Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
Did you ever see a game with a premise, and a sort of glorious self-seriousness, so intensely dorky that you couldn’t help but kind of love it? Call it the Darksiders Effect: An obsession with demons, rippling biceps, and the design aesthetics of a Meat Loaf album cover circa 1977 that’s just so unpretentiously in love with lava that it short-circuits all possible critical objections. So it is with Monster Train, the game that asks the question, “What if Snowpiercer took place in Hell?”, then has the audacity to bolt one of the best deck-building games in recent memory to just such a goofy, perpetually burning skeleton.
Developed by Shiny Shoe, and bursting out of Steam’s Early Access back in late May like a something out of something, Monster Train riffs on mechanics that were previously popularized by Mega Crit Games’ also-excellent Slay The Spire, taking the “slowly add new, hypothetically better cards to your deck” ideas popularized over in the world of board gaming over the last two decades, then merging them with a very video game spin on turn-based combat. (Also all those roguelike, run-based, slowly building progression systems that have become part and parcel with how indie titles maintain players’ addictions in recent years.) Rather than controlling the actions of a single adventurer, though, Monster Train tasks you with controlling the entire crew of the titular Boneshaker, fending off attacks from homicidal angels after an apocalyptic battle causes hell to literally freeze over. (It’s okay to roll your eyes at this point.)
As if that weren’t enough modern video game buzzwords, though, there’s also a strong tower defense vibe at work here; your train is transporting a piece of hell’s still barely-burning heart, and your goal is to field teams of demons (mermaids, plant monsters, sentient candles, etc.) strong enough to keep the invaders from reaching the top floor and damaging it. Where things get interesting, though—as if “demonic versions of Skimbleshanks The Railway Cat battle the renegade forces of heaven” wasn’t interesting enough—was in the way the game constantly offers up choices about how to empower your horde. After every battle, you’re given two choices of routes for your train to travel down, both brimming with upgrades, health boosts, and other much-desired goodies. Choosing which path to take (and then how to employ the power-ups you receive) is the sort of chunky choice that great video games are built on, the agony of asking yourself which of two top-notch options you’re going to have to pick. Monster Train embraces those sorts of choices with a regularity and intensity that belies the sheer number of Spawn comics its creators have so clearly consumed, and it’s become a regular fixture on our gaming PCs of late because of it.
Also: Shiny Shoe just added a mode that gives every creature in the game wobbly goofy eyes, and how the hell are we supposed to say no to that?