Friday, 2 June 2017

Monster Slayers - Review

Developer: Nerdook Productions
Publisher: Digerati Distribution 
Platforms: PC (version played), Mac 

Deck-builders and rogue-likes, despite initially looking like wildly different genres, actually share a surprising amount of design space. Both types of games are built around building cohesive strategies against a degree of randomness. The same tactics cannot be used each time, largely because the resources and challenges you’ll face will be different. You have to improvise, and improvisation is incredibly fun.

Furthermore, both genres scratch that “optimization” itch; that compulsive need to eke out as much advantage as possible from each situation. Both types of games typically work on a fine line of calculated risk.

And, what’s more, both genres are ferociously addictive.

Similar to Peter Whalen’s Dream Quest, Monster Slayers positions itself as a halfway house between these two different styles of games. It’s a deck-building game, where you start with a handful of basic cards, and, over the course of several dungeons, mould it and customise to fit a specific strategy. Anyone familiar with Legendary or Ascension will be right at home. The aim is simple; cull weaker cards and create a stronger deck to tackle stronger threats.

The rogue-like element comes in during the dungeon navigation. At the start of any given run, a player is given the option of tackling different areas, each with a randomly generated dungeon to explore.

Monster Slayers biggest strength is its breeziness. Most of the time fights conclude in a handful of turns, whilst the brisk snap of playing different cards is kept to a basic level of strategy. Rarely will a turn involve making more than one or two different calculations before attacking, but that’s almost the point. Monster Slayers keeps its pace breezy and light, rarely bogging down encounters with too much complication, all of which works in its favour.

This is all handled thanks to a basic system of AP and MP. AP governs physical attacks and is regenerated at the end of each turn, whilst MP carries over from turn to turn. As you’d expect, this means that the bulk of the more powerful cards are buried in the magic side of things, where the biggest challenge is finding a way to build up your mana pool enough to start slinging the big spells.

The game also hands you a welcome variety of classes to start out with. To give Monster Slayers some credit, there is plenty of variety here. The basic division, aside from the classes that depend on magic and those that don’t, is that some characters want to (typically) be proactive, whilst others more reactive.

The Rogue for instance is all about chaining together, card after card, in order to bury the opponent in a giant Backstab or Execute, two abilities that reward you for playing a handful of cards in a single turn. By contrast, the Cleric is dependent on powerful damage over time effects to grind out the enemy whilst healing away any damage they might incur.

It’s a smart, clear way to divide up the different classes and give them unique identities. And it must be stressed that variety is something that Monster Slayers handles rather well. This is almost an absolute requirement for any rogue-like; without variety, it’s the same thing over and over again.

The biggest issue the game has however, is that these two primary different strategies are currently woefully unbalanced. Being proactive is by far the better strategy when many enemies have such an overwhelming advantage over the player in terms of their cards and abilities. Simply not letting them get a turn, or at the very least only a few turns, is much, much safer than grinding it out in the hopes that you win the long, defensive game. In a game of risk versus reward, Monster Slayers is all about taking the risk, because the benefits for not doing so and playing it safe are often so incredibly slight.

It also doesn’t help that there’s some instances where players will simply be at a total loss regardless of their decisions. Again, a run where you aim for a grindy strategy or “control” deck can run you into an enemy that’s capable of regenerating away any damage they receive to the point of invincibility.

Monster Slayers simplicity can also be its undoing. Whilst fights are breezy and keep the pace brisk and to the point, they also risk devolving each run into a rote, by-the-numbers strategy. Cantrips (cards that draw a card) are king here, and having a deck that’s built to cycle through each and every card in your draw pile is arguably the best strategy to aim for, regardless of character.

This limiting focus on small draw piles and quick cantrips undermines some of the more interesting strategies that Monster Slayers toys with. The Necromancer is built around dumping cards into their discard pile to build mana, but this inevitably means having a bigger deck in the first place in order to gain any advantage from this strategy whatsoever; a death knell for most decks. By contrast, the Rogue, whose major goal is to cycle through their deck for big damage, is by far and away the best class it feels as if you’re handicapping yourself playing as some of the others. The different flavours that each character type brings to the table don’t compensate for this when the overriding “shrink draw pile/pick up cheap spells that replace themselves” is the major goal regardless of what deck/character you start out with.

Monster Slayers is unbalanced in other words. It’s a breezy, fun game, the kind that looks suited for mobile or tablet as much as it does PC. As a fast, speedy shot of dopamine, it delivers that successfully, but often skirts the line between being quick and accessible, versus simply being shallow. From the repetitive music (really repetitive music), to the widely swinging power levels from class to class, there’s a lot that needs fixing here, and there’s a sense that the mass of updates that it’s already had are more a case of getting the game to a good base state rather than improving on solid foundations.

Monster Slayers is impressive considering it comes from just one person, and the central concept is genius. However, it’s far from as satisfying as it should be, even when it is tempting you with just one more go.


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