App Reviewed on: iPad Pro
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I can't imagine the thought process that led to Iris and the Giant being a deck-based roguelite dungeon-crawler where a girl literally fights her own inner demons. I'm glad there's games like this though; ones that take risks in presentation and tone to transform what might otherwise be yet another DnD also-ran and give it a real sense of identity and emotional weight. Hopefully some developers take some cues from Iris and the Giant, because it's a fantastic little game bursting with originality and replayability.
Rows of woes
If you've played Slay the Spire, Iris and the Giant's gameplay may seem pretty familiar. It's a game where you carve your way through enemies using an ever-evolving deck of cards full of weapons and abilities, all in an effort to make your way as far as possible without dying. Along the way you'll discover special treasures, unlock new abilities, and fight powerful boss enemies.
Iris and the Giant is more than a simple clone or derivative experience, though. The game has its own style and structure that include things like a lane-based approach to combat, secret pathways to mix up level progression, and unique methods for deck management and unlocking character abilities. To top this all off, Iris and the Giant unveils a somber narrative about its eponymous protagonist in between bouts of her slaying her inner demons.
Aside from the game's conceit, Iris and the Giant stands out by cultivating a constant uneasiness throughout its entire design. On any given level, you don't know what enemies might be lurking in the back of a lane to muck up your whole strategy. You're also unsure of how your deck might have to change based on what you find across the course of a run. You could try to rely on cards you've already added to your stockpile, but that will only get you so far. Unlike other deck-building games, Iris and the Giant doesn't allow you to keep cards you add to your deck.
Design touches like this make Iris and the Giant feel unlike any other experience in the ever-expanding sea of card-based roguelites. It also prevents you from ever relying on a specific strategy or build to carry you through the experience. There are just too many interlocking systems in place for you to count on any tried-and-true formula. This can feel frustrating at times, but Iris and the Giant feels tuned in such a way that you don't have to theorycraft a perfectly optimized deck to go decently far on any given run.
When you first start playing Iris and the Giant, you might wonder where all of the variety and depth I'm talking about is. This is because the game unrolls everything it has to offer through a series of unlocks that can then be carried over to new runs or mixed and matched to create different variations on the core experience. It doesn't take long to start unlocking things and they keep coming at a steady clip, even if you struggle to continue making meaningful advances in your run lengths.
These unlocks add a lot of replayability to Iris and the Giant and ensure that there's always something for you to aim for when playing, even if completing a full run feels far out of reach. It's also nice that these unlocks don't feel crucial to beating the game, though they can make certain strategies more viable or otherwise make the game altogether easier.
The bottom line
Iris and the Giant is a fascinating blend of hard combat tactics with soft visuals and storytelling all stacked on top of a ever-shifting pile of systems. At times this combination can feel fragile and obtuse, but more often than not it provides a satisfying tactics experience that feels equal parts mysterious and knowable. In the ever-more-crowded space of deck-building games, more games need to be like Iris and the Giant if they want to stand out like it does.