Slay the Spire and the joy of card-carrying

Two apologies to lead off with: one, I haven’t finished The Last of Us Part II yet, so I’m still not keen on writing about it here. It’ll happen, just later than promised. Two, I offer a heartfelt expression of regret (thanks, thesaurus!) for not listening to so many of you – our reviewer in issue 45 included – when you were all saying how great Slay the Spire is. I was, it’s safe to say, a grade-A numpty for passing over this deck-building rogue-ish game of chance, strategy, and chancing your strategies. It’s absolutely brilliant.

As I write this, late-lockdown mane resting on my neck, beard reminding me of the bloke from the front cover of Medal of Honor’s 2010 reboot, I am but one day removed from my first success. My first slaying of the spire. Except… well, that would be telling for the few of you who foolishly haven’t followed the instruction of those many orders of magnitude smarter than I. Play the game and see what happens. It’s not any sort of spoiler to say this is a game that you won’t be done with when you get to the end, and before I had let the relief of making my way through the final boss battle fully pass through my body, I was restarting for just one more run.

Encounters keep things fresh, with the chance to pick up random buffs and debuffs along the way

It’s that kind of game, of course, and in the most satisfying of ways. You won’t always be dealt a good hand – some might argue a fair hand – and sometimes your turn-based card battles will be stacked heavily in favour of the opponent for no reason other than a card you needed wasn’t drawn. Conversely, there’s plenty of fights where this isn’t the case, you win with ease, and you don’t even notice because it’s more fun to complain than it is to accept victory. At least in my experience.

But at no point does Slay the Spire let me feel like I’m being cheated. I’ve been in a huff, I’ve exclaimed things aloud no polite member of society would want to hear exclaimed aloud, quietly, or even inside a person’s own head. I’ve switched the console off in frustration at a run gone sour. But I’ve not managed to stay away for more than a day each time – in fact, the majority of rage-quits on my part have been followed by a meek return and run starting anew within an hour or so. As I say, it’s that kind of game in the most satisfying of ways.

The art is nice – fantastic when still like this – but it’s not hugely impressive in motion

And honestly, that’s just picking at the few flaws on show, because Slay the Spire errs far more on the side of being thoroughly fair. Enemies are capable of debuffing you, but you are capable of debuffing them. They might have a spell to constantly increase their strength, turn by turn, but that means they have significant weaknesses elsewhere (usually a lack of additional defence). And there’s always the chance you’ve picked up The Bomb card, forgotten you used it three turns ago, and it suddenly explodes dealing 50 damage to all enemies and grabbing your first victory against the Spire in what you had just seconds before accepted was to be yet another defeat. There’s always something, always an extra thing, always an additional technique. Strategy pays off, paying attention pays off more, and forgetting about really powerful things you have at your disposal, apparently, pays off the most.

It’s strange – I don’t consider Slay the Spire to be an epic, all-encompassing thing that should dominate all gaming discussion. It’s not particularly flashy – I’d argue that while the art is well-drawn it has the look of a mobile game – and it certainly doesn’t leap off the screen with its Epic Bombast™. It’s just sort of there, happily blending into the background.

But don’t mistake it for a wallpaper simulator: Slay the Spire is brilliant. Balanced, smart, rewarding in the extreme, full of depths I wouldn’t even have guessed at, and the sort of thing that even I, Captain Jaded, am excited to jump straight back into and play again, despite a blundering loss against a regular enemy I really shouldn’t have lost a single hit point against.

My main problem now, though, is that in writing these pages, I was tempted to pick up Slay the Spire on Android, thanks in no small part to a £4 credit on my account. It’s something I’d been avoiding. But now I am not avoiding it. Meaning it’s now possible for the game to be with me at all times. I never have to be away from it. Oh no

[Exclusive online update: reader, I did buy that Android version, and I can’t stop playing it even more]

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