It’s hard to keep up with every new video game. 2020 was a particularly busy year between next-gen games, major RPGs, and unexpected indie hits. For every Among Us that snuck through the cracks, there was an excellent game that simply couldn’t get the time of day in a crowded field.
There are plenty of excellent indies worth revisiting, but Monster Train should be at the top of anyone’s list. And fortunately, it’s easier than ever to try it out, because it’s currently free on Xbox consoles and PC via Game Pass.
Here’s the short sell: Monster Train is a deck-building roguelike that builds off of the basic principles of indie hit Slay the Spire. The two games are so closely linked that Monster Train’s developers made the game 10 percent off at launch for those who already owned Slay the Spire as a sort of thank you to the game.
While the two games may look similar on their surface, Monster Train takes Spire’s ideas and runs in a totally different direction. It’s essentially a tower defense game with elements from Hearthstone thrown in good measure. Players control a train and place monsters on each floor to defend it from incoming invaders who are out to destroy the train’s engine. The goal is to survive multiple waves of enemies and make it down to hell.
In between each level, players can grab new cards, buy artifacts, and buff their monsters to build some wickedly creative decks. The game contains tons of options for card synergy thanks to multiple monster classes, which all interact with one another in unique ways. One class might be based on physical attacks, while another might be more defensive. Mix them together to get a well-balanced monster dynamic that covers all potential weaknesses.
That gameplay loop is particularly fitting considering that the game itself is built on iteration. Just like how Monster Train tinkers with similar in the genre and combines them to form something new, deck building itself follows that same philosophy. Players mash-up seemingly disparate ideas to form surprising but functional results.
Video games are always in conversation with one another. When a game borrows a mechanic like shield regeneration from Halo, that’s a dialogue. The same is true for something like the battle royale genre. Every new game borrows the basics of PUBG but puts some kind of unique spin on it. Some gamers may see titles like Apex Legends as a “ripoff,” but that design philosophy has always been instrumental to games. Innovation is an iterative process that involves taking what’s working in another game and building off of it.
Monster Train perfectly models what that process looks like at its best. It uses a framework to create a fresh idea that doesn’t feel derivative. And it does that while still retaining what players love about the games that inspired it. It’s the kind of healthy feedback loop that eventually leads to landmark genre games like Hades or even The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
For those who missed out last year, the current winter slump provides a perfect excuse to jump in and lose countless hours to a razor-sharp deck-building game that could inspire another hit down the line. Like a good card game, the best you can hope for is that you’ll get an even better hand next shuffle.
Monster Train is now available for free on Game Pass for Xbox consoles and PC.