At first blush, Griftlands looks like one of many Slay the Spire clones. It’s also a deck-builder roguelite, where players make choices about their encounters and rewards, comparable to Slay the Spire’s dungeon floor pathways, and fight opponents in turn-based combat using a deck of upgradable cards. But like all of Klei’s games, Griftlands is also entirely, inventively new.
Griftlands is a science fiction western, set in the scummy world of Havaria, full of grifters and scammers trying to get rich or just get by. Starter character Sal (there are two additional characters to unlock) is a twin-blade carrying bounty hunter, out for blood against debt-broker Kashio. Gameplay marries Slay the Spire-like elements with a point and click map that offers various quests, as well as options to heal, over the course of five days—with each of these days acting as a section of a climb. Quests are often time sensitive, and each evening caps with a boss fight.
But here’s the kicker: in Griftlands, your choices and actions permanently change the fabric of the game, for the duration of the run. Every room you enter in Havaria’s Murder Bay—busting in like some kind of cyborg cowboy—will have an array of characters you can ally with, piss off, or simply pass the time talking to. And every job you take comes with an array of options from carrying it off as promised, to selling out (or murdering) your employer, bribing a guard, blackmailing allies, or simply taking the money and running.
A basic gameplay path might look like this: you’re picking up a package for Grog N’ Dog bartender Fssh, but when you get to the port you’re blocked by a guard. Do you negotiate access, bribe him to look the other way, or attack him? Because you’re a bounty hunter for hire, your reputation is your life—and there’s no way to pussyfoot around the impact of your decisions. Choose to work for one client and the other will hate you. This impacts everything from shop prices, whether someone will back you up in a scuffle, or adds passive “love” or “hate” boons that impact gameplay. These consequences may feel harsh, but end up helping Griftlands avoid the bloat that can plague games where players can align with any and all factions. The result is a delightfully responsive world, where every move leaves a mark.
Carrying out these quests involves playing one of two deck-building games (battle and negotiation) and sometimes both. Battle is more straightforward with cards dealing damage, putting up defense, or triggering powers or debuffs like bleed, which can stack into powerful play strategies. Players can murder or have mercy on opponents, after reaching the panic threshold on their health bar. Losing in battle means the climb is over.
Negotiation shakes up this format. Each player has a core argument with “resolve”—knocking it to zero will end the negotiation, making the player rely on other tactics to complete the quest—but several other “arguments” can orbit around it, each with their own resolve bar, damage allotment, and debuff-style perks. They function like powers and shields, adding flavor to gameplay by making it feel more like having an actual argument. Playing an “influence” card, for example, will create an additional “argument” that boosts the damage of all other diplomacy cards. Opponents can target it specifically, aiming to de-escalate the power of diplomacy cards, though it wouldn’t attack the main argument. Other playable arguments include “gossip,” which baits the enemy to focus on destroying it, instead of your main argument. Both decks have “flourishes” which function like specials, allowing players to deploy special extra-powerful cards.
You can architect your play style around being roguish or smooth-talking. Negotiation decks have diplomacy or hostility cards, the latter of which can be fine-tuned to create a virtuous loop of insults. Players can choose to invest in a battle playstyle, buying cards from merchants and bartenders at saloons and bandit camps across Havaria. Kill enough targets and you’ll get a negotiation card that makes your intimidation cards more powerful, because people are afraid of you. You can also goad someone into attacking you, allowing you to murder them “in self defense” without social repercussions. Or you can use negotiation before battle to give opponents an “existential crisis” which makes them worse at fighting. Options are endless.
It’s all buoyed by funny writing and gameplay mechanics that tie together the game’s world-building. Characters' tactics reflect their title or station. Wealthy merchants will add “kickback” negotiation cards to your deck, which require paying shills (in-game currency) to play. Saving a union laborer from a financial shakedown will earn you a “Voice of the People” boon, which plops an additional argument in your favor into your negotiations. Buying a drink for someone improves resolve and makes them like you, but adds useless tipsy cards to your deck which can only be slept off or disposed of during negotiation. You can also adopt a pet—so far I’ve adopted Turnip, Stinker, and Carapace on various runs—that will fight by your side!
Like many of Klei’s titles, there’s fun in failing and making mistakes. Because it’s a roguelite with so much character and quest variety, there’s little to lose—but so much to gain—by committing to a chaotic playstyle, even at the risk of flaming out. A mix of characters and quests guarantee no two runs will look the same. And because Griftlands forces players to make tradeoffs early and often, gameplay moves quickly. You can’t make everyone happy, so why try? By day three you’ll be detangling a hairball of alliances, figuring out what to do when Oolo, an Admiralty Intelligence Officer, asks you to target civilian merchant Shen, who you’ve allied with. By day five, you'll just be hoping you’ve done what it takes to win the climb.
Much like in Hades, a mix of storytelling plus unlockable perks gained over multiple runs also drive players to hop right back in. These perks were added during the early access phase—additions that proved key to making the game more replayable. Players gain “mettle” by winning battles and negotiations, which can be spent on stats like greater max resolve, which carries over to other runs. Beating a full climb unlocks a new gameplay mode, plus an additional playable character. It’s all rounded out with a great easy mode as well as a story mode, that make Griftlands’ delightfully seedy world accessible to deck-building newcomers or those who simply want to enjoy the ride. I've put over a hundred hours into this game over the past two years, and every update has given me a new reason to come back. Now a Switch version has given me another delightful reason to start over, and for anyone who has yet to spend time hanging out in Griftlands, it's a chance to enjoy a deck-builder that remains a standout in this crowded genre.