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Impression: Griftlands

Griftlands is Klei’s entry into the roguelike deckbuilder genre. And in typical Klei fashion, it overcomplicates everything.

Dialog is actually pretty good across the board.

In some circumstances, overcomplication can be good news. It represents depth and complex systems and a high skill ceiling. Oxygen Not Included is a gem of a colony sim, and Don’t Starve is one of those genre classics that seems simple at first, but quickly demonstrates how deep the rabbit hole goes.

So what’s the issue with Griftlands? The complication is just time-consuming.

One of the central hooks is that Griftlands is a roguelike deckbuilding RPG. The three characters you can pick from each have an elaborate backstory and encounter numerous choices throughout the game. And speaking of backstory, the game’s lore is extremely elaborate and interesting. It takes place on a remote, swamp-like planet populated by the descendants of a spacefaring civilization that… stopped sparefaring. Most of the citizens worship Hesh, an inscrutable Cthulhu-esque monster in the deep ocean. So you have mechs, bioweapons, ancient tech, and post-apoc Thunderdome elements in this gumbo soup of a setting. It’s pretty cool.

Less cool is how all these RPG/Visual Novel elements interact with, you know, a roguelike deckbuilder. Like how my first playthrough with the first character ended when I died to the final boss after 7 hours, 15 minutes. While you can make different choices the next time around, in reality they are more of an A/B route sort of thing. Do you side with the authorities or the rebels? Do you double-cross the one dude or not? The final boss is always the final boss. My second playthrough was a success after five hours. And that was with me skipping some of the dialog I had already heard before.

Just a breezy 5 hour, 20 minute playthrough.

Even ignoring the story aspects, the deckbuilding side itself is complicated.

You start off with two decks, completely independent of one another: Battle and Negotiation. Whenever you come across an encounter, you often have the choice of determining whether to use one or the other. Generally speaking, Negotiation avoids “battle” encounters entirely, but sometimes they are used to weaken a particularly stubborn foe before fisticuffs. Negotiation is an entirely different battle system with different mechanics and even different “HP”. Additionally, you can “lose” in a Negotiation without losing the game, although that typically results in you no longer being able to do any more Negotiations for the rest of the in-game day.

On top of this, all cards have XP meters that increase as you play them. Once filled, the card gets one of two upgrades to choose from. The generic cards have a dozen or so potential options, but the main ones you get from shops or win from battle will just have the two options. This XP element will typically encourage you to stall battles out so you can level-up your cards, but this can only be done for X number of rounds before your character becomes exhausted. Nevertheless, the XP mechanic complicates things quite a bit considering the final encounter for each character is always a Battle, so choosing Negotiate all the time will lead to inevitable failure.

Turns out this combo is pretty strong.

On the Battle side of things, everything is more straight-forward. Ish. You face off versus one or more enemies like in Slay the Spire. You might get some help though in the form of a pet, hired goons, NPC helpers, or NPCs summoned from cards in your deck. Each of the three main characters have their own special mechanics. For example, one gets Charges that can be expended to boost cards, another takes self-damage that turns into end-of-turn self-healing, and so on. You can add cards to your deck after successful encounters or buy them from shops. Grafts are permanent items you, well, graft into your skull that act as passive abilities. And so on and so forth.

Oh, I forgot to mention about relationships. During Battles, enemy character have X amount of HP, and then a slightly higher threshold for Panic. For example, someone may have 80 HP but Panic once they get to 20 HP. Cause all the enemies to Panic and the encounter ends with you having the choice as accept their surrender or execute them. Executing characters grants you a special card, but will also likely cause one of their friends to hate you. This hate manifests as a Social Bane, which is just a persistent debuff that exists as long as they hate you. Some are whatever, but others increase the costs of all vendors, or cause you to lose money every time you sleep, and other nastiness. You can try and kill the person who hates you to erase the Social Bane, but unless you properly provoke them into a duel, you just continue the cycle of hatred.

On the flip side, Social Boons also exist. Most of the time they come from doing quests for people, but sometimes you can just straight-up throw enough money at someone to get them to like you. Just like in real life!

Are you feeling the overcomplicated-ness of this game yet?

Overall the game is fun, but honestly it is in spite of all of these systems. A particularly long Slay the Spire run takes me maybe 2-3 hours max. Doubling that for Griftlands does not double my fun. Indeed, the longer things go on, the more disappointed I become if I don’t succeed. The saving grace of most roguelikes is winning or losing quick enough that you can jump back on the horse without questioning your life choices. With Griftlands, you have plenty of opportunity to ask questions.

As a final note, there is a Brawl mode which eliminates all the plot and just lets you play battles in sequence. I just completed my first one before writing this… after 3 hours and 20 minutes. That is one long-ass roguelike experience.

ONI Goes Gold

Another Klei game has graduated Early Access, showing the world how Early Access should be done.

I had stopped playing Oxygen Not Included (ONI) back in March, because I was getting a bit overwhelmed with my longest-running base, but didn’t want to start over with a fresh one because there were some pending updates. I continued holding off because the release date was going to happen soon, then it got delayed, so I waited some more. Booting up the launch version last night was satisfying, like slipping into a well-worn chair after a month-long vacation.

For the most part.

New biomes have been introduced, new machines, new elements, new critters, and a new selection of theme asteroids with random modifiers like “metal-rich” or “magma channels” or “frozen core.” There are trees now, in certain locations, and an entire engineering path in which you can burn trees for fuel, turn them into ethanol, and so on. There are also some major changes to heat deletion, specifically removing some of the cheesy methods and making it more of a hassle.

At the same time… the (optimal) early game is pretty much identical. Construct some Outhouses, dig out some 16×4 rooms, make your vertical shafts three tiles wide for airflow and future-proofing reasons, dig out a basement for your Carbon Dioxide to settle so the Dupes don’t smother in their sleep, and so on. The Research tree has been rearranged, Skills have undergone a third (final?) revision, but everything you learned about the first 50 cycles or so is pretty much the same.

The one thing that stays interesting is the placement and types of geysers that can spawn. In the beginning there were only Steam geysers and volcanoes and such, but now there are ~19 different varieties that can radically change the trajectory of your entire game. For example, having a nearby Natural Gas Vent (i.e. geyser) means you can rush an early Natural Gas Generator and otherwise skip Coal power entirely. A water geyser, in whatever form, is pretty much required for any kind of long-term survival, so it’s good to find an early one and get that concern out of the way.

In many ways, ONI reminds me of Civilization in this regard. Many of the steps you undertake are the same, although early environmental resource placement can cause you to switch strategies. By the mid-to-late game though, all roads lead to Rome and you end up doing the same sort of things, e.g. the one that work, as you coast to an inevitable conclusion.

Granted, I haven’t made it to the endgame in the released version of ONI – or in the beta for that matter – so maybe they changed things up. Hell, there are some asteroid options like Rime, wherein everything is basically frozen except for the starting biome, causing you to be very concerned about generating heat instead of having to worry about cooling everything down like normal.

In any case, Steam says I have played 80 hours of Oxygen Not Included already, so even if the release version doesn’t capture my long-term attention, it’s because I have already spent a long time enraptured in its systems. It is decidedly NOT Rimworld or Dwarf Fortress, but it is another fun game from Klei (makers of Don’t Starve). If you like failing miserably several times before becoming lord of the elements, I recommend the game.