often you fire up another run after it kicks your ass. That Monster Train has been open in another window for the entire time I’ve been writing should tell you all you need to know.

Monster Train
It may not break new ground, but Monster Train gets almost everything right, guaranteed to satisfy fans of the genre and ruin the lives of - um, I mean gently ease in newcomers. Monster Train: it’s good!
A great balance of order and chaos
Well designed factions with interesting inter-play
Runs are just about the perfect length
Victories could be sweeter
At some point, I'll have to stop playing it
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