When you’re really good at a strategy game — a boardgame, a card game, Civilization, chess — there’s a whole other kind of pacing than when you’re learning it, or just casually letting it unfold, or playing it as one of a half dozen other strategy games currently rattling around in your brain. The dilettante considers each move because he doesn’t know the game well enough to hurtle through it. When you master a game, your brain works as if it has muscle memory. In a given amount of time, someone who knows a game well can play twice as many games as someone who doesn’t. Maybe three times as many.
But even I can play a whole bunch of Monster Slayers in very little time.
If there’s a problem with Monster Hunters, its an image problem. It looks like any number of throwaway indie rogue-likes that you’ll never play because they don’t do anything to stand out from other throwaway indie rogue-likes. The Pop Vinyl characters don’t exactly distinguish themselves in screenshots. Even the title conspires against it. See, I keep writing Monster Hunters. It’s Monster Slayers. But it deserves special mention for how it’s fast, lean, and resolute.
Among the many things Monster Slayers does right is how it flies. As a deck-builder, you never have more than 20 or so cards (if you do, you’re Doing It Wrong). After the umpteenth battle, you know what’s coming, if not when it’s coming. So when it arrives, snap, snap, snap go the cards. The moves fly by with their Hearthstone inspired heft: a flash of color, a little screen shake, a dash of particle effects. Of course, there are some numbers in there as well.
The basic mechanics are consistent across all the classes, but Monster Slayers smartly distinguishes its classes with their starting decks. Each class feels distinct. The rogue draws extra cards. The wizard builds up for some hard hitting cards. The paladin shores up his defenses while whittling away at his enemy. I’ve seen claims online that a certain class is especially powerful. I’m not convinced. It’s all about how well you can optimize a deck over the course of the dungeons. Any given class with a well-tuned deck can make it to the final boss. Can your rogue cycle his deck to the backstab at the right time? Can your wizard set up a magic echo before a meteor? And how have you been spending your progression points between matches? Are your health potions plentiful and powerful? If not, of course the cleric is going to have an easier time of it.
When you’re building your deck, or tearing it down, it’s always only one card at a time. Decisions are sharp, discrete, important. In the average rogue-like your bag of hit points gets bigger. Whatever stick you wield hits harder. But Monster Slayers is about optimizing rather than merely growing. This is truly a deck-builder. As you progress through a dungeon, you’re removing cards, adding cards, and even improving cards. You win by improving the odds of getting to the good cards.
For instance, I can’t think of any games in which I open a treasure chest and decide I don’t want what’s inside, even if it’s just as vendor trash. But a deck builder is about what’s not in your deck just as much as it’s about what is in your deck. It’s about saying “no” so you improve the odds. I’m leaving behind a trail of unlooted chests because the cards I found don’t fit my strategy. Maybe I should have spent my last upgrade point on the ability that puts an extra card choice in every chest. And I’ve got plenty of gold in my pocket because the merchants don’t have anything I want. My kingdom for a simple mana charge card! What’s great about the healer isn’t that she heals me. It’s that she can take a card out of my deck.
Yet the cards are simple enough that every turn is brief but important. It’s really gratifying to see four cards and instantly know what to do with them and in what order. Boom, boom, boom, boom. The deeper you get into a dungeon, the further along the three dungeons to the final boss, the more familiar you are with your cards. The more familiar you are with each type of enemy’s deck. You want to hit the rhino hard before he gets to his body slam. The jackals have retaliation cards to be sure to lead with your weak attacks. Lion warrior roars will knock cards out of your hand, so get ready to play with your hand size effectively halved. And you know what’s so insidious about the medusa? It’s not just that she turns one of your cards into a useless stone card. Any ol’ frost spell can do that. But the medusa’s stone card is a permanent change. Did you lose one of your mana charges? Where’s a healer when you need one?
The cards fly by. This one, that one, that one, boom, boom, boom. Sometimes you might pause, consider, look at the numbers, wonder how long until a certain card. How many are left in my deck, how many has he discarded? Has he cycled that retaliation card yet? How much block have I accumulated? Use this improvise for attack or defense? Pause. Then boom, boom, boom, boom. Small decks, decisive cards, rules that are concise, clear, and amply tooltipped. Equip the inventory item you just found? Nope, not until you start another adventure. This is no time to mess around with gear. Monster Slayers is lean, muscular, trimmed of fat and sporting chiseled six-pack gameplay abs.
It got that way from a six-year and six-million games played workout on Kongregate. But don’t hold its free-to-play upbringing against it. It rubs elbows with impeccable manners in the world of ten-dollar Steam release. Between adventures you have to make hard choices among unlocks. Now the pace grinds to a halt as you agonize over how to improve your games from here on out. A global upgrade to level up with more hit points, to earn more gold, or to increase the drop rate of health potions? Or progress one of the classes with a new special ability? Or add special abilities to the sidekicks you might meet in a given game? Might meet. I’ve got my sage set up as a vital companion to the wizard, but there’s no guarantee I’ll draw the sage in either of the encounters that forms my party. Any decent rogue-like needs a long-term progression system. Any really good rogue-like makes that progression a reason for just one more game because something important is different in that upcoming game.
Several times over the last week or so, I’ve considered whether to sit down with Nier, Horizon, Torment, or Gravity Rush 2. It’s a tough decision. They’re worlds you fall into. Each of them is the sort of game you play for several hours at a time. You don’t boot them up lightly. Which one have I chosen? Well, before I commit, how about running a character real quick in Monster Slayers? Oops, I’ve just fallen into a world. A deck-building utopia.