With Iris and The Giant from solo developer Louis Rigaud, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
I knew it was a roguelike deck builder that required strategy, and I knew from promotional stills I’d seen that I loved the stylized yet simple art. I also knew it was originally released in 2020 but was finally released on consoles on March 3, 2023. What I wasn’t expecting going into the game was a narrative that felt like my teen years scrawled out on screen.
Iris and the Giant Has a Beautiful Aesthetic
The roughly sketched and almost devoid-of-color cutscene that begins the game took my breath away. You play as Iris, who is being taken to a swimming lesson, clutching a book on Greek mythology in the backseat of her father’s car. Her voiceover carries through the scene as she stands atop the diving board. Other children below her are mocking her. As she jumps from the board, the words “I fall. I dive. I depart.” hang in the air, and the next thing you know you are in the world of Giants and demons.
As Iris, you must face dozens of demons, challenges, and painful memories while collecting cards, discovering new magic powers, and finding imaginary friends to accompany you on your journey. The aim is to ascend the tower and reach the Giant who rests there. Also on every floor are chests filled with cards and crystals. Some floors will also have hidden challenge portals, memories, giant stones, or secret passages to find.
As you defeat each row of enemies, the next advances. 45 enemies can be encountered, all with different abilities. Some wield swords, some have ranged attacks, some are magical, and some deal you sorrow cards that take up space in your hand and only deal you damage. In addition, there are hydras, gigantic armored heads of Cerberus, and petrified cyclops creatures who wake up when they reach the first row. All of this means you need to keep a varied deck in your bag at all times.
Let Me Show You My Cards
This brings us to the cards. There are over 50 different cards to collect throughout the world. Some come from defeating or stealing from demons whilst most come from golden chests that are either mixed among the enemy lines or hidden in boulders. If a chest is in the row directly before you, you can simply interact with it without ending your turn. Conversely, if the chest is further away, once you discover whip cards, you can Indiana Jones them in front of you by playing one. Should they be in boulders, you will have to destroy that boulder with attacks, meaning you have to weigh up if it will be worth the card cost because once you use them, they are gone.
As for the rest of the cards they are as varied as the enemies Iris must face. Heavy axe cards will strike the first row of demons. Swords allow you to not only attack but keep attacking if your hand contains more sword cards. You can also acquire flame attacks, armor-breaking cards, shield cards, and confidence cards which replenish your Will and acts as Iris’s HP. The higher you climb, the more varied and powerful enemies will be, so choosing your cards well for what you could face ahead is essential.
There are also other things to collect in the world. Crystals are littered around the floors as well and can be interacted with without the cost of a move. Collecting these add up to allow Iris to obtain a choice of magical power which will hold different benefits. Some boost the power of certain card types, others decrease the damage from specific attacks, and others augment your cards with extra abilities. Defeating demons will also help you to collect stars which you need to upgrade your traits. Traits influence how many cards you can pull, your will pool, and various other beneficial effects. You can only choose one each time, so it’s up to you whether to diversify or chuck all your stars into one trait.
Iris and the Giant Asks, “Why Do We Fall?”
Then there are Imaginary Friends to find throughout the tower. Some of these will be unlocked simply by progressing while others need to have certain requirements fulfilled for discovery. On top of these requirements, some might require additional challenges to be completed before you can take them. Finally, you can decide which friend or friend will accompany you at the start of each game. Once again, these guys have different abilities and buffs and debuffs, so it’s once again a balancing act. You can only take one by default, but you can unlock the option to take more with you.
Like many other roguelikes popularised by Hades, Iris and The Giant requires you to fail before you can progress. The more you fail, the more you collect and unlock, and the further you will get each time. Collecting memories will also help you on your way as each one not only gives you a point to unlock an ability but also unlocks a short cutscene with some back story. Iris is a young girl struggling with anxiety and depression. She is bullied at school, even by her best friend while at home. Her parents make her feel like it’s all her fault. Her escape is creating a card game based on Greek mythology that she sits and crafts as a way to cope with her feelings.
The main story takes around 5 hours, but there is much to unlock beyond that. All the memories and challenges available appear randomly, meaning it’s doubtful you can unlock them in one run. There is a lot of replayability with the completionism run said to take roughly 20 hours. Of course, the downside to this is the repetition and frustration aspect of the gameplay. Live. Die. Repeat. There’s also the issue of potentially not coming across the cards. It would be best if you faced down an enemy before you get to it. Yes, it’s a feature of the game, but sometimes you just want to progress.
Although, that is the message of Iris and The Giant. You will fail. It’s in the getting up that progress is made. Anyone that suffers from long-term mental or physical health problems can identify with this. But that is what ultimately detracts from the game for me. I have and continue to deal with these things on a daily basis, when I play a game, sometimes I want to put the agonizing progress of my day-to-day behind me.
Sometimes, parsing your own experiences through video games or other media can be cathartic. But, sometimes, it can be the opposite of what you need. Iris and The Giant is a beautiful and sad game but also fun and charming. It just isn’t for every day.