Griftlands Review (Switch)
Release Date: June 4, 2021
File Size: 1.6GB
Publisher: Klei Entertainment
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
Version Reviewed: 1.0.1
If you’re looking for tabletop-related content on our site, chances are you’ll find my name attached to it. Number manipulation and the wonders of luck are inherently appealing and surprising mechanics, which is why I gravitate towards deck-building, dice-rolling, and other tabletop tomfoolery. Of course, an additional layer of randomization can be applied to this formula, which are the lovely folds of roguelike/roguelite progression. Many deck-based titles tend to favor this merging of genres, and not without good cause. It turns a strategic game into an addictive, “just one more run” sort of affair.
Griftlands is the latest to land on the Switch bearing these design influences. At first glance, the idea of yet another deck-building RPG might not sound all that enticing, but Griftlands has more to offer than combat alone. With nuanced lore, varied campaign branches, and two separate deck-builds per run, this title has shot up my personal list of not just some of the best tabletop-inspired games, but of 2021’s best releases. Read on to find out why.
For those familiar with some of the more popular deck-building games, the opening moments of Griftlands should come as no surprise. You’ll start your journey with the first of three character archetypes, Sal, as she attempts to set the right pieces in place to enact her endgame. Not only will you set forth with a deck of eleven battle cards, but you’ll also have access to a negotiation deck- the first of Griftlands’ particular charms. As it turns out, you’ll need to use both brains and brawn during a run through Griftlands’ three campaigns, so you’ll need to balance your attention between the two in order to find success.
Aside from its aesthetic wallpaper, Griftlands is similar in structure to a game like Slay the Spire: you have a variety of routes that you can take, some of which involve pure combat, negotiations, or an option for both, which the game shows during the selection of each mission. As a Grifter, you are more or less a mercenary for hire, so imagine each “room” or combat encounter is instead presented as a “job.” You’ll receive these from whichever faction you align yourself with early on in your campaign, and the selection of particular jobs will often lock you out of other scenarios.
Either way, you’ll have to travel from location to location on each campaign’s environmental map in order to solve whatever problem you’ve been presented with. These can range from simply intimidating a thug working for another faction, to complex bait-and-switch scenarios that require a great deal of tact. Or maybe not, since the most impactful element of Griftlands’ negotiations and combat is its NPC affinity systems.
Some NPCs will end up appreciating you (or not) due to your actions during specific missions, and they can end up liking, disliking, loving, or hating you. While characters who like you can have passive or very active effects, such as their assistance during missions or offering up foraged equipment from their own exploits, characters who love or hate you will grant passive buffs and debuffs to your campaign, whether related to shop prices, combat abilities, or otherwise.
It pays to be kind to enemies, but if you end up murdering an individual in a non-secluded area, their affiliates will end up hating you instead. Generally, attempting to smooth things over with as many individuals as possible will lead to the most optimal performance, but this is not always an easy task. You may have to forego your personal morals for the sake of a good run, but it’s important to remember that Grifters are a fluid and flexible lot.
Your campaign will unfold over the course of four days, at the end of which you will fight a more substantial boss encounter. This allows the game to feel formulaic in structure despite the various branching paths available to the player. Though many jobs will involve you going directly to a location and confronting a particular culprit, some will have multiple skirmishes on the way towards completion. Depending on the allegiances and adversaries you’ve made throughout your run, you may also encounter additional random skirmishes, which display as unique icons on the world map and are only accessible in between standard locations.
All of these complexities may seem engaging enough, but there’s also combat and negotiation mechanics. You’ll find some nuance in the mechanics available to specific characters in their combat and negotiation decks, but negotiations have a specific mode of attack and support telegraphing that is relatively unique. When in a negotiation, the player has a core argument, which acts as their primary HP pool. However, they also possess attacks that can target either the opponents core argument or any of their supplementary arguments, which act as buffs and debuffs.
While it may seem efficient to attack a core argument, the design of many decks allows for damage maximization through the use of buffs and debuffs, which orbit around core arguments but are also subject to aggression. It is important to weigh whether your arguments are worth keeping around or replaceable enough in order to act as shields for your core argument, and whether or not the opponent’s arguments are dangerous enough to wipe out. It’s a fascinating and fun system that is in many ways Griftlands’ more appealing encounter option.
More traditional combat plays out the way one might expect, except enemy health and skirmish complexity increases with each passing day. Enemy HP pools are usually much higher than negotiation numbers, but this can be mitigated through smart exploitation of the NPC affinity system and smart deck design. While it is a feature in both negotiation and combat scenarios, I would be remiss in forgetting to mention the experience point system associated with all available cards in Griftlands.
Essentially, each time you use a card, you add a single experience point to its gauge, which can be maxed out and improved upon at the end of an encounter. There is a delicate balance to be played here, where some cards become much more viable and essential to deck composition when they have been upgraded. Fortunately, viewing a card’s information does allow a player the opportunity to see its upgrades, as well, allowing for proper planning for a campaign.
Narrative and Aesthetics
Most roguelike titles offer a very simplistic objective for players- reach a certain goal, and you win. In the meta-narrative of Griftlands, this goal is very similar- if you should defeat the boss at the end of your four-day run, you will have completed your campaign and will be victorious. However, as a science fantasy world, Griftlands has plenty more to offer, which is extremely satisfying for lore enthusiasts and a more casual player.
To say that the political machinations of Griftlands’ world are unique would be an understatement. Every campaign-exclusive NPC has something engaging to say about the world and its denizens, with many characters having commentary to offer regarding factions, history, and the geography featured in each campaign. There’s an abundance of flavor text here, and while there is something to be said about how this is counter-intuitive to roguelite design, I’m not going to go out of my way to critique it.
It’s so unfamiliar to see a roguelike offering more than surface-level lore and character that Griftlands seems striking in comparison. It is refreshing, but all of that lore is completely optional. If you wish to get right to the point of an encounter and make the choices that are best suited to your current build, you can certainly do that. But the character animations, sparing voice acting, and oodles of text offer a glimpse into a tantalizingly vast world, one where history is just beyond the avatar’s grasp due to them having not been alive or present for certain events.
To this reviewer, it strikes true to the essential human experience, which is to be a part of history, yet not appreciate their own participants in the current narrative. I’m not trying to say that Griftlands is a beautiful representation of life itself, but the writing seems to nail the sense of being an outsider and coming to terms with the world around you while still actively taking part in its shaping.
Many games of this type utilize a two-dimensional aesthetic in order to present their characters, and while Griftlands does lean into some of the species tropes previously established by more popular science fantasy series (Star Wars, eat your heart out), the characters are all presented in a very appealing and instantly recognizable art style. There are countless NPCs in this story, many being exclusive to certain campaigns, and all of them have their own unique character portraits, as well as reactionary animations. It is hard not to appreciate these character designs, but seeing this uniqueness extended to the backdrops and world maps of each campaign is truly something to behold.
Although I wouldn’t say Griftlands’ soundtrack is anything to write home about, it does end up representing the world faithfully, with a Western- and steampunk-style instrumental accompaniment that sells the ragtag and wild world building the dialogue provides. I don’t think any of the tracks reach earworm status, but it is worth noting that each character campaign has its own unique combat and skirmish music, to the point where you will anticipate encountering these tracks upon starting a new job. Nothing iconic, but plenty worth appreciating and enjoying.
Impressions and Conclusions
If you haven’t noticed already, Griftlands is an immensely complex experience, not necessarily filled with moment-to-moment choices, but a fair amount of careful planning yielding benefits and dangers that will add up over the course of a campaign. Micro-managing deck composition is a feat in itself, but when combined with overarching modifiers, NPC relationships, and the general consequences of each specific skirmish, you are looking at a game that offers an extremely dense initial playtime of around fifteen hours. Although a five-hour campaign for each of its three deck archetypes might seem like a hefty price for entry in regards to traditional roguelike enthusiasts, this is proof that Griftlands has narrative appeal for those less-familiar with this subgenre.
However, that initial, fifteen-to-eighteen hour playthrough of each playable character is only the tip of the iceberg. There are daily challenges and a variety of game modes to encounter if you should find Griftlands appealing. Not only have the developers at Klei Entertainment offered daily challenges of varying intensity, but there are three modes of play for each character campaign, as well. You can play the game traditionally, with varying levels of escalation in the vein of most roguelike/lites of the deck-building variety, take a more narrative-focused journey thanks to a lessened difficulty that centers more around player-choice, and a third, battle-centric unlockable difficulty appears upon completing a campaign, offering less negotiable scenarios and more focus upon deck building and improvement.
It is easy to say that, as a tabletop enthusiast, there are parts of Griftlands that are extremely appealing. However, its extremely deep campaigns featuring loads of flavor text offer an experience that is accessible and enjoyable to traditional RPG enthusiasts. There are so many variables present across a single campaign that it feels unfair to grant it a roguelike moniker- it is simply an excellent role-playing game. The choices you make, whether based on your personal preference or the luck of the draw, will have an impact on your run and the ultimate goal. This is a strangely traditional, tabletop-sort of role-playing that certainly appeals to a more modern audience. There are some trappings of the roguelike genre inherent in this title’s design, however, such as the gradual unlock of cards and abilities through the amount of progression through objectives, but it doesn’t make the base Griftlands experience any less enjoyable.
From aesthetics, to mechanics, to overall lore and world-building, it stuns me to think that Griftlands has not received more praise and attention than what already exists. It is the perfect crossroads for roguelite and RPG enthusiasts, especially due to its extremely flexible, yet entirely optional perk system, allowing players to lighten their load at the start of each run with initial modifiers. The inclusion of additional mutators, or run-based challenges and bonuses, makes this game highly replayable and immensely enjoyable.
Although there are elements that the more brisk, auto-cycling roguelike enthusiast’s play style will end up overlooking due to their superfluous nature, there are many RPG enthusiasts who will appreciate the game from that angle exclusively. Simply put, if you haven’t picked up Griftlands already, I implore that you do so- not simply because it appeals to my sensibilities, but because I believe it has something for everyone.