Every week for 12 weeks, we will be highlighting and reviewing one standout indie game that was released in 2020 that you’re likely to have missed. So please, come with us on this trip through wonderful worlds, heartfelt tales and mysteries simply begging to be solved.
2020 Indie Spotlight – Iris and the Giant
Are you a fan of roguelikes, but just don’t find the time to sink 100 hours into the latest shiny game of the month? Do the words “it’s too short” fill you with relief instead of turning you off of a game? Well my friend, welcome to the small but ever-growing club I have just now founded. Here’s your complimentary biscuit, cup of tea and – wait, what’s this? An excellent strategic roguelike with cool art, strong voice acting and clever card/grid-based gameplay? Yes yes, there’s enough to go around, you don’t need to crowd.
Iris and the Giant is one of those games that takes simple and immediately easy to understand mechanics and builds them out in fun and clever ways. Each level you face contains a 3×3 grid of monsters, playing out in a turn-based structure. The titular Iris plays her attacks out using cards, each of which has different uses – swords can attack an enemy in the front row, bows can take out enemies up the back. You take out enemies filing down the lines until you hit the staircase to the next floor, and repeat.
The strategy lies in making the best use of your cards balanced against where enemies are on the grid. In the beginning, your aim is going to be to try and keep as many enemies from attacking you as possible; later in the game, when you can build out a deck with entirely different strategies, you might be more about defending and mirroring attacks. There’s a great amount of depth in potential combos, special cards and other useful abilities.
There’s a whole host of different modifiers that help you along the way, strategically drip-fed throughout your attempts so as not to overwhelm. Magic powers, imaginary friends, rare cards, upgrades and more all fold into one another to create just enough randomness to push you in different strategic directions without ever causing you to end up with a bad roll.
I feel like roguelikes are a genre that is both full of and devoid of “filler”. By the conventions of the genre, the game needs to be full of content built to be recycled, yet every run is theoretically different from the next. A run can take you through the satisfying arc of beginning, middle and end rather quickly, while the game as a whole offers up a seemingly endless stream of options and variations through its procedural generation.
Iris and the Giant takes these ideas and condenses them down somewhat. The shorter loops are still solid, but by the time you “finish” the game, there’s been a lot less of them. The result is a game that feels tighter, more focused. It feels less random, while still offering a fresh challenge every time. It’s a tough balance to maintain, but Iris and the Giant pulls it off extremely well.
Every floor you take on is generally pretty similar to the last time you faced it, with the randomisation coming mostly in the placement of enemies and the cards you draw. You know that floor 8 is going to contain the Cerberus and the flame demons, for example. This allows you to be confident in the potential of whatever strategy you’re trying to build, without the game just screwing you over with bad RNG.
As soon as Iris began talking in the opening sequence, I was struck by how heavy the emotion hangs behind this game. The story is generally a pretty light touch throughout – a few sentences here and there – but the high-quality acting sells an intense melancholic atmosphere. It’s a simple story in a way, yet bold in it’s telling.
The primary yet beautiful art and animation continue this thread, doing a hell of a lot with so little. It’s a wonderful feat of unifying design, how everything in the game is pulled from such a simple colour palette and line work, yet every detail is so distinct. Different cards, status effects, abilities, even enemy types are all so easily identified.
Everything in Iris and the Giant ties thematically together incredibly cohesively – a surprise only in that I was not expecting it. I can’t emphasise enough how important good design work is – when a game can instantly communicate everything so efficiently while still being so visually different from its peers, you know you’ve done something right.
Though the main thrust of Iris and the Giant can be completed in around 7 hours, there is still a lot there for anyone looking for more – different paths and difficulties, plenty of gameplay options to unlock. But if you want to experience that roguelike feel while not losing weeks at a time, Iris and the Giant is an excellent choice.
Iris and the Giant was reviewed on PC with code purchased by the Reviewer.
When not playing games, Chris enjoys chilling with his Fiancé, cats and dog. He will probably never stop banging on about how amazing Outer Wilds is. Forever in search of the best Margherita pizza.
Chris writes on Latji Latji and Barkindji land.