In Griftlands players take on the role of a mercenary trying to get by on an alien world; taking missions to be resolved by either violence or diplomacy and all handled in-game through deck-building.
Back when it first came out, Slay the Spire awakened a demon in me; one that only grew when its sexy cousin Monster Train came along. I found I couldn’t get enough of that sweet, sweet roguelike deck-building action. Every run, even the ones that ended in success, didn’t end perfectly and there were always new mechanics and new possibilities to try out. Griftlands, then, should have been a home run for me.
At its core it is a roguelike deckbuilder very much in the Slay the Spire mould. Your journey starts with a basic deck of actions, and you travel about the landscape of an alien planet, taking missions that involve you hurling said cards at one or more opponents whilst trying not to be taken out by their own offensive. You have to manage your hit points and get to the end of the day alive to heal up as well as choosing from battle rewards to upgrade your deck and build for future encounters.
The main area that Griftlands builds on this formula is the idea that you have two decks; a combat deck and a negotiation deck. Sometimes you have to scrap your way out of a situation, sometimes you can talk your way out of it. In a negotiation, you damage an opponent’s arguments rather than their health, and there are a bunch of different tactics, but, gameplay-wise, it’s in the same ballpark. Managing, refining and improving two decks at the same time is an interesting twist and definitely takes some brainpower. You don’t often get a realistic option between whether to negotiate or fight in a given situation though so you have to be careful not to prioritise one deck too much over the other.
The other main addition that jumped out to me was Griftlands’ attempt to tell a story. No-one would claim that Slay the Spire’s strength was its storytelling or characters (the characters don’t even have names) and Griftlands goes in quite heavily in this area. The game contains story-based cut-scenes, named characters and actual plotlines. When you visit new areas, with new people, there are conversations to be had that contain all sorts of names and places highlighted in blue (which means you can click on them for more information on them). There is world-building going on here and the characters have arcs and personalities.
Which is great and all, but… isn’t this a roguelike? My main criticism of Griftlands is that it wants to have its cake and eat it too. Either you’re a roguelike game designed to have runs that last one to two hours, and to be replayed with different options and tactical choices, or you’re an RPG, designed for longer playthroughs with lots of story-based content and character-driven connections. The mechanics and the structure are completely at odds and it can be quite jarring. I had run-throughs of Griftlands where I could tell my deckbuilding was bad and, sure enough, I didn’t last too long and had to restart. At which point I got much of the same story, some repeated quests and events. It began to grate somewhat. Griftlands felt very much like its mechanics should have landed more in the same area as Children of Zodiarcs; a game with all the deckbuilding (and dicebuilding!) you could wish for but that wasn’t built to be a roguelike, but a short JRPG. You could replay it if you wanted to to try out different approaches, but it wasn’t expected.
Simplicity in the gameplay loop and complexity in the choices is what makes a good roguelike and it feels like the makers of Griftlands didn’t get this, or maybe lost sight of it. There are mechanics and gameplay states of differing types all over the place. A lot of it is, in fact, quite interesting, and the world-building is solid, it’s just all in the wrong type of game. There could have been a really nice card-based RPG in here but, unfortunately, as it is, Griftlands frustrates as much as it delights.
And yet… and yet. There is definitely something here. For me, the cornucopia of mechanics and the muddled direction of the game served as a barrier to entry but there is a lot of polish, a lot of intelligence and a lot of depth to Griftlands. I suspect that a lot of people, like me, won’t really be able to push past that initial steep curve but if you can I feel like there is a richly rewarding experience within, just not for everyone.