Card For Hire

HIGH Reducing a character’s morale via negotiation, then going in for the kill.

LOW The cluttered interface, especially on Switch.

WTF The alien dialect is actionably similar to Twi’leki.

Like most roguelike deckbuilders, Griftlands was fated to draw parallels to Slay the Spire from the moment it was conceived, and in this particular case the comparison isn’t unfounded – the two games share a lot of DNA. But whereas Slay the Spire is an exercise in laser focus, Griftlands is a far more ambitious project, offering two different battle systems, a more expansive upgrade tree, and a far greater commitment to its narrative. It’s a bigger and messier game, but every bit as rewarding once players are on its wavelength.

Set in the sort of sci-fi universe that has its own made-up swear words, Griftlands focuses on one of three playable space mercenaries, each taking random jobs – bounties, protection gigs, and so on – while working up to a bigger and more personal hit. The player’s vocabulary in battle is determined by their deck, and they’ll have numerous opportunities throughout a campaign to obtain more cards, while a permanent level-up system will introduce new drops as experience is accumulated over multiple runs.

As mentioned, one of the defining gimmicks of Griftlands is that it features two different battle systems. One of them is basic, turn-based physical combat, which should feel instantly familiar to anyone who’s played a deckbuilder before. There’s obviously an element of chance, since players are limited to whichever cards they draw in a particular turn, but Griftlands borrows the recent trend of enemies broadcasting their attacks one move in advance, giving players the chance to prepare. If someone’s going to hit me for four points of damage, I’ll see it coming and plan accordingly based on what I have in my hand.

The other, more unique system is negotiation. Verbal sparring matches in Griftlands follow many of the same rules as battles, except that instead of physically attacking our opponents, we’re damaging their primary argument. The difference with negotiations is that we’re continually adding new, secondary arguments into the mix that basically function as extra party members, sporting their own health bars and either attacking every round or offering buffs. Participants can focus on their opponents’ secondary arguments to chip away at their defenses, but every turn not spent attacking the main target is more time that the negotiation goes on.

Negotiations have their own deck separate from the one for physical attacks, as well as a dedicated health bar called “resolve.” It’s almost like we’re playing two different games at once, and frankly, Griftlands could do a better job of teaching it. The tutorials are strictly one-and-done fare that breeze through explanations and offer zero follow-up once we’re actually playing, and it doesn’t help that the cluttered interface was clearly designed for a point-and-click input and suffered greatly during its transition to a console.

Thankfully, Switch players can press ZL at any time to bring up tooltips, and I recommend that newcomers make liberal use of this function. There are about a thousand little icons flooding the screen at any given moment, and while it looks overwhelming at first, all it takes is a bit of time before reading it becomes second-nature.

While it’s a bummer that the game isn’t better tutorialized, the reward for familiarizing oneself with these systems is not just one of the deepest roguelikes in existence, but one that’s dense to a purpose. The reason we have two different battle systems, after all, is that it plays into arguably the coolest feature of Griftlands – its branching narrative.

On paper, nothing that happens over the course of a Griftlands run is particularly exciting – our protagonist takes a series of unrelated jobs, maybe switches allegiances a few times, and then either kills their big target or dies trying. The nifty part is playing the same campaign repeatedly and seeing all of the different ways that the story can play out, either due to choices that the player makes or unforeseen circumstances and randomized events that funnel the player down different routes.

We’re frequently given the choice to solve a problem by either fighting or negotiating, and there are upsides and downsides to both. Winning an argument and persuading someone is a less permanent solution than killing them, as a surviving character may become a nuisance down the road. On the other hand, murdering people outright can have severe repercussions to the protagonist’s reputation unless it’s done in a secluded place with no witnesses.

On top of that, a campaign only ends when the protagonist loses their physical health, so arguing is always the safer option, but it’s also a limited commodity. This is the sort of roguelike with few opportunities to replenish either of our health bars, so negotiating now – and potentially taking a major hit to our resolve – may remove that option later and force us into outright combat when minimizing casualties is perhaps an greater priority.

Each of the three campaigns centers on a small, core group of NPCs that all react dynamically to the choices we make. Characters who love us will provide passive bonuses and may offer aid at various points, while those we’ve angered will hamstring us with debuffs and potentially turn on us. Since seemingly everyone in this world is a member of some warring faction, it can be tough to please one person without pissing off another.

Roguelikes are rarely story-focused, but Griftlands has taught me that the genre is perhaps the perfect venue for the sorts of “moral choices” that were trendy a couple of generations ago. The reason is simple – permadeath sells the need to make difficult choices in order to survive. I have no interest in betraying friends just for the sake of being evil, but when several hours of progress are on the line, it’s a different story. And, while the writing in Griftlands isn’t best-in-class, it’s solid enough to make me feel guilty for doing the wrong thing even when I have no other logical option if I want to win.

Griftlands’ successful experiments in branching narrative, combined with a deckbuilding system that ranks among the genre’s richest, make it one of my favorite roguelikes to date. Whether I’d recommend it on Switch, however, is another matter. Roguelikes sing on handhelds, but anyone opting to experience Griftlands on Nintendo’s hardware is setting themselves up for a massive learning curve that may turn prospective players off. One way or another, though, Griftlands is a title that deserves every roguelike fan’s attention.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Klei Entertainment. It is currently available on XBO, PS4, PC and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 24 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Blood, Mild Language, Use of Alcohol and Violence. The violence itself is tame, but some of the cards have illustrations portraying bloody injuries. Alcohol actually figures pretty heavily into the game, as consuming it can restore the protagonist’s resolve while drunken effects can impair their performance in negotiations afterward.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers subtitles. The subtitles cannot be altered and/or resized.

Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. There is no control diagram. Players use the A and B buttons to make selections and cancel them (respectively), and X to advance text. Beyond that, players can use the triggers, bumpers and minus (-) button to open various tooltips when the command bar at the bottom of the screen prompts them.

Mike Suskie
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