Genre: Strategy, Roguelike, Card Game, Deckbuilder
System: Nintendo Switch (also on Steam, Epic Games Store; PS4; Xbox One)
Developers | Publishers: Klei Entertainment
Age Rating: EU 12+ | US Teen
Price: US £19.99 | UK £11.99 | EU € 13,29
Release Date: 4 June 2021
Review code used, with many thanks to Klei Entertainment!
I’ve been waiting for this one. Deckbuilding card game? Check. Roguelike/rogue-lite? Check. Sci-fi setting with alien races? Check.
Those elements alone sold me on Griftlands’s concept, but the PC demo I played last year promised even more. One unique feature—a relationship system—set it apart from other deckbuilding games. And though not unique, Griftlands‘ two-deck system also intrigued me. Now, all it needed was a Switch port, so I could play in bed! Well, Klei Entertainment delivered it all much sooner than expected and the game did not disappoint one bit. How often can you say that about a much-awaited title?
A Tale of Two Decks
Griftlands features not one but two decks of cards. Besides the more typical “Battle” deck, you can build a “Negotiation” deck. You’re not simply fighting a series of battles, a la Slay the Spire, though you could of course take an aggressive route. But you can play nice and talk your way out of sticky situations.
I prefer battles (which are simpler) but also find myself negotiating more than fighting. Though Griftlands isn’t a role-playing game, it occasionally feels like one as I’m often asked to decide whether to intimidate a guy with my words or with my literal weapons. Here, the pen is as mighty as the sword. But be forewarned: bosses have to be fought physically.
Whether you battle or negotiate, a fun reward (besides adding new cards to your deck) is to upgrade current cards. Each time a card is played, it gains experience points. Fill up that XP meter and voila, upgrade it into a stronger card!
But as is common in the deckbuilding genre, it’s not enough to have a collection of powerful cards. You want cards to work well together or, as they say, “synergize” towards your preferred strategy. This means declining or removing cards that won’t make an effective deck. It’s like saying “yes” to some social appointments and “no” to other attractive appointments. Have too many and you won’t be your best self!
A Fight That’s Not to the Death
A cool idea in Griftlands is that, in battle, you don’t have to reduce the enemy’s health points to zero. Instead, you only need to reduce enough health points to make them “panic”. Panicked enemies are willing to surrender, at which point you can stop fighting and let them flee . . . or “murder” them. I appreciate that killing isn’t just killing; it’s called murder in this game, and it drives home the impact of your actions. Choosing between mercy and death affects relationships with other characters.
Other than that, battles may sound like standard fare—draw cards, spend action points to play them, damage the enemy—but they’re nevertheless fun. Well-paced, lively, a joy to tackle.
Negotiations are a little more complex and confusing at first. There are many new terms to learn. You set up “arguments” to attack the enemy or support your other arguments. Each argument comes in “stacks” (quantity), and each stack has an amount of “resolve” (health points) which can be destroyed. While battles see you losing health, negotiations see you losing resolve.
The details of negotiation take getting used to, even for an experienced card player. But what Griftlands does extremely well is to provide handy explanations at the tip of your fingers. With a single button press, you can check what a card does, what terms mean, etc. The explanations are usually very clear and concise.
Three Grifters Walk Into A Bar
Now, what’s a great deck builder if it doesn’t encourage you to try different kinds of decks? In Griftlands, you can do this naturally through three playable characters: Sal the ex-laborer, Rook the spy, and Smith the good-for-nothing.
Each character has their own story, set in a different location and meeting different characters. More importantly, they have unique decks and mechanics. Within each deck too, there’s room for experimenting with different deck builds.
Sal’s story and mechanics are the simplest. A dual-knife wielder, Sal is out for revenge and her special moves build towards extra damage in battles.
Meanwhile, Rook is a double agent who must carefully tread the line between two enemy factions. His tale was more interesting than Sal’s, and his unique mechanics required extra thought. I enjoyed negotiations most when playing Rook. In his negotiations, you flip a gambling coin. While both sides of the coin trigger good effects, the cards you play only maximize their potential when the right coin face is showing. As for battles, Rook’s pistols can be either charged up or discharged, and cards played at the right time take advantage of this. A cool concept, though I’ve yet to master its execution.
If you thought Sal or Rook’s stories weren’t that compelling, Smith’s will be. The writers pulled out all the stops here, and Smith is just the funniest likeable loser. Bragger, liar, drinker, irreverent, this disowned son of a rich family makes his comeback—though, at any moment, he’s on the brink of disaster. Battling as Smith, one of the early mechanics is “Drink,” which puts Empty Bottles in your discard pile to spend later as a resource. Following the theme of self-destruction, Smith can also damage himself in order to heal! It’s tricky to pull off his mechanics well at first, but he soon became an unstoppable beast. He’s easier to play after your first one or two runs unlock new cards.
Say That You Love Me
That’s already a chock-load of content for a deck builder, and I haven’t even talked about the relationship system yet. Griftlands is an ambitious, ambitious game. Here you are, juggling two decks with one hand and juggling relationships with another.
Besides curating what goes into your decks, you’re also keeping an eye on who likes or dislikes you. Make someone happy by fulfilling their quest or saving them from death: they’ll like or even love, you. As we know from Facebook, “like” and “love” are different things. Characters who like you will help in negotiations, but characters who love you will additionally grant a “social boon”. This could be anything helpful from shop discounts to extra defence points.
Love’s counterpart is in the neighbourhood too. Characters who dislike you are harder to negotiate with. Characters who hate you grant a “social bane,” e.g. being disliked by other civilians, suffering more damage, items running out faster, and other such curses.
Since who you meet is randomized (except main-plot characters), this contributes to the roguelike variation of every run. Most encounters and quests start to sound the same after a while: persuade a stubborn person, catch a wild beast, escort a target. But I appreciate that conversations are always well-written; they’re funny in a snarky way, even if I don’t remember them afterwards. Every character—no matter how obscure and unmemorable—has a nice, ironic one-liner as their profile description.
The game doesn’t give you a chance to actually develop these relationships in the sense of an RPG. You don’t get to know these folks. But that isn’t the point of Griftlands‘ relationship system. It’s really a status-effect system, one dressed up as small stories that fit naturally into the larger narrative. And it’s a good marriage between mechanics and story.
Good Grades on All Subjects
Overall, Griftlands is a well-rounded game. Not only does it offer gameplay that remains fun and interesting throughout, but it goes beyond the minimum “requirements” of a deck builder by offering plenty of story and great dialogue writing. It scores well in the art and sound departments too. I love the slick, techy card designs and throwback cartoon art style. Sound effects were punchy, and music-wise every character has their own set of soundtracks, with Sal’s being the best.
More importantly, the game is highly replayable. All sorts of incentives await your future runs: new cards, new perks (permanent abilities), new flourishes (special moves). Whether you win or lose a run, you collect points towards unlocking these goodies, which is the rogue-lite aspect to this game.
Griftlands isn’t the easiest entry point for folks new to deckbuilding. But only because there are many new terms to familiarize with, not because it’s a tough game. If you die on the easiest difficulty, you’re allowed to restart once per checkpoint. There are 3 or 4 checkpoints per character campaign, which is lenient.
Slay the Spire lovers may want to know how it compares to that recent classic. Though Spire has tighter gameplay and a stronger sense of card synergy, Griftlands is still pretty good. Griftlands has much longer runs since Spire runs take 45 to 90 minutes at most and are almost devoid of story. In Griftlands my full runs took about 5 hours each, but it’s an acceptable tradeoff for the stories and conversations that take place (which can be fast-forwarded). Despite the length, it’s an easier game at the lowest difficulty mode. It took me under 30 hours to beat all three stories, including failed attempts.
Brawl Mode allows you to speed through the game, focusing on battles and negotiations only by skipping story parts. Unlocked after your first successful campaign for each character, it’s great for players who are in for multiple replays.
With everything, it offers in terms of gameplay and beyond, I don’t think you’ll regret giving it a try. There’s lots of fun stuff: perks, pets, costumes, tech grafts—all looking like they came from a Star Wars movie set.
There’s always the PC demo if you want to test the waters. I recommend the Switch version if you generally prefer playing handheld. When I last played, the PC versions didn’t offer full controller support, meaning I had to use the mouse often. The Switch port isn’t perfect but does well enough in terms of controls and user interface.
Parental guidance note
There’s nothing here that would concern most gaming parents. The US Teen rating mentions “Blood, Mild Language, Use of Alcohol, and Violence.” Drinking is one of the game’s mechanics (both beneficial and destructive), but an optional one. I haven’t seen any blood, and there is no graphic violence. Haven’t noticed much swearing either, unless you count swearing with the name of Hesh, a god believed to live in the ocean deep.
Though the world of Griftlands is supposed to be gritty (or grifty?), judging by the cutthroat behaviour of its inhabitants, it still feels as clean as a Saturday morning cartoon. Though rated Teen, I think it would be fine for a 10-year-old. You don’t have to be ruthless in the game. If you are, more characters will dislike or hate you, and that makes the game a little more challenging.
Among roguelike deck builders, Griftlands is an ambitious one. But it actually pulls off those ambitions. The gameplay is unique, combining a two-deck system with a relationship system. Visuals, sound, and controls get one thumbs-up, while the writing gets two thumbs. Even run-of-the-mill conversations have a spark of wit, or at least a dash of snark. More importantly, it’s fun to play (though there’s lots of terminology to digest at first) and enough reason to replay on a higher difficulty if you love a good challenge. At $19.99, this is seriously a steal.
Final Verdict: Two Thumbs Up