“Quality over quantity” seems to be a concept lost on game developers and game reviewers alike. Games like Skyrim — with it’s 1,000 NPC’s, a million spells and weapons, a billion items to find everywhere and a trillion game breaking bugs— are instantly heralded as instant classics based on the amount of stuff there is to do in the game alone. It seems that all a game needs to have is a long run time to receive near perfect scores and universal appraise despite it’s many flaws.
Slay the Spire, a 2019 rouge like deck building game by MegaCrit, does not have a particularly long play time. A single run will rarely top the sixty minute mark, and disastrous runs could be over in less than five (Ascension 20 is very hard :( ). With only four different characters, 400 or so cards, and the same three levels over and over with repeating enemies, it seems that Slay the Spire just can’t compare to the other games found a top the Metacritic ratings list. Somehow, a game that is essentially just repeating the same levels over and over again is outright better than all the rest.
This is because Slay the Spire truly shines in its game play. On the surface it looks extremely simple. You have enough energy to play a couple cards, some attack, some defend, some inflict status conditions. It it is the many ways that these cards interact, along with the many potions and relics, that make the game one of the most rewarding experiences ever. The game consistently provides the players with relatively easy combo’s to maximize damage, making the player feel extremely smart with limited actual work of their end.
For example, one of the available relics for the character The Silent is “Snecko Skull”. The relic adds an additional point of poison — a decaying damage over time that applies every turn — every time poison is applied. This can smartly be combo’d with the card “Noxious Fumes” which applies 2 (3 when upgraded) points of poison to each enemy at the start of each turn, as it gives an addition point of poison to every enemy on every turn. Combine this with the card “Envenom”, which applies poison every time the player lands and unblocked attack, and another relic like “The Specimen”, which passes on poison from one enemy to another whenever the enemy dies, and suddenly a player can easily rack up the amount of passive damage per turn they are applying.
This makes the player feel like a genius. If they see any of those cards or relics in the store, then they will purchase them easily being able to make the connection. When the enter a battle, they will easily be able to put together all the pieces to create the ultimate combo. It is incredibly rewarding for the player to see this all come together, and smirk as you are applying 100+ damage per turn to some of the most tanky enemies, all while hiding behind your block.
In reality, it does not actually take much of the player to pull of these combo’s. These are connections that can pretty simply be made in their own mind without any guidance. The game does an amazing job giving the player a ton of rewarding moments on each play through.
Despite how easy these combo’s are to pull off, the game is still surprisingly hard to master. Outside of the use of a few relics (one of which the Ironclad starts with), you do not heal between fights. This makes health an incredibly valuable resource, and something that is constantly on the mind of the player.
This can put the player in some tough situations. One on hand, it seems that the best strategy is to use your block as much as possible, shielding all damage even if it means not doing any damage in return. The game punishes players for playing too passively, though. Every enemy becomes stronger as the fight continues. Whether it is powering up their own attacks, applying debuffs to the player, or filling the players deck with unusable card — limiting the options they have on each turn — there is always this timer of some sort lingering in the background.
Even in the easiest of fights, the player has to constantly weigh their options. You want to save as much health as possible, but every turn where you dedicate your energy to blocking rather than attacking is a turn where your opponent has gotten stronger. You obviously want to close out every easy fight taking 0 damage, but being too worried about avoiding an extra point of damage here and there can lead to taking additional, unneeded damage.
At rest sites throughout the game players are met with similar dilemma's. You are given the option at each rest site to either “Rest” (heal part of your health) or “Smith” (upgrade a card). Certain relics also give you a few other options as well, like “Dig” (hunt for relics) or “Lift” (increase your strength in future fights). Every time a player arrives at the rest site they have to determine which option is the best going forward. One on hand, health is the most valuable resource, so healing is always a great option. Healing does not make your character anymore stronger long term, though, and passing up opportunities to upgrade your cards can come back to bite you in the later boss fights.
The map itself even places the player in these dilemmas. Unlike other rogue likes, Slay the Spire allows the player to choose their path through the level. Often a player will be in a situation where they can either fight a normal fight, an elite battle against a bigger enemy, or enter a rest site. All three of these options have their own risks and rewards. Going to a rest site is safe, but you lose out on potential rewards. Fighting a normal fight and winning allows you to collect and bit of gold and the chance to add another card to your deck as a reward, at the trade of a bit of health you will likely lose in the fight. Fighting an elite enemy may cost a lot of health — and may even kill you and end your run — but winning the fight means collecting a relic and potion that could not be earned otherwise.
This gives the game a ton of depth despite its very simple mechanics and limited content. There really is not much going on, but there are just so many possible interactions, and so many tough choices the player is forced to make, throughout a run. The player can truly build their own deck throughout the game, and use one of a many viable strategies for each of the characters. Slay the Spire allows for a lot of player expression at a time where so many games feel extremely linear and streamlined.