I love roguelites, but I don’t care much for deckbuilders. The only game in the collectible card game genre that ever really hooked me was Hearthstone, and that was a short-lived experience. It’s not that card collectors aren’t a valid genre to me. They’re strategic and challenging, which are two of my favorite elements from the roguelite genre. I just don’t find them incredibly engaging. Maybe it’s my ADHD or my growing up with faster-paced shooters like Halo. That, or there’s no profound reason. Maybe I’m just one of those people that struggles to sit and play a slower turn-based experience. So, when I heap praise onto the Alpha version of Griftlands, you know it comes from a place of genuine joy and admiration.
Your adventure starts somber, straightforward, and sincere. The first line proclaims: “You’re a bounty hunter. You escaped a life of indentured labor by hunting criminals and debt-dodgers.” No confusion there. The escapee, Sal, is back in her hometown to hunt down Kashio, the debt broker that sold her off to servitude. So starts her journey for revenge.
Griftlands Is Darkly Charming
From here, Griftlands presents itself similar to an adventure game or a visual novel. There’s a world map with access to missions, events, and hubs. Each area has a few characters to speak with. Some exist to sell upgrades for Sal or her deck, which I’ll get to in a moment. Others are there to chat with, and there are even some fighters to hire to make battles a little easier.
Conversations are full of charm, with every sentence revealing tidbits about the surrounding world. Even better is the sort of glossary built into conversations, a feature first seen in Pyre by Supergiant Games. Griftlands-specific terms like “Admiralty” can be moused over for a quick definition. The same applies to character names as well, so there’s no need to head into a menu to remember that one character from that one bar from three hours ago.
Even better is that these conversations have consequences, and widespread ones at that. If Sal pisses a particular character off, the act may bite her in the ass a couple of encounters later. Conversely, NPCs that she’s spent time building a relationship with may assist Sal in a battle later on, or gift her unique cards to boost a deck a bit. Each choice has real weight behind it, which often left me pondering conversations for minutes at a time before making a final decision.
Griftlands Is A Visual Treat
Griftlands’ conversations wouldn’t be nearly as effective if the art style couldn’t back them up. But this portrayal only adds to the immersion. Browns and greys portray a dull, barren world, but the game’s characters are full of bright reds and blues as if to resist the ruin and despair surrounding them. Animations are fluid and addictive, and there’s the option to speed up each action, but I’d recommend leaving everything normal to appreciate the effort put into each attack.
However, Griftlands’ real highlight is also the aspect that needs the most refinement: the deck-building and encounters. Fundamentally, these confrontations break down into two parts: fighting and negotiating. Each has unique decks, card types, and playstyles.
In combat, fights play out in traditional deckbuilding fare. Players start with a randomized hand of different cards and a set number of action points. There are typical attack and defense cards as well as more unique ones, like “Doomed.” To win a fight, one must lower the enemy health to a certain point called the “surrender threshold.” At that point, there’s the choice to kill the enemy or let them surrender, but what matters is that the fight is over. The Doomed card doubles this threshold, making it much easier to win. That, and there’s no limit to how many of this card type can fit in a deck, which lends it to be a bit imbalanced.
I have won incredibly difficult boss battles due to raising the threshold until I hardly had to fight. Say that an enemy has 110 health and their threshold is 15 health. Doubling that moves the threshold to 30, and doing so again is 60. In fights, I was entirely unready for, instead of trying to be tactical and outsmarting the opponent, I kept using defense cards to stay alive until enough Doomed cards appeared and I won with next to no effort. That said, I’m still unsure if I was unprepared for these fights or if the game just needs more balancing.
Talk Your Way To Victory In Griftlands
Then, there are negotiations. These scenarios are much more tactical than the combat, and my favorite mechanic in all of Griftlands. Similar to regular combat, negotiations have a deck of cards to pull from. They also have a separate health bar called resolve, as well as a second layer of play: arguments.
Think of arguments as passive buffs or nerfs. Some give bonus damage at the start of a turn, while others steal money with each attack. One of my favorite strategies is to play a “bait” card. An enemy has to attack a bait card, meaning they can’t put damage on my main resolve bar. This gives me time to boost my health or take out some enemy arguments. The goal is still to drop the enemy resolve to zero, forcing them to see Sal’s side of things. Arguments are simply a more exciting way to do so.
As great as these elements are, Griftlands needs quite a bit of balancing. The game takes place over five days, and since it’s a roguelite, every death restarts Sal at day 1. It’s challenging, which I appreciate, but it also feels like no matter how hard I prepare, the end of the day fight is something that can’t be won without cheap tactics.
It’s weird because I feel incredibly confident about completing each day’s activities. Each period is full of missions to go through, most of which provide the option of combat or negotiation. I felt I did a pretty good job switching between the two as to not exhaust Sal, and took care to balance my decks for both defense and offense. However, no matter what I did, the last segment or two before the final fight had suddenly been way harder than anything else beforehand. These situations often left me with half a health bar for the final battle. It was as if the game saw it necessary to punch me in the face at the front door of a bar, just for fun, leaving me staggering and disoriented before I arrived at the ultimate confrontation inside.
On top of this, there isn’t much variety in the cards just yet. Even in the later game, mission rewards would provide the same few cards I’ve had but with slight changes. Fortunately, there are hints at more to come. After each death, there’s an experience bar that provides new decks and items for each level up. As with many roguelites, these items are pop into the game for you to acquire randomly. That said, my few level ups didn’t alter the experience much.
However, the full game will surely have balance changes and tweaks upon its release next year. Even with these gripes, Griftlands is an exceptional experience that convinced even me, someone who cares very little for deckbuilders, that they can be fun, engaging, and at times, even delightful. It just needs some more variety to keep my attention.
TechRaptor previewed Griftlands Alpha on PC via the Epic Store using a preview code provided by Epic Games.