Iris and the Giant Review (Switch)
Often, the appeal of deck-building and tabletop mechanics is the feeling of either crafting a tome of spells you can reliably predict and exploit, or the opportunity to summon impressive and empowering abilities and monsters from a vast pool of potential picks.
This often feels counter-intuitive to the appeal of the roguelike, which prides itself on a knowledge of various mechanics and synergies throughout a game. Predictability is largely determined by exploiting the system in specific ways, but the bleak reality of a roguelike is that not all runs will be successful – very few, in fact. Each attempt brings a greater understanding of the expectations set forth by the challenges of the game, and randomization adds the opportunity to strategize and optimize within those paradigms.
While many tabletop-oriented titles often divide card types among specific characters, Iris and the Giant is about a very peculiar girl and her relatable struggles. The entirety of the game’s catalogue of cards is at her disposal… should you have the chance to access them.
Iris and the Giant is a deck-based roguelike, where the player assists Iris as she traverses the realm of the unreal in order to face her fears. The path you take as Iris is straightforward and predictable, though there are some optional stairwells that allow access to alternate floors and challenges.
On her way through the underworld, Iris encounters a variety of enemy types, each programmed to perform a single action during their turn. At first glance, taking on these foes – who exist on a variable-by-three grid in each room – might seem like a daunting task. Iris is able to draw four cards each turn from her deck of cards, and while some of these are single actions, many have functions that allow the player to stave off the onslaught of enemies that threaten to end their run.
The sword, for example, allows Iris to deal one point of damage to an enemy directly in front of her (i.e. the first row), but she can follow up this attack with additional sword cards. Confidence allows Iris to heal any damage she has taken, and because it is a defensive option, she can act again after it. Shields are single-use cards, but they negate damage for two turns, allowing Iris to safely plot out her next attack. Axes are single-use, but they swipe at all the enemies in the front row, sending the next wave towards Iris at the end of her turn, but negating any of the actions from enemies who would need to be in front of Iris on her turn in order to perform them.
The nuances in card behavior are cleverly designed, and each has potential benefits for a smart player. Defeating boss enemies, who appear more frequently than one might expect, grants Iris the chance to select a single deck-wide buff from a number of options, and depending on how the player designs her deck, these can prove extremely beneficial. However, the likelihood of receiving the perfect buff is sometimes slim, so you’ll need to make sure you plan wisely enough to be able to change your play style on the fly, depending on what sort of buffs and cards you accrue.
This idea of a malleable deck is important because Iris and the Giant has a very key trait: all cards are single use. Unless you manage to snag a specific level-up bonus that allows you to retain a card after playing a certain number, you’ll have to constantly restock your deck if you want to keep moving forward. Running out of cards means your run is done, so you need to plan out what sort of actions you take in order to make sure you can keep moving forward and stay prepared for what comes next.
Iris has multiple paths towards success, but the ways that her deck is built still rely heavily on the luck of what buffs you invest in from her experience counter, boss encounters, and crystal accumulation. Defeating an enemy grants stars, which offer Iris a unique set of character progression options upon leveling, while crystals are a sort of currency that can be scrounged up during gameplay and grant a new set of cards upon reaching a certain threshold. Making sure you have access to both of these options reliably throughout your run is absolutely paramount, and luckily, there are a variety of ways you can ensure this, to be covered later.
Narrative and Aesthetics
Iris and the Giant is a story about finding your confidence, though the execution feels a bit muddled. The eponymous Giant is barely seen, and doesn’t seem to have much relevance even in the memory segments you uncover as you explore the game. I understand that the Giant is meant to be symbolic of the strength inside Iris, but I don’t feel the idea is communicated well, save for how the final encounter itself operates, which has a subversion of game mechanics for the service of the game’s message. Even then, I don’t know if this is a nuanced enough depiction of depression and the strength needed to power through it, but it will likely resonate with some players.
The remainder of the narrative is, as mentioned prior, unlocked by finding memory fragments throughout runs, which detail a variety of scenarios in which Iris succumbs to anxiety and depression. Iris isn’t a very talkative girl and her interactions with others seem to harp on this trait, which makes her seem like a bit of a punching bag, but works as a stark contrast to the power trip that is the basic gameplay structure. In the same way, there are some details, such as the lack of a maternal figure, that might explain some of her behavior, but there’s a point where some of the gameplay mechanics – namely, the later enemies in the run – feel self-inflicted rather than the cause of outside influence.
Many of the “poisonous words” Iris feels disempowered by are over-exaggerations of the torment she faces from her peers, but it is important to acknowledge that she is, for all intents and purposes, a young lady, and therefore prone to warped perceptions and issues with self-image. All in all, the narrative in Iris and the Giant does feel heartfelt and genuine, even if it leans heavily into the morose.
Aesthetically, the game combines elements of a few art styles to help get into the headspace of its young protagonist. The characters you face are simplistic representations of Greek mythological figures, and their designs are indicative of Iris’s unpolished art skills. Similarly, the game takes on a children’s book art style during the memory sequences that reflects the imperfections Iris feels in the real world. While in gameplay, a clean, vector-based art style with minimalist details makes the presentation feel very sharp and alien.
The game doesn’t feature a great deal of colorful animation, but the movements of each enemy are clearly defined and snappy enough that the pace of gameplay maintains its speed. The soundtrack has a mystical, forlorn feeling to it, which ramps up in intensity as Iris progresses through her run and encounters new challenges. A combination of string instrument plucks and music-box tones gives the soundtrack its child-like wonder, as well as a subdued, almost watery leitmotifs used throughout the game are earworms that will stay with you after you’ve powered off your Switch, and assist the game in maintaining its momentum and selling its central themes.
Impressions and Conclusion
This game’s roguelike nature has a few curious folds to it that could either benefit its longevity and experimentation or cheapen its overall intention. Death does mean a reset, of sorts, but each time Iris falls, she is given the opportunity to start the next run with a set of modifiers. I say “given the opportunity,” but in reality, you can’t refuse these modifications, though you can swap them out when you’ve built up a meta-currency that appears to be gathered from defeating bosses or gaining levels, though I’m not too sure which is the deciding factor. I ended up beating the game by chance via an extremely powerful post-run modifier, which makes me want to give the game another shot, but also didn’t feel very rewarding.
These are not the only modifiers that exist in the game, however, as there are abilities that you can grant Iris by allocating memory fragments to a separate game menu. These can help you start your run in a more secure place, or they can change the kinds of rewards you’ll find during your run. There’s a wide variety on display, and a daring player can choose to invest in these options in any way in order to make their runs easier. The other sort of modifier comes in the form of the game’s achievement system, which are known as Imaginary Friends.
You’ll first need to encounter specific enemy types during a run in order to unlock the ability to challenge its achievement, but once you complete these more stringent objectives, you can then equip an Imaginary Friend (or two, or three) to Iris and modify the game rules even further. The game’s pause menu allows you to review your progress in regards to which achievements you are on track to fail or complete, so you can perform runs simply with the goal of accomplishing these objectives.
Because you can sometimes randomly come across solutions to runs, the bulk of the game’s appeal is completing these achievements, as Imaginary Friends can offer some incredibly unique modifiers to gameplay that often have synergy with the memory fragment modifiers. However, while you can more or less activate a vast number of memory fragment modifiers at the same time, Imaginary Friend modifiers are much more limited in number and activation due to how drastically they can change the way you play.
Iris and the Giant has two campaigns to complete, in addition to a hard mode that heightens the challenge presented by enemies, as well as their appearance in your run. The two campaigns are drastically varied, featuring different layouts and enemy types, so there’s still plenty to take on even after you have freed the Giant from its sorrowful state. There are some novel ideas in Iris and the Giant, such as special scenarios that challenge the player to defeat all enemies with a specific set of cards while remaining unharmed, but even these can be undone by the between-run rewards you gather, as some buffs and changes apply to the entire run and can end up causing issues with the puzzle solving mechanics.
If you are a fan of deck-based combat and challenges that are tied to in-game achievements and unlockables, there is plenty to do in Iris and the Giant. Its morose mood can sometimes provide a brief, contemplative respite from more action-oriented titles, and the scope of its narrative, though not as adventurous or epic as other games, is respectable. Aside from some overwrought narrative choices and a feeling of randomization that sometimes cheapens the feeling of expertise, Iris and the Giant is a lovely little roguelike with a great deal of heart and novelty, and is well-worth checking out for tabletop-based enthusiasts.