Monster Train Review: Slayed Pyres

Monster Train is available on PC and Xbox One, including game pass. I reviewed the Xbox One version of the game on an Xbox Series X.

Overview

Monster Train is a rogue-lite deck builder where hell has literally frozen over. Your train carries the last burning pyre that heaven seeks to extinguish.

You will need to slowly build a deck made up from different faction, while the train carries the Pyre through 9 layers of hell all the way to it’s frozen heart.

You will need arrange monsters on each floor of your train to fight off invaders.

Monster Train is a rogue-lite, so you will fail often, but with each failure comes new cards, champions, and relics. The game features 5 factions with their own unique cards and powers, and you get to combine two of them at the start of every run.

The game is primarily single-player, but it also features a multiplayer mode where you race other trains in real-time. With each person fighting to reach the frozen heart of hell the fastest.

A Hell of a Good Time

Monster Train will feel familiar to fans of deck builders, particularly to the game that popularized the genre, Slay the Spire. But Monster Train feels less like a derivative and more of an evolution.

You choose to combine two of five exceptionally unique factions, which will allow you to earn cards and units from both. You also choose from two champions in your lead faction, both of which will also have three unique upgrade paths. Not only are the five factions incredibly varied, but there are also several styles of play within each individual faction.

At the start of each run, the game tells you what bosses will appear and what their abilities are going to be. This allows you to begin planning your strategy before the game even begins.

On the same note, at the start of each battle, you are shown what legion you’re contending with and their abilities, so you can once again plan in advance. They also give you the choice of enabling an optional risk versus reward trial.

Each faction has two champions, and each champions have three upgrade paths.

Monster Train is incredibly clear with its information, and it really helps you iron out your strategy. An optional trial might add spikes to the enemy legion, meaning my own units would take damage when they attacked them. I might have second thoughts about enabling it, if I’m running a deck of low-health monsters.

On the flip side, if I’m not focused on damage spells and the option would give the enemies a spell shield, but would reward me with a new unit, that’s something to consider.

Every decision you make in Monster Train is important. You get to choose between two paths after each fight. Each one bestowing a chance for new cards, upgrades, or relics, and you have to give each one careful consideration.

Monster Train gives you information on your enemy pre-battle and the option to take on a trail for a reward.

There are only 9 battles per run. So it’s essential that you are carefully honing your strategy, and not filling your deck up with dead weight. In fact, compared to other deck builders, I found it much more necessary to remove cards I didn’t need or skip choosing any at all if none of the options fit my plan.

It feels good too. In many deck builders the choices seemed obvious, yet I found myself weighing the possibilities of each one in Monster Train. That’s partially because of just how wide the possibilities can be, and how deliberate the combat actually is.

Protect the Pyre

Your train has four floors, with the precious Pyre being on the top floor. In every battle, legions of enemies will storm your train starting from the first floor and working their way up. If they reach the Pyre, they damage it. The Pyre itself will fight back, but if it reaches zero HP, the run is over.

Each turn, you gain and spend ember to play cards, usually monsters or spells. You can place monsters on any floor and in front of and behind each other. Monsters in the front get attacked first, and this rule also applies to your enemies.

This means it’s not just the cards you play that matter, but where and how you position them. When you end your turn, your minions and foes attack each other. Any enemy that didn’t die moves up a floor to meet your resistance there. Then a new set of enemies enters the bottom floor.

Careful planning is the key to victory

It gets even trickier with bosses. Every boss monster has a trait called relentless. This means they fight until either they die, or your minions do. Once a boss fight begins, you only have three chances to stop them from reaching your Pyre.

The concept allows for all kinds of strategies, from guarding units that grow over time while turning into powerhouses to powering up spells, buffing spikes on a defensive unit and so much more.

The interesting thing about Monster Train, is when you’re doing it right, it feels like you’re doing it wrong. By that I mean, every successful strategy will make it seem like you have broken the game and found some ridiculous combination that play testers missed.

You will buff up a massive hulk to insane levels of HP, or get a unit to strike three times in a row hitting for over a hundred damage each time. You will set up a plan just right that makes a spell unleash a massive amount of damage, or end up with a hand full of cards that you can play for free.

Then after a couple of fights of dominating the legions of heaven. The game will take a sledgehammer to your elaborate waltz, and it all comes crashing down. You didn’t break anything after all, what feels like a broken combo, is just a mid-tier strategy in Monster Train.

Win or lose, you are always unlocking new goodies.

That’s really the beauty of it. Every run feels like you’re working to create the most broken setup you can muster, and you can do so in a mind-bogglingly huge number of ways.

You get that awesome feeling of everything falling into place just right, without the game ever losing it’s challenge. It’s challenge is built around the fact that you’re going to pull the most ridiculous and outlandish stuff possible.

The whole process comes together to make an incredibly satisfying, fun, and well-designed deck builder that’s as addictive as it is challenging. Every loss is met with the mad scientist in your mind, giggling an evil laugh with a brand new plan and renewed determination to break it harder. Usually with some new cards and relics your failure just unlocked in mind.

Paved with Good Intentions

Beyond its bountiful strategy and fun combo breaker gameplay, Monster Train is also highly replayable. It’s five factions, each with two champions that are very unique, and chock full of unique mechanics. There’s a ton of stuff you can unlock for each of them.

But beyond that, winning a run opens up covenant levels. An option you can enable to increase the challenge, and these suckers go all the way up to 25. You can also enable a plethora of different mutators if you’re ever bored and create special runs you can share with your friends.

Various stores let you upgrade spells and units.

The multiplayer mode where you race other players on a run is also pretty nifty, and yet another unique and well-exceuted idea for a deck-building rogue-lite.

Hell isn’t all sunshine and butterflies though. Monster Train has a couple of the same pitfalls the genre has faced, and some unique to itself. The legions of enemies can become repetitive and predictable, and the boss variety leaves a lot to be desired even if they have a different trait each run.

Monster Train’s version of random events are scarce and repeat often, but the biggest offender is how short the runs are. Each run only consists of 9 fights, and in the first battle, your deck consists of your initial faction choices, and that’s it.

Boss fights take extra planning.

It really feels like the game ends just as your starting to get into the groove of your strategy. I’ve been in the middle of a frantic brainstorm, excited about how my deck was progressing. Only to realize I was on the final boss fight.

Monster Train is a much faster game than most deck builders. I feel like that was a design goal, but I also feel like it was tuned too far in that direction. Sure nine layers of hell makes thematic sense. But it’s a real buzzkill to have the run end when it feels like your deck was just beginning to find it’s soul.

Verdict

Hey! I just added Monster Train to my Creator Store. Purchasing it there gets you the Steam key and directly supports this content.

Despite my griping, I still feel like Monster Train is one of the best deck builders out there. I may wish that runs lasted longer, but I’m always eager to start a new one anytime one ends, whether I won or lost.

The variety, strategy, and sheer joy of putting together crazy combos make for an addicting game. The insane amount of replay value means you will easily get your money’s worth out of it.

Monster Train feels like an evolution of the deck-building genre. Taking it to new heights, even if the game takes place in the pits of hell. Slay the Spire may have set the bar, but Monster Train choo chewed right through it.

You may also enjoy my review of Circadian Dice and Slay the Spire.

Pros

  • Five unique factions with varied playstyles within them
  • Satisfying strategic gameplay
  • Monster Trains emphasis on planning adds another dimension to your strategies
  • The multifloored train and unit arrangement mechanics adds a lot of tactical depth
  • The game is centered around making combos that feel broken, but aren’t and it feels awesome
  • Tons of content to unlock, challenging covenant levels, special mutate settings and a cool multiplayer mode means a ton of replay value

Cons

  • Enemies, bosses and events can feel repetitive
  • Runs feel to short