Monster Slayers has a little history that goes beyond even the earliest-released game we’ve looked at on this blog. Its roots lie in a 2010 browser game on Kongregate with the same name, which you can play for yourself here. Mechanically, this 2017 overhaul (released on March 23rd) doesn’t have a lot to do with that earlier game, despite some surface resemblances. While it does share a good deal of that Newgrounds-era Flash charm in its character designs, the original had none of the deckbuilding, so I’m not going to be making any further comparisons between the two. Both were developed by Malaysian one-man-studio Nerdook Productions. We’ve seen a good few small-team games in this chronological series already, but in terms of raw features and content, Monster Slayers is fairly staggering in its scope.
Premise and Gameplay
Monster Slayers isn’t too big on story, as you may be able to surmise from its rather plain title. (I don’t want to rag on it too much, but as game names go, my eyes just slide over the words Monster Slayers and they do not stick in my brain.) Start a file, choose a class for your character and a handful of cosmetic elements affecting their appearance, and away you go to clobber evildoers and explore dungeons. In addition to the roguelike deck-building, the game also wants to give you the added gradual joy of developing a character, not unlike how you would in classic dungeon crawlers like Wizardry. Your character can come across bits of equipment, level up, and gain companions with abilities you can trigger to help your party leader out of tight spots by drawing new cards, blocking incoming damage, and so on.
Strengthening your character is as key to your chances of surviving a run as the cards you gather. Similar to Dream Quest (which openly receives an acknowledgement in the title screen), the dungeon maps show you a few locations around where you currently are, allowing you to plan the order that you take on enemies. You can fight things of similar or lower level for safer battles, or you can take on something higher level to get more experience points and level up sooner. Levelling up also restores all of your health, which doesn’t automatically regenerate between fights, so this can be something fairly integral to consider. You will take on three dungeons before fighting the final boss, so even choosing the order you want to clear the maps is important. For example, if you have a fire-based card or two, it’s probably in your interests to do the ice dungeon sooner than others because the enemies are more likely to be vulnerable to those attacks. Your main character is likely to be strong against a handful of enemy types and weak against certain others, so developing a sense of which enemies your class is going to struggle against over multiple runs also becomes part of the strategy.
Combat? Take turns choosing the best possible cards from your hand and hope it’s not you who stops moving first. There’s a lot of plates to keep spinning that you need to keep an eye on. Besides health and blocking points, there are two major energies to keep track of, mana and ‘action points’, which are required to play magic and action cards respectively. Wizards will be more reliant on stockpiling the former rather than the latter, whereas clerics may want to balance both so that they have access to various spells and standard attack cards. There are a lot of classes here, too: 14 of them, with 6 being ‘base’ classes, 6 being ‘advanced’ unlockable variants of those 6, and then a further 2 that come with the Fire and Steel DLC pack. In fact, you can even pay to unlock the advanced classes if you so desire, but doing so could rob you of one of the largest incentives to beat the game in the first place. Further to this is weaponry and armour that not only change your character’s damage resistances and output, but even the cards in your deck. If you like your deck-builders to be fairly granular in their systems, this is probably the most involving one we’ve looked at yet.
Monster Slayers has randomness for days: the enemies you can encounter, the rewards you can choose upon levelling up, the cards, items and upgrades that healers offer, and the order you take on the dungeons… all these and more are different every time. Given the genre, it’s redundant to trot out the ‘no-two-runs-the-same’ selling-point line, but certainly we’ve seen games that feel very similar run-to-run even if they’re not literally repeating themselves on a move-for-move basis. Monster Slayers can feel radically different every run. This is good, because I don’t find it an easy game, so having the variety between runs kick in early stopped me from getting bored fighting my way back to the point my previous run ended. Obviously, different classes lend themselves to alternative playstyles. If you enjoy playing as a Wizard, for example, you may find that the big ‘kill’ card in your deck is different each time and needs to have certain elements in place to be triggered: enough mana, an enemy with certain weaknesses, and so on. Physical attackers like the Barbarian won’t be waiting around for certain cards because all of their attacks will do heavy damage – unless, of course, an enemy resists physical, which will require a backup plan of some sort.
A little credit I want to give in an area where randomness is noticeably absent: the player themselves has a good bit of input in the rewards they unlock between runs. Upon a run’s end, players gain ‘fame’ points based on how far they progressed and how many enemies they fought. (This also functions as a placement system for players to participate in an online leaderboard.) These can be spent on unlocking things like new cards, equipment, and passive advantages for future runs. The nice thing is that you choose each reward yourself. If you prefer to play as the Knight, then you need only buy perks that affect the Knight or all the classes in general, rather than being rewarded with boons for classes you aren’t as interested in.
Definitely another one of those games that you will know immediately from a few screenshots whether or not it is something you can put up with looking at for several hours. I’m old enough to remember spending afternoons after school watching Flash animations on Newgrounds that looked a lot like this. I look at this and it gives me a little nostalgia that I appreciate won’t be the case for everyone. Most of the characters look like souped-up stickpeople – take them for what you will.
The UI puts a lot of the information you may need in front of you at all times. It’s a little cluttered, and the font sizes are a bit small, but because combat turns play out very quickly (not a bad thing from a time-saving perspective) you may need access to all this information at any moment. Another minor irritant is that it doesn’t always tell you what cards do in every context. For example, if you visit an altar, you may be able to gain a powerful card in exchange for some downside, like enemies being buffed. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know what the card does until you pick it up. Hovering over the name of the card won’t provide you with a tooltip or anything. Sadly, this means I’m almost never inclined to take these exchanges because not having access to the information you need to come to a decision makes it too random to be worth doing.
In my time with the game, I would say that I heard roughly 10 or so minutes of original music in it. With dozens of hours of gameplay if it gets its hooks into you, you may want to switch it out with your own after a while. It’s faux-orchestral bombastic fare; thematically fitting as background noise but not melodious enough to lodge in the memory. Something about the synthetic quality of the music in combination with the hand-drawn art certainly does add to the general uncanny sense that you’re playing an extremely well-developed Flash game, despite obviously being far more mechanically complex than anything Flash could run. It feels like I should be using a proxy site to get around an URL blocker on the school computers just to access it. Good times.
I have an inkling that, years from now, when this project is a few dozen or so posts deep and I start winding down on it, Monster Slayers is one of the games that I’ll come back to first so I can more fully take in the enormity of its depth. I found myself taking too much time thinking about each round, but that’s on me. Ultimately, the only thing that matters is maximising your chances of drawing your best cards as often as possible and always having the requisite resources to play them. However, because there is a lot of minutiae you can take advantage of, I sometimes lost sight of that and would get paralysed by my own decision-making process. Still, that’s hardly the game’s fault, and I look forward to coming back for the many stones I’ve still left unturned.
Choosing just three cards isn’t easy, as there are four major card types (attack, support, magic, and interrupt) and many are upgradeable, but hopefully these three provide a taste of the level of depth going on here.