Slay the Spire Early Access preview: Dungeon crawling with cards!

Mega Crit Games
Mega Crit Games /

Slay the Spire is in Early Access, combining dungeon-crawling, deck-building and roguelike-rejuvenating qualities. It’s also frustratingly addictive!

In 2018, Early Access is no longer necessarily a dirty word. One of the best (and most popular) games, PUBG, launched within a nine-month window of its Early Access launch, while some of the greatest indie games of the past few years (including Darkest Dungeon and Nuclear Throne) have found great success from it. That’s why I want to start highlighting some of these early successes, starting with developer Mega Crit Games’ Slay the Spire.

This game sees a player character climb a tall spire, acting as a dungeon with 50 floors across three levels. While the game has certain RPG elements it adheres to, including HP and gold used to purchase upgrades for character progression, players use cards from a deck to draw opportunities to attack, defend, buff and debuff enemies.

Combining these two genre styles alongside a gradual randomized roguelike progression where experience gained in death offers new card unlocks brings forward an addictive gameplay formula that makes it hard to put Slay the Spire down. I’ll get into more details about the game shortly, but you should definitely check out my gameplay of the game’s first level below.

The randomization of its deck-building gameplay allows each run to be different, no matter which character you play. There are two characters to start off each run, with the Ironclad representing an attack and defense-heavy character that starts with extra HP and heals for six HP after each combat. The Silent, however, has ten less starting HP, but starts combat with two extra cards drawn into their hand and a deck filled with cards that debuff and poison enemies over time.

You have to play a run of the game with Ironclad to unlock the Silent, but after that, the choice is up to you. Once you pick a character, you must ascend the Spire through one of several procedurally generated paths. Each level starts with a monster fight, but forks in the road could present more monster combats, more rests, merchants, unknown random events or even an Elite monster fight.

Combat in Slay the Spire operates on a turn basis, starting with three energy to use the cards drawn into your hand. Your deck starts off fairly basic, with a ton of simple Strike cards, Block cards and the odd class-specific bonus card that does extra damage and debuffs. However, you will often draw more cards than you can spend energy on, and depending on the enemy’s intentions for their next turn, you might want to block an incoming attack or do as much damage as possible before they can defend/debuff/buff themselves.

Slay the Spire Gameplay route
Mega Crit Games /

Most enemies aren’t strictly there to attack or defend each turn, as groups of monsters can even feed off each others’ bonuses or apply certain statuses that make them difficult to encounter. Thankfully, after each combat encounter, you have the opportunity to receive gold and one of three extra cards, slowly building your deck. As you get more cards, you’ll start to see how synergies line up.

Slay the Spire has more than 200 unique cards ready for you to face more than 50 unique combat encounters …

For example, your Silent character may start to receive a bunch of poison cards that build up damage over time (poison cannot be blocked). Should you get a card like Corpse Explosion, that card can remove the accumulated poison and deal double its damage to all enemies, in turn setting up a powerful attack that wipes an entire field. Slay the Spire has more than 200 unique cards ready for you to face more than 50 unique combat encounters, and the wonderful assortment of decks you can build make repeat playthroughs immensely enjoyable.

Enemies are varied in their combat approach, throwing monkey wrenches into your plans to the point of causing all your cards to require random energy amounts to use. Thankfully, as you progress, you can also receive relics in random chests or after beating Elites and bosses, each providing passive boosts to your card abilities such as gaining max health, extra energy per turn/start of combat or bonus debuffs against enemies.

Slay The Spire shop screenshot
Mega Crit Games /

Finally, a shopkeeper will appear a few times on the path, allowing you to buy special cards, relics, potions or even remove a card from your deck. Throughout your adventure, you can become cursed with cards that cannot be played and do negative effects, so paying for their removal is a good way to tailor your deck to your needs.

More from Previews

While it may sound like I’ve done a lot of explaining about how Slay the Spire plays over my impressions of the game in Early Access, the depth of its strategic possibility needs to be clear to everyone. It’s what attracted me to the game, as every time you start to play, everything becomes a randomized mess of obstacles and encounters to overcome. While you may want to play an offense-heavy deck, certain relics you pick up may push you towards a defense-heavy synergy.

There are dozens of different battle combinations, meaning you will encounter the same type of fights on repeat playthroughs. However, Slay the Spire lives and dies on how you can adapt to the enemies with the deck you have available. A group of monsters that damage you with thorns every time you attack them may be easier to deal with a poison deck, but that doesn’t make their friend that stacks explosion damage upon death any easier to deal with.

Slay the Spire boss
Mega Crit Games /

In many ways, Slay the Spire is like a puzzle game, where each encounter requires the same sort of problem-solving skills in order to overcome. Sure, there are some cards that are better than others, but for the most part you have a modest chance of beating everything in the game if you don’t misplay the cards in front of you. Just like playing Scrabble, there may be a bit of randomness to what you can play, but how you use the board is just as important as the tools readily available.

If anything, Slay the Spire is an addictive romp that will enter your brain like an earworm. All I’ve been thinking about this past week is when I can find time to play another run, and I haven’t had that kind of feeling with a video game since PUBG came out. Hell, I’ve played a few runs between the gameplay video and this preview!

The only word of caution I can provide is to be careful about managing expectations. Slay the Spire is in Early Access and will change the values of almost everything available right now, including characters, gameplay balance and difficulty design. It could end up like Darkest Dungeon and get insanely more difficult, or it become insanely easier over time.

That said, I must recommend Slay the Spire to anyone looking to lose dozens upon dozens of hours of their lives wondering just how to beat that damn Time Eater!

Next: Ten Steam early access games to look out for in 2018

A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this preview.