Monster Train takes the deck-building genre down a new track, bringing about a whole new gameplay style and exciting new mechanics including a vertical battleground. At its heart, it's a deck-building roguelike, but once you delve a little deeper you get to see just how strategic this game really is, and the way each battle plays out depends on you and the way you prepare. The three-tier layout of the train whilst straight forward becomes vital in ensuring you can get through battles as you try and keep your train on track as you return home to relight the fires of Hell. You see, you have to make sure not to allow the enemy access to your Pyre as that's the only thing keeping the train operational - lose that and it's game over and Hell will remain frozen over.
Starting out you will have to choose your primary and secondary clans (these are essentially your decks); these decide which cards will be available throughout each run. Selecting a certain clan will bring with it different synergies and styles of play for each train journey. The primary clan you choose will provide you with your champion card; this is arguably your most powerful ally and the one card that you can frequently upgrade. As well as this, the champion card will always be your first drawn card and can be played for free. Optimising your champions' upgrades will give you the best opportunity to wipe out the opposition, and at the very start of your journey, you will be given a free upgrade and can then go forth and plan your strategy.
Each battle you enter will start out by showing you the sorts of enemies you will face, along with the boss and which random buff the enemies gain. This can vary from a damage shield that will absorb the first attack, or add rage to allow them to hit harder. Each boss has a different pool of unique skills that can be applied at the start of a battle and this will clearly be detailed at the start. Once you are in the battle your first hand will be drawn, your energy will be provided and the challenge begins. As with most of these games, your standard enemies will appear at the start and progress in difficulty as you travel down the tracks. Most enemies will arrive with a skill that makes them a little more tricky to fight but simply hover over the skill to identify how this will affect the battle. Alternatively, if you are up for the challenge you can ignore these stats and keep that information secretive, but that decision falls on the player.
Combat is where the game becomes the most fun, but also the most challenging, depending on the luck you encounter with the mid-game loot it can drastically change your ability to do well. Sometimes you just don't get the cards you need and are stuck playing all the lower/starter monsters. Whilst these are useful, they lack the power needed for end game bosses. Each monster card has your standard health and damage stats, however, one feature that Monster Train brings in is the outcome stat; if you choose to have this active, it will show you how much damage each card will take during the round, however, if the card is destroyed it will show up as a red cross. After you end your turn the combat will play out and enemies will work their way up through the floors, so ensure you have troops stationed on all levels to fight. If the enemies make it to the top floor they will attack the Pyre and you risk losing the game. Once the boss turns up it is an all or nothing standoff, whereas standard enemies will have one round of combat before ascending, once the boss arrives either it kills you or you kill it. If you cannot hold it off - you better hope your Pyre has enough in it to fight back, but relying on that is risky and could cost you the entire battle.
Not all is perfect within Monster Train, however. At times it becomes overwhelmingly challenging without warning, whilst yes this is expected within these types of games and the creators don't want to make things easy, we found at one point we were facing a boss with 250 health, a challenge but a manageable one. Then we clear through the next wave of enemies only to be faced with a boss who had 999 health and who came equipped with multi-attack, no easy task no matter your luck or skill level. Now whilst this might be us being too critical it did at times feel unfair, like we were never meant to pass that run. But who knows, maybe your luck will be better than ours and you will clear that final boss with ease. Because once you do, it's one hell of a thrill ride.
Overall our time on the train was one to remember, the sleek design of the map allowed for a fun and challenging experience. The vast number of cards and synergies allow for a unique experience with every battle. Due to the number of clans and variety when levelling up and unlocking new cards the game stays fresh and enjoyable for hours. Whilst at times we found ourselves getting frustrated, in the grand scheme of things this was very minimal compared to our overall enjoyment. This is one game that we recommend for everyone, whether you are a fan of the genre or not. Monster Train has enough content to keep returning fans intrigued but is also straightforward enough to allow newcomers a fair opportunity.
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