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A decade ago, RPG choice-driven experiences like Fallout and Mass Effect were everywhere; visually stunning worlds with complex decisions trees that truly let you take part in a grand narrative. Both franchises went downhill in more recent years, and no one outside of the CRPG realm has really stepped up to replace them. The Outer Worlds is on the horizon but it seemed like no game would fill that void in the meantime. That was until Griftlands, a roguelike deckbuilder with a strong focus on narrative, released in a pre-Early Access alpha state. Even though it’s far from complete, the edition available on the Epic Games Store is already a great blast from the past.
Skepticism is understandable as there are a ton of Spire-likes nowadays and many follow the same tropes. Griftlands is something you might expect, but the card game mechanics are only one small part of a much greater whole. In addition to card-based combat, Griftlands has complex character relationships, a dialogue system, and one of the best representations of charisma in video games. There’s a lot going on here in this innocent card game.
Griftlands Alpha Preview | Deal me in
You play as Sal, a freelancing rogue who was previously banished from their homeland by a mad tyrant. You survive the wastes and return eager to prove your worth and take down your heated rival. Along the way, you take sides, stab and argue with various threats and then inevitably die. This is a roguelike after all. Your initial power level will probably be no match for the threats you face. Each new life is a chance to use more powerful cards you unlock after each death and get you a little bit closer to your goal, all while letting you experience the immense variation in developer Klei’s storytelling.
At first, the world of Griftlands doesn’t seem very expansive. It’s barely more than a few different bars with seemingly unimportant characters filling them. However, once you play through a few runs, you start to recognize everyone’s name. These aren’t randomly generated characters, but a set cast of mercenaries and officers. Each one has friends and enemies of their own, and your actions ripple throughout the community. If you end up knifing someone’s companion, they’re going to lose their respect for you. Buy someone enough alcohol and they’ll become your good friend and offer a perk to build your character. It makes even the most minor of activities mean something since everyone involved has stakes in the cyclical story playing out in front of you.
Griftlands Alpha Preview | The rest is still unwritten
While the system has a wealth of potential, the version in the Griftlands alpha can be pretty repetitive. There aren’t that many conversations with passerby not related to your current tasks. Most folks will just offer a single line and an offer to buy them alcohol, an interaction that plays out the same with everyone. It would be great see more ways to becomes friends and foes with these characters, as well as some writing to establish exactly who they are. I want to care when these characters perish because of my dumb mistakes. The potential for that is there, but it’s not realized as of yet.
Speaking of the writing, the story beats in the overall roguelike design don’t really change from run to run. This isn’t really a problem in something like Slay The Spire, mostly because that game is all gameplay and no narrative. You go through the same routine at the start and end of each in-game day, although some of the missions you’re assigned do changes things up. You probably have to keep the same structure for each character’s campaign, but an option to skip or hasten dialogue that you’ve already paged through a dozen times would work wonders.
Griftlands Alpha Preview | Shank 3: Shank Harder
All this writing and character-building wouldn’t mean a thing if the gameplay wasn’t top-notch. In that regard, Klei has created an impressive iteration on the deckbuilder formula. For combat scenarios, everything you expect is here. You have attack cards that upgrade over time, tense turn-based battles with plenty of strategic choices, and punishment cards that spawn from enemy attacks. The improvements come in Klei’s innovations, which also happen to tie back into Griftlands‘ narrative focus. Did you loot a fancy revolver from a dead body? You’ll find an artifact card with a powerful attack that destroys itself after a few uses. Drink one too many at the pub? You’ll need to deal with useless cards that reflect your remaining buzz. Every system works together, and every choice has consequences.
However, say you run into a friend who happens to be on the other side of the law. They’re charging you a fee to pass by, and you just don’t want to stab them. The other form of combat in Griftlands deals with convincing hostiles to see your side of things. It’s similar at first glance to the turn-based battles, but conversations have far more going on in practice. Your main target is the central argument, which represents your opponent’s resolve. You can also target supplementary arguments, which each have their own buffs and damage the core argument when they fall. You can “incept” arguments into an opponent’s mind, weakening their stance. Misdirections will bait your opponent’s silver tongue and protect your mental defenses. It’s crazy complicated, with enough depth and nuance to easily support a game all on its own.
Griftlands Alpha Preview | Cashing out
As you move along, you have to build two decks, each for one form of combat. You can’t really focus on one method of play over the other, which does seem rather limiting. It also introduces more ways to fail a run, especially if you take long time to understand every nuance of the conversation combat. It seemed hard to build yourself into a corner, although you can certainly overextend and end up with a pile of cards that don’t work well together. The fact that you have to retain and think about two completely different strategies when picking cards may stretch the gameplay to its limits, and it will be interesting to see how Klei tweaks it as time moves on.
While Griftlands has a long way to go before its final release, it’s tough not to admire what’s already here. You’ve got everything that most other deckbuilders have on offer with an impressively flexible narrative component layered on top. The combat is fun, fast, and offers a fair challenge that’s fun to overcome. Above everything, you’ve got Klei’s distinctive style and always impressive presentation, making the game into a visual treat. And while all of that is great, the best part may be seeing the company return to their roots and produce more stabbing in the vein of Shank. Everything else is just gravy.
GameRevolution previewed Griftlands on PC via Epic Games Store with a copy provided by Epic Games.