I came to Griftlands thinking I was the best person to review it. When there’s a free moment in the day, I’ll nip off to play deck-builders like Slay the Spire and Monster Train, and the phrase ‘pick one of three cards for your deck’ gives me goosebumps. I get a special kind of joy in starting with a rudimentary deck, before greasing it up to be a fantastic, game-winning machine.
As it turns out, I was terribly placed to review it. I’ve got deck-builder baggage. I have been treated to Slay the Spire’s addictive loops and Monster Train’s quick matches. While Griftlands has moments where it can feel like those games, it’s also lacking the one-more-go feeling. But once I got over that disappointment and tuned into Griftlands’ frequency, I ended up warming to it. Just a little.
Griftlands is the latest from Klei Entertainment, who tend not to stick to one genre for more than a game at a time. They’re best known for Don’t Starve, but have also shipped us Mark of the Ninja and Invisible, Inc. If there’s a connection between their games, it’s comic-book stylings and a determination to re-invent every genre they step into. Which is where Griftlands comes in: it’s a dapper-looking deck-builder, but an unconventional one.
The big deviation is that Griftlands is story-focused. The tendency in deck-building is to let the story come through the random events, but you don’t often get an overall plot. You might get choices to make, mostly as a vehicle for the game to chuck you rewards or battles.
What Griftlands does is keep the roguelike formula of ‘get as far as you can, die, and be better prepared for the next run’, but then layers a narrative on top. You will pick one of three characters, and they each have a different story, all in a dusty, ramshackle futuristic setting. Sal Ik-Derrick’s story is effectively a bounty hunter one, as you take down a rival hunter, while Rook’s story focuses on corporate espionage, as you help out an old friend who is forming a union against the Storm Baron company. There’s some deviation from run to run – you might choose to take a different path with different missions, while random events do still occur – but the outline and big beats are the same.
On the one hand, it feels good to slip into a deck-builder where the story matters. It’s as well-written as you’d expect from Klei Entertainment, and each match feels like more is on the line than just basic survival. Your success means that allies join you, their own story gets a satisfying ending, or your standing with their faction goes up. It adds a sense of mystery too, as you’re never quite sure what your win or loss might mean to the story. You can even jump off the critical path to buy cards from innkeepers, or chat to peripheral characters.
Here comes the hefty ‘but’. It was always going to be a big call to attach a deep, involved story to a game where you’re meant to replay, replay, replay. The story just doesn’t change enough with each run, and you’ll be hovering over the ‘skip dialogue’ button in an attempt to get to the good stuff. By the end of each run, it became a shot to the kneecaps of our motivation. We just couldn’t be arsed to play again, because there was little chance that the story would throw up something new. Sure, there was an XP bar to fill up, with new cards available at various milestones, but the story stood in the way of that, rather than goaded us on.
And while the story and dialogue is strong, the missions themselves don’t change up enough. You could summarise ninety percent of Sal’s missions as ‘shake down someone who owes us money’ or ‘confront an enemy gang member’. The same goes for Rook’s missions, where you’re commonly called to enlist people into the Union. We couldn’t understand why the missions all felt so photocopied, when the dialogue clearly had some much attention lavished on it.
Each mission tends to culminate with a battle or a negotiation, and it’s where Griftlands gets even more ambitious. Rather than have one deck that can handle both battles and negotiations, Griftlands opts to give you two decks, one for each situation. So, get into a verbal sparring match with a character and your negotiation deck will come out. Firefights with enemies means you’re using the battle deck. They have different health pools, you will have to balance the quality of both decks, and – occasionally – you will get to choose whether the upcoming battle is a chat or fisticuffs.
On the face of it, the two decks and their games are wildly different. Physical battles can be 4v4, with allies and enemies in open battle, but with everyone automated aside from your main characters. Negotiations, meanwhile, look bewildering: they involve two revolving wheels, with arguments hanging off them like Pandora bangles. You are picking off enemy arguments, before attacking their core argument, which is a convoluted way of saying ‘you’re destroying their defences to get to a main life pool’.
They may seem like apples and oranges, but they’re mostly re-skins of the same mechanics. It’s one of Griftlands’ biggest faults, actually: it loves to confuse things by putting wonky names and presentation onto things that should be simple. In the negotiation games, you are adding ‘Composure’, which is effectively just defence, and ‘Incepting’, which is a fancy name for debuffs. The negotiation games feature arguments, but really they’re just characters with their own lifepoints, exactly as they are in the battle deck. It’s just their health is lower, and keeping them alive gives you buffs.
It’s flavourful but confusing as heck. We’re willing to bet that plenty of people will bounce off by the sheer cognitive load on display. The confusion continues into other areas: the tutorial doesn’t quite cut it; there are so many effects in play that you’ll lose track; and you’ll be hit by so many buffs and debuffs that you’ll have a caterpillar of icons under your character’s name. That’s before you hit the wall of keywords on the cards themselves. There’s no staggering of information in Griftlands: it’s the deep-end from the very start, and we made roughly one mistake a game, simply because we hadn’t remembered one edge-case ruling.
That kind of density might be catnip to a lot of deck-builder enthusiasts, but we thought we were deck-builder enthusiasts. It felt like Griftlands’ designers were desperately trying to scrabble around for fun by stacking more and more mechanics and keywords on top of foundations that weren’t that strong. This is just a game of whittling down a health pool, after all.
Occasionally, Griftlands becomes something approaching a good time. The character abilities in particular are great. Rook has a chamber of bullets, and cards will fill or empty that chamber. If you have a full chamber then you’re overcharged, and your cards suddenly gain additional benefits, so you’re managing how fully loaded you are at any one time. Each character has their take on a central motif, and they’re genuinely great.
While Griftlands doesn’t seem to let you become wildly powerful in the same way as Slay the Spire and Monster Train does, there are neat combos that fire off, and you can feel steps ahead of the game. You’ll get there mostly by chasing keywords: if you go after every card with ‘Combo’ in the keywords, for example, you’ll probably gain a deck that functions.
Get past the first ten or twelve hours of Griftlands and strategies come into focus. You begin to understand which cards are worth grabbing, and which missions are worth avoiding. But ten or twelve hours is a hell of a commitment. It’s like when people tell you that a TV series gets decent after four series: sure, that’s nice, but you’re asking me to commit hours I could be spending elsewhere, and I’m only getting the reward of something decent at the end of it all. Part of the problem is that a run in Griftlands can be two, three hours long, which is a long time to stick with a single deck that isn’t working, let alone two. Perhaps we’ve been treated to the moreishness and immediacy of Monster Train and Slay the Spire, but Griftlands just doesn’t get its claws into you.
Griftlands is the turducken of card games. It’s a deck-builder stuffed with a second deck-builder, inside a faction-management game, inside a single-player narrative game. It’s ridiculously overstuffed and impenetrable, but you’ve got to admire the craft on display. Taken as individual games, there’s some fantastic ideas in Griftlands, but as a single offering, they don’t quite work.
You can buy Griftlands for £16.74 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S