Griftlands is another gorgeous, brutally challenging game from Klei Entertainment. The sci-fi deckbuilder is all about making friends and breaking promises. Though, early on, you don’t have the power or pull to do much of either. Not without losing your roguelike run just three minutes after it starts. Losing a battle will instantly end your life (usually unlocking some perks for future attempts in the process). Whereas negotiation, which uses a totally separate deck of cards, is more forgiving. At least it seems that way at first.
Honestly, Griftlands does a pretty good job of explaining a lot of depth very quickly. You can hover over most keywords or cards in the game for at-a-glance descriptions of what they are and what they do. Meanwhile, the tutorial lays out both types of card-on-card combat in just a handful of sentences. One thing missing from that introduction, however, is the secret timer included on all negotiations.
“Impatience” seems to occur in every such encounter. Just not for you. It’s a defensive advantage for NPCs — and a frustratingly blunt one at that. Basically, if you take too long to win an argument in Griftlands, your target will start stacking a damage buff (the aforementioned Impatience). This passively powers up every “intent” they throw at you, whittling down your negotiating hit points.
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Intents are already incredibly strong. Your player character in Griftlands usually does semi-random damage — indicated by the cards you play each turn. Sometimes you’ll do anywhere between 12 hit points and a big, nasty zero. NPCs suffer no such randomness when dishing out Intents. They always hit hard. Impatience only makes those blows worse and worse.
On the bright side, losing a negotiation doesn’t end the game. It just makes people hate you. Every character in Griftlands has a visible attitude toward you. Usually they start off neutral and learn to enjoy your company as you finish their side quests. That confers useful buffs (which in my experience get destroyed almost immediately). Whereas losing a negotiation, or making certain story choices, can drive someone to hate you. Those create nasty rumors hurt your negotiations even more. Combined with all the other odds stacked against you, things snowball out of control fast.
But this is a roguelike. More than that, it’s a game by Klei, makers of Don’t Starve and Invisible, Inc. Things are supposed to go wrong. And learning to game the systems is part of the fun. You’re aided in that process by leveling up over runs, unlocking and upgrading cards, as well as honing how you look at each turn. It’s great overall! It just sucks that Griftlands doesn’t teach you what turns out to be a core part of the game.
At first I thought Impatience was unique to certain NPCs. As such I didn’t think to adjust my play style until it was too late. I lost my first negotiation. Then another, after stacking debuffs from being the most pissed-upon grifter (a sort of bounty hunter/adventurer in this world) in the land started to stack up. Learning certain enemy behaviors and becoming more adaptable is pretty core to most roguelikes — deckbuilders and otherwise. But Impatience isn’t part of that tradition. It’s just a slightly softer failure state.
I actually love the flavor. The onus is on you to produce action through conversation. Even if that conversation gets abstracted through a deck of colorful cards. People won’t just do what you tell them, nor will they listen to you talk forever. Instead, you’re forced to cut to the heart of what matters to them and act before they can realize they’re being duped. You get better at this with practice — with better cards, better relationships, and by essentially cheating through permanent upgrades. It just would have been nice to know about such a core part of negotiations from the start!
I picked up Griftlands a second time now that it’s finally out of early access. It plays a little clumsier on Switch than with a mouse and keyboard, but I’ve been adjusting. Even so, I still nearly put the game down after losing three runs in a row: first to fights I could have won, had I talked down or brought in some backup, then to a random battle on my first in-game day against a max-level foe. Negotiation could have saved me every time. Either that or paying passersby to do my bidding. Money is tight early on, however, so it wasn’t really an option as I got my feet wet. At some point you actually need to play the game part of the game.
A little bit of digging on the wiki quickly told me what I was missing. It also warned me that Impatience triggers from other sources later in the game. Now I feel better armed to tackle the brutal world than before. I like that sense of accomplishment, but the early hours of an intentionally challenging game are tricky to balance. I want something that feels tough and fair. Being dealt a hand without knowing what all the pretty pictures mean does not feel fair — even if the rest of Griftlands is pretty exceptional by comparison.