Slay the Spire: Ascension 20
I have finally “beat” Slay the Spire: meeting my end goal of reaching Ascension 20 (A20) on all four characters. There is technically a higher plane of difficulty whereby you face the secret final boss while also on A20, but I am satisfied with where I am. Specifically because games at the A20 level are already incredibly frustrating and unfun already – no need to delve further into self-flagellation.
For giggles, I’m going to post my thoughts on each of the classes, in the order that I reached A20:
The base mechanics of the Watcher (e.g. double/triple damage) are so powerful that I often found myself progressing despite not having any specific deck or relic combos. It does lend itself to being annoying in how much mental math you have to do lest you miscalculate and end up taking double damage in return. Or in the case of Blasphemy, outright losing the game.
Every Watcher run starts by upgrading Eruption ASAP. After that, my successful decks basically had a hodgepodge of loose synergies with Flurry of Blows (stance dancing), cards with Scrying, and Talk to the Hand. I was always happy to see Tantrum and Fear No Evil. Upgraded Blasphemy is fantastic. Omniscience is an auto-include any time it’s offered, even if I didn’t have Power cards at that point; Omniscience into Wish feels like cheating (it is).
The only successful Defect runs I have had revolved around Orbs and Focus-stacking. The Inserter relic is always a welcome boost, and lets you save gold/deck space by ignoring Capacitor and Runic Capacitor. Inserter also allows you to take Consume with no downsides, and possibly ignore Defragment and Biased Cognition altogether. In the absence of Inserter, I focused (har har) on Biased Cognition and trying to get artifact to avoid the downsides.
Beyond that, it really came down to getting Glacier and Creative AI, even against the Awakened One. Upgraded Seek is amazing. My success with All for One decks is probably 20%; it feels more like a trap.
The only consistently successful strategy for A15+ runs for me has been Shiv decks. Two Accuracy cards (upgraded or not) plus as many Cloak and Dagger and Blade Dances as I can draft. Always draft a Corpse Explosion if offered. Things get infinitely easier if you can snag one of the scaling attack relics (Kunai or Shuriken), or Oriental Fan or After Image. A Thousand Cuts and Envenom are generally overkill. Poison isn’t bad, but hallway fights are worse.
Yuck. In pretty much every run, you are entirely dependent on which relics you pick up. Corruption + Dead Branch runs make everything worth it, but they are frustratingly rare. Upgraded True Grit is almost always good. Immolate is an amazing hallway card that is still good in boss fights. Fiend Fire can also end many hallway fights by itself with no setup (vulnerability helps).
Again though, your ultimate strategy will vary based on what relics you pick up.
Artifact is insanely powerful. While negating a random enemy debuff is whatever, Artifact also removes the downside of some self-buffs. For example, Biased Cognition and Wrath Form are powerful cards that have scaling downsides… unless you have Artifact. Additionally, it can also be used to make the lowly Flex Potion just straight-up give you +5 Strength for the rest of the fight. For this reason, the shop relic Clockwork Souvenir is crazy powerful.
When in doubt, upgrade your cards. In a recent Defect run, I got a Sunder and Shovel early in Act 1. Instead of upgrading the Sunder, I chose to fish at Rest sites all the way to the boss. I died. Relics can be amazing, but remember you will be playing cards in every fight inbetween, and saving a few extra HP times however many fights will generally make more of a difference than you think.
Hallway fights matter. When you look at cards like Hyperbeam or Blasphemy, you might think “These are useless against bosses.” Maybe. But if you die before making it to the boss, or end up needing to Rest instead of upgrading cards, none of it matters anyway. So if you have the chance to snag a card or two that helps in hallway fights, grab them.
Impressions: Tainted Grail: Conquest
I have been looking for the next Slay the Spire fix for going on a year now. Played closed to a dozen different deck-building games in that time. After spending about 20 hours with Tainted Grail: Conquest (TGC), I am prepared to mark the journey as complete.
Tainted Grail: Conquest is a deck-building rogue-lite game based on a Lovecraftian take on the King Arthur mythos. You have been thrown into the Wyrdness of Avalon, surrounded by a corrupting mist and body-horror creatures of nightmare, whom you need to defeat to escape. Defeating a Guardian (boss) will allow you to return the ruins of a village you are helping build up to house the lost souls you save along the way. Defeat all the Guardians and you will face the a final challenge… and get looped back to repeat it all at a slightly higher difficulty.
Deck-building rogue-lite game, remember?
What I really enjoyed about the game is the variety of classes. There are nine in total, with groups of three under a common faction. This means they largely share the same base cards, but their mechanics often make them entirely different. For example, there are three summoner-style classes. The classic Summoner conjures minions and can boost their levels endlessly, but will take a corresponding amount of damage when they are attacked. The Blood Mage conjures minions by sacrificing HP right away, and focuses on boosting their minions’ self-destructive nature to defeat foes. Finally, the Necromancer, you guessed it, summons minions… but also generates spectral versions of said minions after they die, all while boosting themselves into a powerful Lich form to deal massive damage.
Instead of strict floors and encounters like in Slay the Spire, TGC has you wandering around in the fog towards discrete encounter areas on the map. Each step you take decreases the Wyrdcandle you use to push back the corrupting mist, so there is some constraint on how many encounters and in what order you wish to pursue them. The Wyrdcandle itself is a mechanic wherein a temporary card is periodically added to your hand that does something if you cast it, and does another thing if you don’t. If your Wyrdcandle is fresh and bright, the card is cheap and very useful. If your Wyrdcandle is sputtering or gone altogether, the card is expensive and punishing if you don’t play it.
After encounters, you gain XP and can level up. Each level allows you to choose 1 of 3 cards to add to your deck, and every 2 levels you can add 1 of 3 passive abilities to your character. You can also get one-use items from encounters, along with Runestones. These Runestones are basically swappable passive abilities that have two different functions depending on whether they are put in your weapon or armor slot. An example would be the Gar Runestone, which either increases your damage by 2 (weapon slot), or deals 5 damage at the end of turn to all enemies (armor slot). Getting three of the same Runestone allows you to combine them into a slightly stronger version.
None of the details really matters though, right? Is the game fun? Yes. For the most part.
I already mentioned it, but I really enjoy how different each of the classes feels. The Summoner/Blood Mage/Necromancer line seems like they would play similarly, but they really do not. Well… kinda. All three rely on a Golem minion to absorb damage so you can buff/summon other things without being ran over. But the Summoner has no nature healing abilities, so you are laser-focused on giving yourself Barrier (a type of shield). Meanwhile, as a Blood Mage you use your HP as a resource like any other, especially because you can get a huge burst of self-healing if you play your cards right. Meanwhile, the Necromancer has minions like the others, but the bulk of your damage comes from Lich-form and sacrificing minions to fuel it.
There can be some encounters that are especially punishing to some types of classes though. The default class is a glass cannon that relies on Block (negates 1 attack) to save themselves. Block is decidedly less useful when one of the enemies does some weak, 1×3 attack right before the boss’s 70-damage swing. But that also encourages one to blow up those smaller enemies first, I suppose.
[Fake Edit] I wrote the bulk of this Impression riding off the high of the Summoner/Blood Mage/Necromancer sequence. I have since gone back an played every other class, and… they are weak-sauce. Or the Summoner branch is overpowered, which is entirely possible. The “gotcha!” encounters that give Summoners issues are easily negated, but the other class families can be blown up entirely. I didn’t play them long enough to see if some Passive ability makes up for things, but some of them just aren’t as fun. At least two of the classes, for example, basically rely on doing nothing on their turns but turtle up and buff themselves for an explosive future turn. Which is fine in theory, but they also have no self-healing like the Summoners, so each fight ends up being a Pyrrhic Victory at best, and your last one when you face foes that need to be killed immediately.
Finally, I would be remiss to not mention one area that absolutely, as the kids say, slaps: the music. As it turns out, the devs licensed music from a band named Danheim who focuses on Viking/Norse-esque songs. I enjoyed myself listening to the boss fights so much that I ended up acquiring the Danheim discography. If I was still hosting D&D sessions, I would absolutely be incorporating these songs into the battle music rotation.
Is Tainted Grail: Conquest the kind of game I will play for 300+ hours like Slay the Spire? Ultimately… probably not. For one thing, I can’t play TGC on my phone, where I play Slay the Spire now. But of all the deck-building roguelikes I have plowed through, this game is the closest one I have found. And if you have Game Pass, you can try it out for free and see yourself.
Impressions: Children of Morta
After completing the “meaty” Outer Worlds, I decided I wanted to play something lighter via the Xbox Game Pass. The first thing that caught my eye was Children of Morta. And somehow, I have been playing it in longer sessions than I ever did with Outer Worlds.
Fundamentally, Children of Morta (CoM) is an indie Diablo-esque roguelite. Well, that might be over-selling it a bit much. Perhaps an isometric Rogue Legacy? You basically run around procedurally-generated levels and kill monsters, leveling up and collecting gold you use to purchase upgrades for the entire Bergson family. There are no permanent equipment drops or anything, just random relics and runes and other temporary, just-this-run type of augmentations.
Having said that, there are a lot of design decisions that enhance and smooth the gameplay loops.
For one thing, death is not permanent. This is not Rogue Legacy where you end up having totally new family members taking over. While you do lose the progress you made in the dungeon itself, the dungeon is only 3 stages long (with a boss fight). The gold you collect is permanent and accumulates, which means that even several brief failures might allow you to purchase an upgrade or two to HP, Damage, or any of the other characteristics.
That less-harsh roguelite theme continues in other areas as well. For example, you can collect a separate, temporary currency during runs that allow you to purchase various (single-run) Relics and such from a merchant, if he happens to spawn. Or you can use this same currency to open chests that contain mostly gold. I can easily imagine “clever” designers making the player choose between using gold for permanent, generic upgrades versus spending gold in-dungeon for temporary buffs to potentially get an edge against an upcoming boss. Luckily, that is not case here.
Another welcome design is how the story sort of moves forward regardless of success or failure. During any particular run, there can be a bonus room with a snippet of lore or a short quest that otherwise results in a cutscene back outside the dungeon. While there are limits to how far the story will go before a particular boss dies, it was incredibly welcome to know that a particularly embarrassing run would not result in a total walk of shame.
I have not completed the game yet, but I have unlocked all the playable characters and am working on the second area of three known ones. Each of the characters plays very different than the others, but a few are more unbalanced than others. Oh, but did I mention that as you level up specific characters they automatically unlock bonuses that apply to the whole family? This design element ensures that you spend time changing up your play style instead of sticking with just one person all the way to the end. Well, that and the fact that Fatigue can build up the longer you play just one character. But the former design element softens the blow of the latter.
Overall, I am very much enjoying the experience.
Impressions: Monster Slayers
Monster Slayers is basically a worse Slay the Spire.
The premise of this deck-building roguelite is that you are part of a guild of people trying to take down the Big Bad Guy. Your deck and cards are reset on death to the default ones associated with the class you pick (of which there are several), but you maintain any gear you have accumulated, and any Fame unlocks. Considering that gear increases the damage of your attacks, can give you “temporary” cards in your deck (that will persist as long as that gear is equipped), and boosts your HP, these are essentially permanent advantages that you maintain as soon as you collect them.
The issue is twofold.
First, it is physically impossible to actually “beat” the game without several cycles of death and gear accumulation. In other words: grinding. It’s not the grinding that’s necessarily bad, but rather how the game is balanced around it. You will essentially be paired up with monsters that you have zero chance of defeating, not because of poor planning or execution or even RNG, but simply because the game is “balanced” that way. Losing in that manner never feels fun. Roguelikes (and -lites) often feature punishing RNG, but that’s not what’s going on here – you are engineered to lose X times in Monster Slayers, guaranteed.
The other, more important issue is that… the gameplay is simply bad. In Slay the Spire, you get a notification of what the enemy is about to do, and so there is a possibility of some interplay or tactical considerations. Should you try Blocking the damage, or are you free to go all-out Attacking?
In Monster Slayers, beyond a description of what the enemy does in general, e.g. “Vampire Bats can drain health,” there is no real indication of anything. So what happens is that you just play your cards until you run out of cards or AP, and then your opponent plays their cards, and you wait to see if you’re dead yet or not. That’s really it.
There are some other “minor” issues like the game looking terrible, the UI being horrendous and mostly useless, not having a understanding of what cards the enemy is playing (not that you can interact with them much), the music being repetitive, and the act of playing cards not feeling good. For example, the Rogue class has several “Deal N+1 damage, draw a card” attacks, and while it’s fun chaining those together, if you click too quick, you’ll accidentally play a different card.
If you are looking for another Slay the Spire fix, look elsewhere. If not… play Slay the Spire instead.