Slay the Spire is a deckbuilder roguelike I decided to check out after hearing a lot of buzz about it. It’s a very beautiful game that is rendered unplayable by its overwhelming randomness.
I can’t beat this game. I’ve tried for nearly 40 hours according to Steam, but I simply cannot beat the final boss. I’ve read guides, watched playthroughs, and tried outlandish strategies, and I’m still no closer to understanding how I’m supposed to beat this game.
The reason for this is the core mechanic. Slay the Spire plays like a card game: Every round, you draw a set of five cards, and that hand determines what you can do that turn. Sometimes you will get exactly what you need, and sometimes you will find yourself a sitting duck with absolutely nothing you can do about it. The game turns the screw on this to an incredible degree, as it’s also a nail-biting resource management game that doesn’t heal you after fights. A single bad draw that extends a battle 1 turn longer or leaves you to take the full brunt of an attack can screw you for the entire run even if it doesn’t lose you the battle, because it’s exceedingly difficult to get that HP back. Every fight is won by hair-thin margins and every point of damage whittles you down.
Like many card games, Slay the Spire is praised for its synergy and strategy. It’s deserved praise: When you do manage to luck into a good synergy, you can feel fantastically powerful… right up until you get a dead hand against a difficult boss and realize that there is literally nothing you can do to save your run. And I do say “luck into”, because the cards you get to add to your deck are also completely random. Sometimes you’ll get a bunch of really awesome cards right out of the gate that line up for a perfect synergy, other times you’ll only get a haphazard deck of cards that don’t play together at all.
Now, this is the case for all roguelikes to some degree. But I think a crucial component of a good roguelike is that it lets you react. Some runs will be harder than others, sure, but you can escape from a death spiral if you know what you’re doing; you can roll with the punches. You can’t do that in Slay the Spire. You can’t say “The way my deck is turning out, I should really pursue this relic or this specific card,” because there is no way to pursue specific items. Everything is completely and utterly random. You can choose to fight monsters for more card drops, but that only does so much when card drops are random. Same thing for minibosses and relics. You are constantly forced to gamble with your incredibly limited resources and frequently get a total bust.
Possibly the most frustrating aspect of this is that every run, the final boss is randomly selected from a set of three bosses, each of which is designed to counter one of the big dominant strategies that decks tend to end up with. But you don’t know which boss you’re facing until the final third of the game, by which point it’s too late to re-engineer your deck if you find out you’ve just played scissors against rock. The final boss is just randomly way harder or easier depending on what deck you’ve happened to work towards — which, again, is also random! In a sensible game they would force you to fight all three to prove you have the flexibility, like how in Pokemon you’re pit against multiple type gyms so that you can’t sweep the whole game with your starter. But for some reason it doesn’t do that.
(And then, if you somehow manage to beat that, you get to fight the final final boss, which is basically impossible without a very specific counter-strategy that you, again, can only stumble into through luck!)
It all adds up to an experience that was just too frustrating for me. Roguelikes are only fun when I can look back and say, “Aha, I should have done this instead of that, let me try that next time.” But every time I fail in Slay the Spire, I genuinely cannot see what I could have done differently.
I find it a great shame, because the individual pieces of the game are really well-designed. Enemies have tons of clever and inventive abilities that encourage thoughtful strategy, and I found it remarkable how distinct each of the playable characters felt, especially in how well they remixed the standard fighter/mage/thief paradigm. But they were unfortunately shackled to a terrible core, and so the whole thing’s a wash.
I think a really easy fix would have been to let us customize our decks more freely. As it is, because you always have to use all the cards you own, your deck will inevitably get bloated with so many cards that the chance of drawing a good hand will plummet even further and things become even more of a crapshoot. (This is so bad that the most common advice in guides is to not take cards when offered unless they fit the particular build you’re going for, which is incredibly backwards and unintuitive.) If we could freely pick only the cards we wanted for a given battle, that would allow for far more control and flexibility while still allowing for some roll-with-the-punches randomness. Even Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories understood that, and you know your game’s got problems when that hot mess is comparing favorably.