Slay the Spire Review: Addictive and Fun

The title screen for Slay the Spire

Slay the Spire is a single-player card game that that has you trying to climb a spire to its heart. I’m not one for computer card games. I love the Elder Scrolls world, but I couldn’t get into Legends. I didn’t become addicted to Gwent when I played The Witcher. I never got into Magic: The Gathering, Hearthstone, or any other card games. But I received Slay the Spire as part of what used to be Humble Monthly (now Humble Choice).

A few weeks ago, when I was looking for something to play and casting my eye over my rather large game backlog, I saw Slay the Spire. I checked the Steam store page for the game. Many reviews included the word “addictive.” Many players had put 100+ hours into the game.

I thought, “Why not give it a try? I’ll play it for fifteen minutes, get bored like I have with other card games, and move on to something else. And the best thing is, I’ll have reduced my backlog by one.”

I was wrong.

At the time of writing this, Steam tells me I’ve put 44 hours into the game, which is longer than most games I’ve played over the past few years.

Read on to find out what Slay the Spire is all about.

What is Gameplay Like in Slay the Spire?

The rules of the game are pretty simple, one of the reasons it’s fun. You traverse maps, moving from room to room. In each room, you’ll combat enemies, rest, upgrade cards, open a treasure chest, or have some type of encounter that can reward you handsomely or permanently debuff you in some way.

Combat screen in Slay the Spire
Combat in Slay the Spire. In the lower-left you can see that this character (the Ironclad) has 3/3 energy left. Two relics are shown in the upper-left. This is a daily run, so there are Modifiers (seen on the right side of the upper bar). I love the Anger card.

Combat is turn-based. Each turn, you’re dealt five cards. There are cards that do damage to enemies (in one shot or over time), cards that debuff enemies, and cards that provide you with armour and buffs. Each card costs energy to play. When you run out of energy, your turn ends and the enemy plays. That’s the crux of how the game works. But there’s more.

If you hope to climb the spire, you’ll need relics, which are items you pick up as you defeat enemies. They provide permanent buffs or debuffs, meaning their effects don’t wear off after a combat session. Some relics buff and debuff (for example, the buff might be that you draw an extra two cards each turn, but you also have fewer cards to choose from when adding to your deck).

Through relics, you can increase your maximum hit points, increase how many cards you draw each turn, and increase how much energy you have each turn. There are also relics that apply buffs and debuffs (to you or to your opponents).

In addition to relics, you can use potions. They can buff, debuff, add armour, or damage enemies, but unlike relics, their effect is temporary.

And that’s it. Cards, relics, and potions. Pretty simple.

After a successful combat, you can choose a card to add to your deck. You can also upgrade cards (making their effects more powerful and/or reducing the energy cost to play them) at campsites. But when you enter a campsite, you have to choose between resting (regaining any lost hit points), or smithing (upgrading cards). You can’t do both.

That’s what Slay the Spire is about. Choices. Which cards to play? Rest or smith? Take the relic or leave it? Do damage or block damage this turn? Risk accepting a challenge from a strange being you encounter in a room, or just leave?

What’s the Point of Slay the Spire?

When you begin a run, you have access to one character (the Ironclad). The goal is to climb the spire. You do this by starting in Act 1 and travelling along a map, from room to connected room. When you reach the top of the map, you fight a boss. If you win, you move on to the next act. Your goal is to climb the spire, which means that you’ll want to reach and defeat the final boss in Act 3.

A map in Slay the Spire
Part of the Act 1 map in Slay the Spire. You start at the bottom by choosing one of the three rooms (the large icons). Once you finish a room (in this case, the ones on the bottom are all combat rooms), you can move along any dotted line connected to your current room. Question marks are encounter rooms.

Here’s something I didn’t understand when I started the game (I’ll get back to this when I discuss what’s not so great about the game): you can’t expect to succeed the first few times you attempt to climb the spire. The game is designed in such a way that you must grow stronger by attempting the climb several times. By making attempts, you’ll unlock more powerful cards, and you’ll also gain a better understanding of what type of decks you can build with a specific character, and how the enemies behave. After several attempts, you’ll have a decent chance of completing the climb.

The ironclad isn’t the only character you can play. As you climb the spire, you gain points. If you have enough points when you die, you’ll receive an unlock (five in total for each character). The first unlock for the Ironclad is a new character (the Silent). Other unlocks will be more powerful cards you can add to your deck, and more relics you can find.

There are four characters in total. Each character has its own deck. Ironclad cards aren’t the same as Silent cards. Ironclad can be a tank or a damage-dealer, depending on how you build the deck. Silent has the ability to poison enemies (and poison ignores armour), so you can build a deck around poison, if you like.

In addition to regular runs of trying to climb the spire, you can do a “Daily Climb”, which modifies the run in some way. For example, it might let you build a deck using cards from other characters, rather than only the cards that are usually available to the character you’re playing. Or it might let you jump around the map at will, rather than only being able to move to rooms connected to the one you’re in. Achievements are turned off for the daily climbs for obvious reasons, but who cares? They’re a great way to add replayability to the game.

You can also customize runs any way you like, but achievements are turned off for customized runs, too.

Finally, the soundtrack is fantastic.

What isn’t so Great about Slay the Spire

No game is perfect, and that’s true for Slay the Spire. For me, there are two negatives.

First, the game gets tedious after a while, because you’ve seen all the cards and enemies. You get the “same old, same old” feeling. Apart from doing a daily climb every now and then, I won’t be playing beyond the 44 hours I already have in the game. I feel like I’ve seen it all. I haven’t killed the heart (more on that in a minute), so maybe I’ll give that a try every once in a while. But the addictive “just one more room” and wanting to play the game whenever I can phase is over.

An encounter in Slay the Spire
An encounter in Slay the Spire. You never know what you’re going to get, and can come out much better or worse than when you entered the room. Encounter rooms sometimes contain a regular combat session.

The second drawback is the lack of guidance. The game tells you very little. For the card game itself, that’s fine. The rules are simple enough that you can learn as you go. But there’s more to the game than meets the eye.

If you manage to climb the spire and defeat the Act 3 boss with the Ironclad, Silent, and Defect characters, you’ll gain access to a hidden fourth act. At the end of that act, you’ll face the heart of the spire. But you need the keys to get to the fourth act, which you can get by climbing the spire again.

None of this is explained in the game. Neither are ascension levels. When you successfully climb the spire with a character, you move up an ascension level. At each level, things will be a little more difficult on your next climb. You can search the Net to find a table that explains what changes at each ascension level. But that’s the problem. You have to find this information on the Net. If I hadn’t received an achievement that mentioned ascension, I wouldn’t even know that ascension levels exist.

I’m not sure why the developers don’t tell you about Act 4 or ascension levels. I don’t like it when I can miss significant features because there’s nothing in the game that lets me know they exist.

So, if you do get into Slay the Spire, search for ascension, beating the heart, etc.

Another thing I found confusing (due to lack of guidance) is that I didn’t understand at first that when you die and return to the home screen, you can continue your run by pressing “Play”. By “continue your run,” I mean that when you press “Play” and choose to climb the spire again, all the unlocks are still there. You’re not starting from scratch, like you would if you created a new profile (save game).

As long as you keep playing under the same profile, character unlocks, card unlocks, and relic unlocks will all be there. As I mentioned before, you’re meant to try, fail, try, fail, try, etc. until you succeed. The game is designed that way. If you started from scratch every time, you’d never make it to the top. But there’s no indication of this anywhere, and it can be confusing when you die and you’re kicked back to the title screen, which looks exactly like it did when you started. There’s nothing to clue you in that by pressing play and choosing a character, you’re starting a climb with all the unlocks from previous attempts.

But none of this detracts from how fun the game is.

Conclusion

Slay the Spire will provide you with tens of hours of addictive play. You might eventually get bored, but by then you’ll have had your money’s worth and then some, and there will always be daily climbs to give you a different type of challenge. Whether you love computer card games or not, pick this one up.

Get Slay the Spire at Steam

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