An endearing, card-based roguelite that aces the “one more run” test.
Iris and the Giant tells a sorrowful tale of a young girl growing up and the pain and trauma she experienced. In fits and starts, Iris’ story and relationships are revealed during runs through dungeons, which seem to represent her mental prisons. While the issue of over-repetition can start to set in eventually, there are enough new elements and features to unlock that you’ll basically never walk away from a run without something new to take with you on the next one. Accessible gameplay and satisfying card-playing mechanics make Iris’ tale hard to put down.
Even though it’s light on story, Iris and the Giant sees you cobble together memories that depict individual moments in the titular heroine’s life. Whether it be a strained relationship with her parents or bullying from her peers, Iris has obviously suffered greatly; the ultimate goal of running through the dungeons of her mind is to come to terms with her past and her feelings. The journey of self-discovery trope works well in a roguelite, and the physical Memories you collect in the dungeon not only add characterization but also allow you to unlock perks in-between runs. While the drive to eventually complete a dungeon is the strongest motivator, wanting to learn more about Iris is a close second.
The primary dungeon, The Giant’s Path, consists of approximately 20 floors and contains a couple different paths to get to the end. Each floor involves reaching the staircase by eliminating waves of skeletons, cats, and demons that all present a slightly different challenge. You don’t actually need to defeat every enemy before escaping. With Iris situated on the left side of the screen and your opponents on the right, you select cards from your hand to attack or defend with. Early on, you’ll play swords, bows, and axes on tiles in front of you to take out the enemies in your path. When you destroy an enemy, the enemies in that row move forward to fill up the space, and this continues until you reach the stairs or the end of the floor. You’ll be dealing with nine tiles most often, but some floors feature only six or as many as 12.
Combat is turn-based in that Iris plays one or more cards and then the opponents take a turn if they are able. Most enemies can only attack while in the column closest to Iris, but those equipped with bows can fire arrows from any tile. Cyclops creatures that hide under rocks will shield themselves every second turn and then throw a rock from distance for massive damage on alternate turns. Some enemies can steal the cards from your deck, and once your deck of cards hits zero, it’s game over. Others will add “sorrow” cards to your deck that will take up space in your hand (which starts at four but can be increased), and one of the only ways to take them out is to play them at the cost of damaging yourself. The variety and difficulty of the opposition grows as you move from floor to floor, and you’ll generally need stronger and more effective cards to deal with what the final floors throw at you.
The aforementioned memories can unlock new cards that you’ll find in the dungeon, such as bombs, lightning that strikes all enemies of one type, and scythes that strike and then steal cards from downed enemies. In the dungeons themselves, you earn cards by opening treasure chests that appear on almost every floor, but you also collect stars by defeating enemies that allow you to level up and gain a temporary buff like increased max health, health restoration from playing certain cards, or recycling every 12th card played back into your deck. Each of these buffs can be improved during subsequent level ups, or you can elect to just open a treasure chest (which is advisable if you’re running low on cards). The need to juggle Iris’ health, the total cards in your deck, and the types of cards you have means a steady stream of interesting but tough decisions to make throughout every run.
On some floors, defeating all of the enemies will open an optional portal to a set of specific challenges separate from the dungeon. Within, you’ll be tasked with solving a puzzle: using a set number of cards to take out all of the opposition before they deal any damage to you. Fortunately, you’re allowed to mess up a few times before failing the trial, and success grants you one or more special treasure chests offering powerful cards. Another neat element is the unlocking of imaginary friends who bestow their own benefits when accompanying Iris. To gain access to these companions, you must complete a specific challenge, like reaching floor 10 without using any magic cards. Finding memories, discovering and completing trials, and recruiting imaginary friends all add to just how hard it is to put the game down. On at least one occasion I can admit to taking my Switch Lite battery down to 1%, which doesn’t happen to me too often.
Iris and the Giant is an excellent roguelite experience wherever you play it, but the simple presentation and mechanics help it find a fitting home on Switch. Three difficulty modes, the hardest of which is unlocked after completing the main dungeon, two secondary dungeons after the first, and dozens of cards, enemies, and more to unlock give the game some real staying power. The watercolor aesthetic and haunting soundtrack contribute beautifully to the endearing story and satisfying gameplay. Some menu issues and the inability to adjust difficulty level within a save file shouldn’t hold back another strong contender for a spot in your Switch library, especially those craving that “one more run” loving feeling.