Note: I've started writing again and also want to try and be more involved on the IMG forums like I used to be. I'm posting this on my website as well but cross-posting here.
What is it?: A deckbuilding rogue-like with adventure, battle and negotiation.
Reviewed on: iMac (Retina 5K, 27-inch, 2020.) 3.6 GHz 10-Core Intel Core i9. 64 GB 2667 MHz DDR4. AMD Radeon Pro 5700 XT 16 GB.
Time Played: 15 hours.
Expect to pay: $20
Klei Entertaining have a long history of making quality and popular games. Don’t Starve, Mark of the Ninja and Oxygen Not Included remain gamer-favorites years later. Griftlands is a recent release, although it was in Early Access for some time, so many players have already experienced it. I’ve had it on my wishlist, but didn’t purchase it until it officially launched.
Rogues, Adventure Maps and Encounters
Griftlands is a rogue-like adventure set in an unusually outlandish sci-fi world. It’s grimy, colorful and weird with a striking visual style. You’ll pick one of three characters to embark on a unique journey. There’s lots of choices among cards, jobs and who to befriend or make a foe out of. Everyone has a specific ending, which mildly changes based on what your actions in the given run. And each character is set in their own area of the world, so there’s no overlap.
Gameplay consists of several days - Each day you’ll wander around to specific locations, some optional, some fixed. Frequently, you’ll wind up in combat or negotiation encounters. Both of these use cards to resolve them, but from different decks. Combat is more standard back-and-forth beat em up until one side wins. Negotiation is often the harder of the two, and usually you will have a choice as to which method you want to resolve a situation. Sometimes you can even soften up a boss or assassin by debating with them first. After doing enough jobs and encounters, you’ll have to sleep. This replenishes all of your spent health and composure and gives you a chance to trigger bonuses.
Death, Banes & Boons
After every kind of encounter you’ll receive new cards and goodies. Most combat ends with a choice to kill your enemies or accept their surrender. Killing them yields more benefits, but also typically creates enemies.
Griftlands has a largely binary relationship system where people love you or hate you. Positive relations yield permanent boons, but if people hate you, then you gain banes instead. This is an interesting system with the unfortunate side effect where banes can stack up against you quickly. These seem to be randomly generated and range from mildly annoying to savagely impactful. In some cases you can chase down the person who hates you, provoke them with a debate, then go on to kill them in combat, thus removing the bane. But there’s two problems with this system: 1. you can’t always even find the person who hates you. And 2. how does someone find out you merked their friend in the middle of a swamp with no witnesses?
Be ready to grind for the good stuff
You’ll garner points for various actions and how far you got each run. More points equals more unlocks, as you gain additional card bundles that automatically go into the pool, perk points and more. Perks are quite fun to unlock and choose. You may opt to start with more money, have extra pets in battle or NPC’s automatically like you more. Annoyingly, your perk points are also used as additional currency to unlock special “flourish” moves, think super actions in both combat and negotiations. You start with default ones unique to each character, but have to spend to get more. There’s an additional currency system which everyone unlocks about halfway through a run which allows you to pick and choose small passive benefits that will persist in all runs.
Standard rogue-like stuff, but solidly implemented.
Additionally, after a run or two you’ll unlock mutators for each character. You can make the game harder or easier as you like. Hooray! Now I could do stuff like remove pesky Banes permanently from the experience. How about drafting unique starting decks? Mutator! Want more pets? Mutator. Make all friends and foes stronger every battle? Mutator. Want to be hunted by everyone like something out of John Wick? Mutator! There’s a huge list, and no limit to how many you an add at once.
But wait! You get no XP for using even a single mutator. Much sadness. You’ll want XP because it will take probably 10-20 hours per character to unlock all their cards, perks etc. So basically the game fun-gates you and forces a lot of grind before you can truly play the game how you want.
My introduction to Griftlands wasn’t great. Sal, the first character you play, is a bounty hunter, out for revenge against a crime lord who wronged her long ago. Her arc is serviceable - but not compelling. For one, she does no bounty-hunting. For two, it’s just a basic revenge tale and there’s nothing terribly interesting about Sal herself. Her combat and negotiation, which make up the bulk of gameplay, is also basic and bland.
(A later run would reveal that the best parts of her tale come later, and from some very engaging NPC’s.)
After an hour or so I begin to think “is this it?” and then stumbled into an unavoidable boss fight of ludicrous proportions that promptly killed me. I started to consider just uninstalling the game and refunding it. Then I noticed that Rook, the next character was now unlocked. He looked interesting. Surely I should give this game another try? It turns out there is also a “Story mode” which seems to be easier to play, but the UI gives no indication this is the case.
Hours later I can tell you that I went from “uninstall this boring popsnizzle” to “wow I just played for 3 hours straight and didn’t notice.” Thankfully Rook is immediately immersive with a cool double-agent and infiltration story. Here on orders, but also with his own agenda. You have multiple options to stay the line, or betray your fellows. It’s lovely. His combat and negotiation is immediately more engaging and complex in fun ways. There’s more room to build, and more diverse paths to victory.
If you thought Rook was good, wait until you unlock Smith, the third and final character. They do save the best for last sometimes. Smith is riotously engaging both as a storyline and character. Just about every line he delivers will have you chuckling. He’s brash, chatty and quick to fight. And the complex plot lines of his uppity family is excellent as they all try to backstab each other over power and prestige. And he might even have a chance to save the world.
I can easily say that playing as Rook and Smith contains some of the most entertaining writing I’ve ever encountered in a game. It’s truly fantastic and draws you into the world effortlessly. Speaking of the world, it’s so interesting and bizarre I want more games set here. I want an RPG, a strategy game, a shooter. There's very deep world-building here, with intricate politics, varying religions and all manner of humans, aliens and beasts. Many events and locations are referenced, but never shown. Give me more of this oddball sci-fi Klei!
The gameplay has a smooth loop and all the options don’t make you feel railroaded. The deck building is meaningful and interesting, every encounter a chance to build upon existing strategies or branch into a new one. And I have to shoutout the art on the cards, which ranges from giggle-inducing to just epic. There’s more I haven’t even talking about with the card system, ranging from upgrading cards to unique versions of themselves, consumable cards, card vendors, penalty cards and more.
The visuals are superb and bound to run on any computer in the last decade. While there’s no voice acting, the little sounds and noises characters make are charming and fitting.
Sal’s writing is solid - but she pales in comparison. I don’t know why they put both their weakest character and story first, without any option to choose another. The only argument is that she’s the least complicated character to play - but they should let you pick whoever you want upfront. After all, the stories have zero links to each other, which is where that choice would have made sense. Each one takes place in a separate map with its own cast of NPC’s.
If it wasn’t for the poor introduction and pesky penalizing of play, this game would be a 10/10 slam dunk for me that I would shout about from the rooftops. Despite the fun-gating, this is still a lovely experience that I would easily recommend for fans of the genre or newcomers to try out. Just expect a bit of grinding upfront to get to all of the good stuff.
- Visual style.
- (Mostly) Excellent stories.
- Laugh-out-loud humor.
- Flexible & meaningful deckbuilding.
- Some random events too similar.
- Difficulty spikes.
- Starting character and story is uninteresting.
- [size=5]Bane mechanic can really stack up to be unfavorable.
- [size=5]Best ways to play are penalized or require grinding.