Monster Train is a game about an army of demons traveling on a locomotive through the seven circles of hell. It was one of last year’s best new titles, and now it’s finally coming to Switch.
The deck-building roguelite originally debuted on PC in May of last year, and eventually made it to Xbox. I obsessed over the original release for weeks, but found that I didn’t play it as much as I wanted. Every time I sat down at my desktop to go for another run, something would interrupt me partway through. And by the time I got back, I’d forgotten all the great cards I’d added to my deck — the pitfall of all deck builders.
But this new version of Monster Train helps me avoid that particular challenge, as I’m never far from my handheld run. It’s a recurring tale with the Switch — an overlooked indie darling making a splash on Nintendo’s latest — but in a slew of indie games that make their way to Switch, Monster Train feels tailor made for the hybrid nature of Nintendo's platform.
Much of Monster Train will be familiar to roguelite players — especially fans of deckbuilding roguelites such as Slay the Spire. You collect a variety of cards throughout each run, building the best deck you can with the randomized rewards you’re given. Missions get progressively harder, and many runs will end in failure; you know the drill.
But Monster Train builds on that familiar foundation with several novel twists. Instead of lone heroes, Monster Train features six Clans. Each Clan has two Champion units to choose from, as well as grunt units, spells, Artifacts, and unique mechanics. At the start of every run, I select which Clan I want to control and which Clan I want additional support from.
This Clan system fundamentally changes how I plan each run. If I’m using the game’s default pairing of the damage-focused Hellhorne Clan and the defense-oriented Awoken Clan, I can see multiple different options ahead of me. I could go for cards that buff my limited Hellhorne units while focusing on finding an army of beefy Awoken units to protect them. Or, I could shift my focus away from spells and invest in a single, powerful Awoken unit that can empower and protect my legion of Hellhornes.
The various clans get far weirder and more complex later on. Clans like Umbra devour their own units to empower a Champion or beefcake member of your infantry. The new Wurmik clan (added in DLC that’s included in the Switch version) has its own currency that augments familiar cards. There are six clans, which means there are 15 different pairings to experiment with. And that’s not even counting the multiple Champions per Clan. Finding the powerful combos that best suit your playstyle is a rush in itself — like ignoring the instruction booklet and combining two LEGO sets into something better than the company intended.
But the Clan system is only one of Monster Train’s more unique features. The four-leveled combat arena itself feels like a living entity that I control with a variety of cards. Enemies enter my train on the first floor, and if they survive, move up after each turn. The fourth floor contains my Pyre. If Angels reach the fourth floor and destroy my Pyre, it’s game over for that run.
To defeat the Angels before they make their ascent, I can use allied units as roadblocks, or deploy spells to slow, stun, and kill the attackers. In most cases, my monsters act autonomously once I place them on a floor, and they simply attack what’s in front of them unless commanded otherwise. But crafty players can use special cards to move units up and down the Monster Train, opening up the playing field and essentially creating Spock’s stacked 3D Chess board from Star Trek.
Like the greatest roguelites, Monster Train’s learning curve meets its progression loop at just the right spot. Every time I finish a run, I’m improving my arsenal of monsters for my next go. But when tethered to a single machine like a PC, it’s easy to fall away from that grind. If you’re only able to carve a bit of time out of your day to be away from family or take a lunch break during work, it’s going to take weeks to get your Clans upgraded.
But with the Switch, I can keep improving my account anywhere. Sure, it’s useful when traveling. But it’s also been a boon when sitting in a queue for a dungeon in Final Fantasy 14, running on my elliptical machine, or waiting for a friend to log on in Destiny 2. I can pick up my Switch to play for a bit, turn it off, and pick up where I left off long before I’ve forgotten the deck I’ve built.
Monster Train was an excellent game tied to platforms that made it hard for me to play as much as I wanted. But on the Switch, I’m never far away from another trip to hell.
Monster Train is out now on Nintendo Switch