Monster Train preview

Monster Train is a great deck builder game with a dash of strategy. Think Slay the Spire, but you’re not alone — and you can actually achieve victory.

Monster Train is a bit of a misleading title. Sure, there’s a train and there are monsters in it. But the title gives the impression that it’s some kids’ game with spooky critters straight out of the Halloween decoration aisle. And while it’s not actually a dark, brooding, hardcore title, the game is about reigniting the fires of Hell after Heaven invaded and made everything freeze. The cosmology is as theologically sounds as it is in Darksiders, so you do that by transporting the last shard of the Pyre via the railroad that crosses the nine circles of Hell.

Monster Train preview

A Monster Train run presents a series of eight battles (pitting you against waves of enemies and ending with a boss fight) each followed by chances to upgrade your troops, get new stuff, and maybe even heal the Pyre. Five of the battles are randomized. Three of the others have fixed bosses — Daedalus, Fel and Seraphim — but the boons and debuffs they inflict change from run to run. The structure is plainly more streamlined and less random than in Slay the Spire.

Also unlike Slay the Spire is the choice of clans. For each run, you choose two (out of five) clans of Hell to provide you with cards (units and spells). One of them will be your primary clan, the most visible effect of this choice being the champion. It’s a free unit you’ll always have at the start of every battle that will be upgraded several times during the run.

Defending the Monster Train

Battles in Monster Train take place on said eponymous hellish locomotive. It’s split into four levels. The enemies start at level one and move up until they meet and fight the Pyre, which you must try to prevent by placing your own troops and using spells to kill the invaders.

Enemies take up positions on the right of the screen, your devils and demons on the left. The enemy strikes first, starting with their left-most unit, always attacking your closest troop. Then your survivors strike, starting with the rightmost. Outside of bosses and Pyre room, there’s only one round of fighting before the survivors (if there are any) move on. This happens for all three floors, so you have to allocate your resources wisely for the potential three fights you’ll have a turn.

Monster Train preview

In Monster Train, the big striking power comes from your units. Unlike spell cards, they aren’t mixed back into the deck when used. For the most part, once a troop is down, he’s down for the battle (but not for the run). The game show you the expected results of each fight, so you can better tailor your defenses. Sadly, there’s really no organic way to change the positions in the battle conga line or switch floors once your troops are there, though you have spells that can help with that.

Throwing more demons at the problem

Some units are meant for the front line because they’re beefy, have relevant front line abilities, or are cheap and plentiful. Most of the time, your attitude towards defense and battle conga will depend on the clans you chose. Monster Train has few neutral cards, so the spells and units that you accrue along the way will be given for the clans selected. Each clan has its own special gimmicks, some of which can combo in hilarious ways.

Monster Train preview

Hellhorned, the most demon-like clan, have probably the best attack values but universally terrible health scores. They can make up for it with many armor boosts (ablative HP) and rage, which increases the attack. They also have a lot of imps – trash troops, but they provide a boost when summoned and can eat that one attack when placed at the front. Some abilities are keyed to having imps on the field and in the deck.

This jives nicely with the Melted Remnant, a collection of candle people who draw a lot of power from being able to bring back fallen units into your deck (though they get a burnout timer when summoned) and having spells that increase in power as more of your units die. The Umbra clan pairs well with them because of their focus on Morsel units that get eaten by the front (read: right-most) unit at the end of the round of combat for buffs.

A SEP program for Belial

But that’s not all! Monster Train has a much bigger focus on upgrading cards than Slay the Spire. After a battle (which usually grants cash and two card draws), you’ll face two paths via the next circle of hell. Each of those paths will offer different boons, the most usual of which will be buying either spell or unit upgrades. (It’s not unusual to see them on the opposite paths.)

Each card has two upgrades slots, and that’s where you can get really dumb. Sure, there are regular upgrades like increasing spell power or unit health. But the real stuff comes in when you give your units Endless (returns to card draw after death) and Quick (strikes before the enemy) or when you decrease a spell’s cost to zero and upgrade with Holdover (returns to your hand next turn if you cast it). So imagine having a Melted Remnant spell that does 10 times your dead units in damage with Holdover at almost no cost.

Now imagine that if casting your most expensive spell made the cheaper ones free. That is the beauty of artifacts, and they’re no less vital in Monster Train than they were in Slay the Spire. They’re not all amazing, but some of them are really great: getting multistrike and damage shield on the three neutral cards you’re almost guaranteed to have, or dealing 2 damage every time the enemy changes floors, allowing you to simply wipe out some of the weaker gits? It’s beautiful.

The power buildup nonsense doesn’t end here, but it is necessary. I’ve gone on a whole bunch of runs, but I’ve only completed a few. You will be wrecked by random cards you get, the boosts that Daedalus, Fel, and Seraphim receive, and other stuff. You lose more often than you’ll win. But in the end, it’s all fun stuff!

It helps that Monster Train is a beautiful train with some nice audio and a surprising bit of world-building you can find if you read about the cards in the logs. Heck, there’s world-building crammed in every nook and cranny that didn’t have to be given to gameplay. They even managed to use it to describe the game mechanics that enemies have, so it works to read the mouse-over bios that you can get on the before-battle screen.

Monster Train is such a cool game that I was surprised to learn it’s still in beta. The gameplay is nice, and I haven’t encountered any bugs. I guess they’ll put more work into balance? That’s something any game could use. After that, well, there are nine circles of hell and only five clans. I’m seeing DLC!

Martynas Klimas
Always chasing that full-time-game-reviewer fairy. Perennially grumpy about Warhammer 40,000. Big fan of RTS, RPG, and FPS games. Has written for other sites. The only Lithuanian you know.

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