Monster Slayers, released on Nintendo Switch in 2019, developed by Nerdook Productions and Stage Clear Studios
By Neil Merrett
What if every complex action and reaction we ever take was defined by a specific deck of cards. Monster Slayers is an RPG where heroic deeds are defined by a digital shuffle of your cards. If a player is to be a slave to a digital card deck, there is some comfort in being able to at least try to stack it in your favour.
Monster Slayers is a game where your hero – perhaps a knight, vagabond or slightly chonky dragon – engages demonic hordes, zombified nights and, of course, bad chonky dragons in contests of strength, magic and perfectly-times counter moves.
It has the basic visual appeal of a one-on-one fighter such as Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, albeit with more tactical gameplay where success – much like a good Chess battle – is often based on longer-term thinking rather than hitting something over the head with an axe repeatedly.
However, the player’s ability to out-strengthen, outmaneuver and out-think another player is almost entirely dictated by a deck of cards they are assigned.
Yes, Monster Slayers is a card game. And like many card games before it, success can involve managing and building up a preferable selection of cards, while making sure your opponent is manipulated via your deck so they cannot do the same thing.
Behind all the fantasy visuals, not to mention the beat em up tropes of getting a ‘perfect’ if you can avoid damage during a battle, Monster Slayers is not a million miles away from Poker, Solitaire, or perhaps the most sophisticated of card games – Top Trumps.
Cards as a means of dictating the actions of some fantastical battle is hardly a bold concept to anyone who has engaged in Magic, Hearthstone or a huge number of games that use the collection of cards as the key component to victory.
These games have been hugely successful in creating a complex world of magical and physical strength, where armies of fantastical creatures battle for dominion in a conflict that impacts on concepts of nature, time and even death itself.
That this is all done through a deck of cards built through luck, or brutal and costly real world spending. Is it any good? Millions of fans around the world would have have pretty unique views on the value and appeal of ‘card crack’ games as one player refers to it.
But to the players, these are games that are as addictive, affecting, problematic and engaging as the most critically and technically assured videogames on the market.
Much like playing a digital board game, card-based videogames such as Monster Slayers, or the hugely popular Slay the Spire seek, to recreate the appeal of table top games, but with the added visual flair and theatrics of digital entertainment.
That said, there remains something initially and oddly intangible about a computer controlled-opponent ultimately creating a digital dice of a random set of cards for the player.
When the player is rolling a dice in real life, or being dealt some tangible, physical cards that they can actually hold, there is a strange sense of fate about whatever number or card befalls them. Somehow a human dealer gives a sense of control over blind luck. A sense that a specific outcome – whether good or bad – was somehow meant to be.
At the mercy of the quantum winds
When a computer randomly manipulates a digital dice, or deals out a set of cards, even when the player is allowed to decide when the dice stops at a random interval, there is always the opportunity to blame the programming.
Likewise, a bad deck of digital cards can also be blamed on a biased computer, even though they would obviously just be assigned by an algorithm that is just as unpredictable or unwieldy as shuffling a deck of real world cards and hoping for the best.
What is strangely appealing about Monster Slayers, is the ability to manipulate the draw of card decks with new abilities.
Each round commences for example with one opportunity to do a ‘mulligan’. I.e. throwing away the three to five cards assigned by the computer and getting another random selection. It is as if putting your fate to the mercy of the quantum winds.
In classic gaming style, some of the character types in the game can obtain magic abilities through new cards. These can allow the player to look through the next few cards in their deck and manipulate the types of abilities they may want for their next turn, while discarding the less useful.
This could be creating a preference for a mixture of cards that combine healing health points, with some devastating attack powers, such as a high numbered damage card. You can also obtain or delete weaker cards from your deck, or select buff cards that sabotage the player’s opponent, such as forcing them to discard key abilities before their next turn.
Like any truly escapist game, Monster Slayers allows the player, through their cards, to control things way behind their real world abilities, even if it is to just fly in the air or hide in a bush to better avoid attacks.
Perhaps the greatest appeal of a videogame adaptation of card deck games is that the complex and sometimes esoteric rules of these realworld game are dutifully and relentlessly applied to the player. They are truly beholden to the cards they are dealt.
Tabletop games and card battles in the real world require a shared understanding and enforcement of the rules between multiple players. It is down to fallible nature of humans to ensure that every attack, counter attack, status buff and counter-counter attack is registered for each new card. Monster Slayers, as a videogame, does all this heavy lifting for you.
Some may question the appeal of a machine dictating the rules, when a real card game like Magic relies on a sense of real tangible community, a real world feeling of collaboration, friendship and rivalries.
But a videgame can apply all these complex cards and their strange rules for you, without the need for another soul. Once you have your digital cards on the virtual table so to speak, you have to make the most of what fate, or the algorithm has dealt you.
“The thinking person’s disembowelment”
We can play only the cards we are dealt, no arguments or talking your way out of it. This may not be for everyone.
After all, why rely on the seemingly stagnant and slow burn appeal of waiting for static cards to be dealt, when you can play action games where you get to rip the heads of the entire Greek pantheon of goods in realtime HD at the touch of a button?
However, some might find that the ability to play a slower and more considered game of Monster Slayers is a unique appeal that can be as engaging, if not more so, than button mashing your way through God of War.
Patiently keeping that one card in your deck, trying to survive a few more turns for that perfect moment to unleash your special move card can be hugely rewarding when you suddenly flip an opponent and destroy them in seconds after a previously tortuous battle.
Some might call it the thinking person’s disembowelment. Then again, what harm can a set of cards really do?