I have a confession to make – I originally dismissed Monster Train after playing the tutorial. The cards looked too much like Hearthstone’s (and that was a game that I’d burned myself out on years ago), some of the mechanics and onscreen information didn’t seem to be explained well enough and the game just didn’t seem all that interesting to me.

However, after reading an article online about the ways that digital card games can bring unique mechanics and take care of bookkeeping that would be all but impossible with a physical deck of cards – an article in which Monster Train was featured pretty prominently – I was lured back in to give it another shot.

That was weeks ago – and I have barely stopped playing it since.

So yes, Monster Train is a deckbuilding game with roguelite elements. The concept is this: Hell has actually frozen over – and your train is headed back there to keep the fire from burning out forever. On your train is the Pyre, a source of flame that you must protect from the legions of Heaven. Your train has four floors, with enemies usually entering via the bottom and looking to make their way to the top, chipping the life from the Pyre if they reach its room.

Standing in their way are your cards: units and spells that you’ll use to destroy, slow down and manipulate the armies of Heaven. Each turn you draw from your deck, using a limited amount of energy to pay for the cost of playing your cards.

Each floor has a limited amount of space for your units, which come in various shapes and sizes, so there’s a trade-off to be had in the cost of cards, their benefits and where they’ll go. Units can have unique powers and spells can be played which combo nicely with your cards or directly damage enemies; you’ll not only need to take care of heavenly minions, but strong boss characters too.

If you can destroy a boss before your Pyre reaches zero health, you’ll choose a path of the railway track to pick up bonuses, improve your cards or even buy (or be given) artifacts to improve your train’s abilities for this specific run. If your Pyre reaches zero, your run is over and you’ll have to start all over again.

You do get to improve your decks on each run though. At the start of a run, you choose which two races you’ll use to protect your train – you’ll start with Awoken (a plant-like race) and Hellhorned (a more demonic set of characters and spells), but will soon unlock more. My favourite are the aquatic Stygian, especially their Molluscmage – which doesn’t look like a particularly powerful card, but it allows for some serious spell combos, especially when you deploy more than one Molluscmage to a floor.

Once you get over the initial learning curve of understanding what everything does and realising how things work in conjunction with each other, it becomes an incredibly addictive challenge to try and make your way through the game. It’s always short enough – even on a successful run – that you’ll try and convince yourself that ‘just one more game’ is enough…yet it rarely is.

Unlocks come thick and fast, allowing you to experiment with the different combinations of races and see what works best for your playstyle (pretty much anything allied with Stygians, based around hoping to acquire multiple copies of those aforementioned Molluscmages, tends to form the basis of my most successful runs).

Considering it’s ‘just’ a card game, it’s full of wonderful audiovisual touches, with the character design – right down to the noises each one makes – being particularly strong and appealing. The sound effects and music are absolutely stunning, but the most impressive aspect is just how well all of the mechanics slot together – and just how many different card effects there are, with each of the races on offer feeling entirely distinct.

It took me quite some time to complete a single run and even now – especially when I’m experimenting with new or less experienced races that I really need to level up – I’m not always guaranteed to get through to the end, but if that ever becomes the case there are ways in which you can adjust the game’s difficulty for further bonuses and for bragging rights online.

Monster Train is an impressively well-constructed game and one that I can recommend unreservedly. Though initial runs – and the tutorial itself – may not suggest anything special at first, give the game a chance and it won’t be long before it sinks its hellbound claws deep into you.

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