The basic description of Griftlands is that it’s a deck building roguelike. You basically select one of three characters, starting a run in one of three different starting locations. Each character has their own battle deck, and their own negotiation deck. You use both of those decks to complete a variety of jobs that provide a variety of rewards, with some of those jobs being pertinent to whatever the selected character’s long term goal happens to be. Completing one of those runs takes somewhere between an hour and a half to two hours.
It’s quite an addicting game, which a lot of roguelikes are. The first time I sat down to play it, I was determined to get all the way through the first character’s story. It took me something like five or six runs, which totaled about ten to twelve hours, and that was my first sitting. I really only got up to grab snacks and drinks, because the game had my attention.
Part of this is because of the game’s writing and story. Each character has a different story. Sal is something of a bounty hunter, originally from the Bog. She’s determined to take down Kashio, a local crime boss who had previously wronged her. She works together with Fssh, a bartender in Murder Bay who gives her various jobs and tips (as well as selling healing items at a great discount).
The second character, Rook, is an ex-military man who has become something of a spy for a shady organization. His organization has sent him to the Bog (yep, same one Sal’s from) to poke around and find something out. There’s a few fun twists there that I’d rather not spoil.
Lastly there’s Smith, a disappointment and wastrel. He’s one of the middle children of a renowned family of whatever race he happens to be (I’m not sure it’s ever said, and I’ve played the game a lot). Instead of living up to that name, Smith has spent most of his life drinking, getting into fights, and drinking some more. His father recently died, and the rest of the family elected to leave Smith out of the inheritance, leaving Smith irate and determined to get back in, regardless of what that takes.
There’s some fun to be had with both the stories and the writing, as the screenshot above shows. As a roguelike, this game didn’t really have to bother with the story. To be honest, after my first ten or so runs with each character, I usually end up skipping most of it. But the characters are all fairly engaging, and the plots feel like a sort of loose sci-fi, action comedy movie for the two hours or so they last, with interesting characters and great designs.
It’s rare that I comment on the actual graphics and designs, but that’s part of what drew me to Griftlands in the first place. As you can see from the screenshots, Griftlands relies on hand drawn, animated artwork for its various characters. Most of the plot is done by two figures talking to one another, and it does appear a little like they used abase model and basically had different features and the like over the top, but it’s still got this charming appeal. Mix that with the plot and it almost feels like you’re playing an animated film at times, definitely an appeal to me.
The big thing that draws you in and holds you is the actual gameplay. This is a card building roguelike, which means that you start with the two basic decks for two basic types of confrontation. The battle deck plays out about like you’d expect. Two teams of up to four characters confront one another on a field of battle. Each character has their own health pool, and many times characters have a panic meter: damage a character until they hit their panic meter and they’ll either surrender or run away. You only directly control whomever is your protagonist, and are granted 3 actions (at the start), which you use to play various cards.
The neat twist here is that Griftlands features negotiations as well. These play out a lot like combats, with two characters’ portraits facing one another. A circle pops up, with the character’s portrait or a symbol showing their overall allegiance or some other symbol, pops up on one side, so the two are facing one another. You have a set amount of “resolve,” and the goal is to wear opponents down utilizing various cards. The system on the surface plays pretty close to the regular combat, with some cards damaging, others defending, etc., but it’s a nice touch and feels just different enough from most of these.
Winning a successful battle or negotiation earns you a choice of three cards in whatever set you just won for (negotiation or battle). As you collect cards, you begin to see how they start building upon one another. It helps that each time you play a card it gains experience, eventually leveling up and gaining new abilities. It becomes about building a strategy around the cards, with each character having somewhere between two to four overall deck strategies, depending on what you’re pulling. Cards can also be purchased at various shops, which each have their own sort of setup.
There’s several further additions as well. There’s items called “Grafts” which you can buy and grant you a bonus through a run (they’re also rewards for some jobs and every boss fight). These could add further damage when you play certain cards, give you more actions, or make it so that certain things happen under certain conditions. You can also make friends with various people, which can grant bonuses.
Finally, there’s the mettle shop. This is where the permanent upgrade system comes into play: you spend mettle to unlock bonuses that extend over that character’s runs. So you could make it so Sal starts with more health or Smith begins with extra money.
The system is easy to figure out, but hard to master, and there’s obviously a lot going on here. It appeals to players like me, who like tweaking things and optimizing per run. Obviously some runs are going to be more successful than others. Usually the various deck types are balanced, but there are times when the rewards don’t sync (I had one run where I got grafts that provided bonuses to one deck type, and I was only drawing cards of another), which can be a bit frustrating. There’s also several elements of random fate in here: the AI is usually pretty good, but it can get annoying as you watch your allies, say, solely attack the guy who has a counter ability up at the moment or when you realize that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.
But the good news is that you can almost always dust yourself off and try again. The brisk run time with the ability to skip means the game is all kinds of replayable. I’ve already pushed Griftlands up to one of the games I’ve sunk the most time into.
Not that I’d call the game perfect. Its systems still feel a bit clunky to me, and some of the stuff you’re required to do to unlock certain things runs counter to my enjoyment: I’m never going to 100% the game despite enjoying it because I hate the daily challenges and the “brawl mode.” The sort of samey character models could get on someone after a bit, and while the story’s some fun popcorn stuff, it’s hardly as great as some roguelikes (see: Hades).
8 a great game of its genre with a lot going for it, including high levels of replayability and some great original artwork; held back by some limiting options in certain runs and some lackluster semi-required modes