Monster Train Review
Developer: Shiny Shoe Publisher: Good Shepherd Entertainment Release: 21 May 2020 Reviewed on: PC
During the last 5-10 years we have seen the release of enough roguelike deck-building games that we now have a genre. Games such as Hand of Fate lay the early foundation and the legendary Slay The Spire is probably the finest iteration of the unique gameplay mechanics that define this genre. In this Monster Train review, I take a look at how the game shapes up as part of the roguelike deck-building genre. I review Monster Train’s unique nuances along with its strong and weak points to arrive at a review score I believe reflects the experience players can expect from the game.
Setting the scene
As we have already mentioned, Monster Train is a roguelike deck-building game. The game is literally about a train full of monsters, therefore the title accurately describes the basic premise of the game. Of course, there is more to it than just a train full of monsters.
The train is on its way to the inner circle of hell to rekindle its fiery hellscape after hell has frozen over. The train in question carries valuable cargo in the form of the final burning pyre, which is the only hope the denizens of hell have for survival. With hell frozen, the forces of heaven are close to the ultimate victory and therefore they are hell-bent on stopping any attempt at rekindling the inferno.
In Monster Train players form part of the forces of hell and build decks to defend the train against the assault of the heavenly warriors. The train travels through the various circles of hell until it eventually reaches the point where the pyre is used to light the inferno. The challenge and intensity of heavens assault grows as the train travels deeper into the circles of hell with the assault culminating in a final climactic battle as the train reaches its destination.
Monster Train definitely doesn’t have an award-winning narrative, but within the context of roguelike deck-builders, it does enough to give meaning to the cards and spells that fill your deck.
Does Monster Train provide a satisfying roguelike experience? This is an important question as the loop of frequent death and building on incremental upgrades is central to the experience of games in this genre. Based on my time with Monster Train, I am of opinion that the game does provide a satisfying roguelike experience.
Monster Train doesn’t introduce revolutionary new mechanics to enhance the roguelike elements of the game. But it does the basics very well. Similar to Slay the Spire, rounds last anywhere between 1-2 hours, with the majority being around the 1-hour mark. The experience has a definite start and end mark, but Monster Train deviates from the branching pathways that Slay the Spire and Curse of the Dead Gods use.
The road to victory is a linear one. After a few runs, you know which type of enemies and bosses you can expect at each point of the train’s journey. The enemies and bosses have slight variations, but for the most part they are predictable. Players only need to decide which rewards they take at the end of each encounter as the train moves to the next circle of hell.
Even though the experience is mostly linear, there is very little room for error and a run can quickly result in loss. Upgrades are mostly linked to unlocking new cards once you have gained enough experience with a clan.
There were many nights where I got stuck in the ‘just one more try’ loop which is a testament to the fact that Monster Train provides a satisfying and thoroughly enjoyable roguelike experience that usually left me wanting to play into the early morning hours.
Monster Train delivers a quality experience on the roguelike front, but does it do the same for the deck-building aspects? Monster Train offers a satisfying and rewarding deck-building experience. It is deceiving in its simplicity, but the longer you play the more you notice the immense amount of depth in the deck-building experience of Monster Train.
Cards are tied to the five playable clans, and each clan has around 40 unique cards that are split between units and spells. There is also a small pool of clanless cards of which the most popular are the Train Stewards which you will probably use in every run you attempt. Whenever you start a new run, you will have to choose a primary and allied clan and the cards of these two clans will be the ones available to draft during your attempt. This means that the average run will include around 80-90 cards for you to build a deck from.
You will also have access to the hero card of your primary clan and these cards are some of the most powerful you can play. Their abilities are tied to the theme of their clan and therefore the hero card is an important part of your deck’s strategy. If you want to know more about the different clans and see how we ranked them, you can view our clans guide here.
Deck-building in Monster Train is based on the interplay between your unit cards and your spell cards, and this is where a lot of the fun happens. There are barely any unit cards that have no extra abilities and these are crucial parts of deck synergy. For instance, the Awoken clan has some very intimidating plant creatures that grow extra spikes whenever they receive healing. A deck with lots of healing potential can ensure that these creatures do tons of damage to attackers. This results in mobs and bosses who decimate themselves on the spiked carapace.
This is but one example, and there are many of these synergies to be discovered in each clan. Once you find a clan that resonates with you, you learn to trust certain of their units to carry a run with the right support. With the Molten Remnant clan, many decks are focused on actually ensuring that your units die as frequently as possible as they come back stronger when they are ‘reformed’.
Monster Train has some amazing depth in deck-building and with the added bonuses from the artifacts you gather during a run, the resulting experience is up there with the best in the genre.
What makes Monster Train unique?
Obviously a roguelike deck-building game like Monster Train is expected to have the elements I have discussed in this review. What does Monster Train do to make these elements feel unique? The answer – multi-floor battles.
The train you are tasked to defend has three levels which enemies need to move through to reach the pyre and destroy it. Each floor is an opportunity for you to realise the strategy of your deck and it is extremely satisfying to have a multi-floor defence that gets the job done.
Having a multi-floor arena would have been less satisfying if Monster Train did not have persistent summons. When you play a unit card, that unit is summoned on the relevant floor and stays there until it dies or you move it. Most of your spells rotate between your deck, hand, and discard pile, but units cards are consumed when you play them. Because they can die, they are inherently valuable to the player. Upgrading, buffing and keeping units alive across the floors of your train is a lot of fun and also quite challenging as you progress through the game.
With Monster Train, players are challenged to think about what they want to do with each floor to maximize their defensive potential. Your deck needs to have a solution to each floor’s unique challenge to ensure that enemies die by the time they reach the pyre. Maybe you want the first-floor defence to apply a bunch of debuffs to the enemy, on the second floor these debuffs are exploited by the units that are stationed there and on the third floor, you have your clean-up crew to snipe the remaining enemies with their high damage.
This is a hypothetical scenario, but these are the questions you will have to answer to have successful runs in Monster Train. Using different floors as the arena for this roguelike deck-builder is not revolutionary, nor is it particularly innovative, but it works superbly.
Monster Train strong and weak points
The last aspect of this Monster Train review is a quick overview of some key strong and weak points of the game that I have touched on yet. Let’s start with some key strong points for Monster Train.
Monster Train strong points
I have had a blast playing the different multiplayer modes for Monster Train. Initially, I only checked them out for this review, but I quickly became hooked on the Hell Rush mode. In this mode, you play against eight other players to see who can get the highest score at the end of the run. You receive a random deck with random clans and only have limited time to complete each encounter. Since I stumbled on this mode, I have almost exclusively played it. You should definitely try it!
Lot’s of replayability
While I doubt that I will spend as much time with Monster Train as I did with Slay the Spire, I have already sunk 40 hours into the game and I am far from being bored. I still look forward to each run and drawing certain of my favourite cards is just as satisfying as it was 20 hours ago. I have yet to get the Umbra clan to level 10 and as I work my way there I am discovering new strategies along the way. Monster Train will probably keep you entertained for many hours and for the price of the game you can’t really go wrong here.
Interesting card mechanics
Monster Train succeeded in making the five playable clans feel unique and mechanically distinct from each other. Each clan has interesting mechanics to master and combining them with different allies results in a constant influx of new build ideas and strategies. I have my favourite builds that I usually try to complete, but sometimes RNG hands me a bunch of cards and artifacts that forces me to explore mechanics in new and exciting ways.
Monster Train weak points
While Monster Train is a fantastic game (as our score reflects), no game is perfect and Monster Train is no exception. Therefore, in my quest to review Monster Train, I also found some weak points:
As mentioned earlier in the review, Monster Train forgoes the branching pathways of other games in the genre, and this results in linear gameplay. After a few runs, there are very few surprises left in terms of enemy types and bosses. Luckily the rest of the game is thoroughly entertaining, but enemy variety is lacking. On top of the lack of variety is the fact that you encounter roughly the same enemies at the same point of the journey in every run.
While this is definitely not the end of the world, knowing the game is deterministic takes some satisfaction away from ‘outsmarting’ the enemy. Deterministic in this sense means that all the moves that the enemy makes during a battle are predetermined. You can exploit this by force quitting the game during a battle if you are losing. Once you resume your run the enemy will make the same moves, and spawn the same waves and you can change your approach to try to win the second, third or even fourth time around. Monster Train won’t lose any points because of this design decision, but I would have preferred dynamic encounters.
At the end of this Monster Train review we can confidently say that this is a superb game, and well worth your time and money. Monster Train did well to learn from games such as Slay the Spire but adds enough nuance to the recipe to stop it from becoming a cheap knock-off and rather take its place as a worthy entry into the genre.
If you enjoyed this Monster Train review, check out our other reviews here.