Iris and the Giant is something you don’t see everyday – a deck builder with a story. The titular, young Iris sees hardship all around her. The kids at school make fun of her, making her reclusive and timid. She doesn’t know how to open up to her father because of it, who is internalizing Iris’ standoffishness as outright rejection. This is a pretty relatable depiction of how depression can have a domino effect on the people you surround yourself with.
When Iris leaves these brief story vignettes and dives headfirst into its fast and furious card battling is where the metaphor loses traction. All of the deckbuilder tropes are here, but coded as elements of Iris’ psyche. Her life points are her “Willpower,” which can be recovered by “Confidence” cards. When you gain enough stars (read: experience points), you level up her “Personality.” The enemies she encounters on her journey up this mountain are aspects of her anxiety. One of them is literally a set of walking lips that shouts insults at you.
The lack of subtlety makes the story a bit harder to relate to. I ultimately respect and appreciate what developer Louis Rigaud (Sigma Theory, Dungeon Rushers) is presenting, though. You don’t have to be Actual Sunlight or Depression Quest to be allowed to tell a story about mental illness. But they set that ludonarrative harmony bar pretty high. When removed from it’s attempt at being a conduit for the story, Iris and the Giant’s gameplay is a stunning display of dynamic and clever card slinging.
What stands out immediately is how approachable everything is. If you’ve come into this game for the story angle, and without much prior experience in deck builders, there’s a great sense of directness and clarity with all of the cards and monsters. Card and enemy effects are simple and straightforward. It’s all turn-based so nothing is acting without your input. Iris and the Giant can join Dicey Dungeons on the list of games in the genre that are good at introducing newcomers to this gameplay concept that is known for getting unwieldy very quickly.
Monsters, traps, and environmental hazards enter from the right side of the screen. As you dispatch them – using cards that represent close range, long range, and magical attacks – they will continue to fill in to the empty spaces their brethren leave behind. Eventually, a staircase (or sometimes a portal) will appear, and take you to the next floor.
Because there are often 2-3 rows of enemies, choosing which ones to kill and when becomes both an exercise in tactical decision making, and an almost dungeon crawling sense of exploration. At higher levels, you’ll have to zigzag around incoming pillars and boulders, while fending off ever more aggressive foes.
Your attacks are all one use cards that run the gamut of wild things you can do. Swords can be chained together, allowing you to continue long combos of attacks so long as you have more Swords to use. Lightning bolts do damage to all monsters of the same species. Sickles steal from enemies that they kill. Almost all of your cards are versions of attacks that enemies can do to you, as well. This creates a very interesting pool of shared information between you in the opponents. You kind of know what an enemy can do based on what it looks like or what weapon it’s holding, even if you’ve never seen it before.
And even after my first successful run through all 20 stages, I’ve been encountering monsters that I haven’t seen before. This is a remarkable feat in a roguelike game meant to bombard you with a lot of samey info in order for you to establish a stable learning environment. Couple that with the extra tasks of finding game-changing imaginary friends – who offer big, passive alterations to standard play by just equipping them – and its safe to say that Iris and the Giant is a game you can play for a long time.
I love coming back to the game, determined on brute forcing my way up the mountain, and accidentally stumbling into a new play style by altering my Memories – passive bonuses you can find by exploring stages thoroughly – and picking odd Personality perks when Iris levels up. You can also find secret floors, which often contain valuable treasure, and powerful enemies. And there’s plenty of neat mechanics that aren’t obvious that can be found, too. Chests can explode for big AOE damage, for example, which is something you wouldn’t find out about unless you were comfortable no raiding it for the card packs inside.
There’s been a sort of deck builder fatigue growing in the indie community, for understandable reasons. But as someone who’s played a lot of them over the past year, I think Iris and the Giant is worth your time. It’s main hook, the narrative of a young girl’s battle with depression, is endearing and a little trite. But it’s bolstered by a truly solid take on this well-traveled genre that is accessible for everyone.
This game was provided to the writer by a PR representative of the game.