Why I’m all aboard Monster Train’s unique roguelike card-battling

Monster Train is a game about monsters, trains, sometimes Heaven, but mostly Hell. The premise is that Hell has gone to, well, hell. Heaven has invaded and destroyed much of what keeps the place together, leaving Hell to literally freeze over. It’s up to you and your grumpy band of demons to try and clip the wings of the annoying do-gooders from above.

Monster Train is effectively a roguelike card-battler, but it feels a bit different to a lot of those that are currently out there. Instead of simply playing your cards each turn, you summon monsters to defend the floors of your train. Enemies enter from the bottom floor and work their way up; your job is to set up defences to make sure they’re dead by the time they reach the core of your train. You get new cards each turn, just like in other games, but the units you place down are there until they die.

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You might be wondering why it’s on a train – well, you might not be wondering that, but I was – so I asked Shiny Show, the team behind it: “The simple answer is that we thought it would be cool. Seriously! The prototype for Monster Train was originally in a castle on Earth but once we decided we liked the direction the gameplay was heading we brainstormed a bunch of ideas for alternative settings. A monstrous train barreling through hell sounded like a fun option so we went for it.”

Combat plays out in a turn-based fashion, with the enemies attacking first, then your units. This is where things start to get tactical. You always want a creature with a big booty (high defence) at the front to soak up damage. That way, they can protect your more frail, but incredibly stabby rear units. The aim is to survive every round of attacks and then try and wipe out the invading forces.

Every invasion ends with a boss fight as well. The bosses are substantially stronger than the units they send in before them, and rather than going round by round, as in every other fight, they simply continue trading blows with whichever train car they’re in until one side is dead. It’s a really cool system that has you constantly wondering if you’ve placed your demons in the right spaces, if you’ve upgraded the right ones, or if the mistakes you made at the beginning of the level have doomed you to failure.

The card systems are interesting too. You’ve got spells and units, which are simple enough, but each of these can be upgraded twice. Upgrades to the spells involve things like boosting the ember (mana) cost and increasing their power, or reducing the cost, or allowing the spell to return to your hand if you’ve cast it. Units get things like new keywords, permanent attack and defence boosts, or even cloning an already buffed card.

It all ties together to make for some really great runs, and that’s all you need to keep you hooked in a roguelike. The fight speed is a little slow for my tastes, but you can speed things up at double or triple speed, which makes for a more efficient pace. That’s great if you feel like things are taking too long, and also means you can sit there and listen to all the weird moans, groans, and bird noises that the denizens of the underworld and their foes make, if you want.

At present, there are only two factions to choose from, but we were told that there are plenty of ideas for “new monster clans from the other rings of hell (which means new cards)”. This is good because whichever clan you have as your main dictates your champion card, an absurdly powerful demon. It’s fun, and it gives me a lot of hope for the variety in the full game when it eventually releases. You get to choose a clan as your secondary faction too, which means there’ll be loads of combinations and play styles available when there are more added.

It’s not just different cards that could be added either as the team has ideas for lots of other things too. Shiny Shoe told us that might mean “puzzle modes with pre-designed decks and challenges, and many more. We have nothing concrete to announce at this time but are eager to say more in the future”. It’s not a firm commitment, but you can expect that if the game does well (which it should), we’ll all get a few more stops added to this strange journey.

Overall, Monster Train already feels like a fairly well-polished roguelike, and it’s doing something a little bit different with the card-battling side of things too. It’s exciting to see it playing so well and already feel perfect for the “one more run” mentality that lets a roguelike thrive. It’s certainly one to watch, and hopefully, the arrival time of the game will be more reliable than the form of transport it’s based on. Given that they’re Hell trains, I assume it’s Southwest Trains specifically.

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Jason can often be found writing guides or reviewing games that are meant to be hard. Other than that he occasionally roams around a gym and also spends a lot of time squidging his daughter's face.