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Let’s face it, we ‘gamers’ can be a pretty jaded bunch. From the ever-present annoyance of microtransactions and loot boxes to misleading trailers and broken promises to the irksome conversation around crunch culture and the repulsive frat-boyisms of normalized sexual harassment in the industry, it can sometimes be a challenge to get excited about games when you’re so keenly tuned in to the happenings in the industry.

But somehow, thankfully, the medium of videogames occasionally graces us with unforgettably creative, smile-inducingly fulfilling, and wholly worthwhile experiences that are unparalleled in any other medium, which keeps me coming back to it, excited as a giddy kid on Christmas, and gets me shouting the good word of our lord and savior Gaben from the rooftops to anyone who’ll listen. 

Indeed, every so often, in the midst of the Far Crys, Assassin’s Creeds, Call of Dutys, and the myriad borderline asset flips, an indie game comes along seemingly out of the blue that accomplishes something so ground-breaking (Disco Elysium, Gone Home), so creatively affluent (Undertale, Return of the Obra Dinn), and just plain fucking cool (Inside, Hades) that it refreshes and redefines what videogames are capable of, not to mention brings a tear to my myopic eye. 

And so it is with Daniel Mullins’ follow-up to 2016’s remarkable Pony Island (which blew me away and instilled newfound respect for the medium in me). Inscryption is a genre-melding, delightfully meta, gleefully unpredictable roguelike deckbuilder (with some puzzle/escape room, and other -redacted-due-to-spoiler elements) that kept surprising me to the very end, though my enjoyment did admittedly wane over time. Let’s talk about it. 

Come for the Cards…

Alright so let’s start with the core gameplay, shall we? What starts off ostensibly as just another roguelike deckbuilder, soon evolves into something much, much more. It would be a genuine travesty to spoil the twists and turns though, so for now (I’ll hint at them later), let’s focus on the first part of the game which is what’s shown off in the trailers and which makes up the first 40% or so of the game. It’s where I got the most enjoyment from anyway. 

Right from the very start, it’s obvious Inscryption has some fuckery in store for you – the start menu has the ‘New Game’ option greyed out, forcing you to click on ‘Continue’, which elegantly starts you off on the back foot before the game even begins! Upon doing so, you find yourself sitting down in a spooky cabin, facing this mysterious shadowy stranger with spirals for eyes and deep bass sounds for speech, who strongly persuades you to play a card game with him. You soon discover some of the cards seem alive and talk to you, giving you hints on how to progress, and the fuckery only escalates from there.  

Now I haven’t played many deck builders except for a tiny bit of Hearthstone and a decent bit of Slay the Spire (they’re just not my type of game), but even my deckbuilder-averse self immediately fell in love with the ‘sacrifice’ mechanic the tutorial introduces you to. You see, each card, except for the squirrel (cards in this act are all based on animals), requires at least one blood sacrifice to be put on the board – the stronger the card, the higher the casualties. Rest assured, thousands of squirrels were harmed in the playing of this video game. This system gets further expanded upon with the bones system – each death (including sacrifices) results in a bone token, used to play bone cards – and even further expanded after the turning point of the game, with two new systems that I’ll let you discover for yourself.

The goal, similar to any other card game, is to get past the opposing cards and do damage to the opponent directly – health is represented in a scale to the left of the board, and 5 damage units (or weights) on either side of the scale signals sweet victory or soul-crushing defeat. 

Beating a battle shifts the game into the overworld map, where, akin to Slay the Spire, you have a choice of which path you want to take – each path offers its own risks and rewards, and once you get familiar with what each symbol represents, it becomes very satisfying to plan out your route, decide what kind of build you want to stick to and capitalize on it to increase your chances of winning. 

Encounters on the map, other than straight-up battles, offer various options: from different ways of acquiring interesting cards to strengthen your deck to upgrading a card risking losing it altogether, to getting a totem piece (which can drastically alter a certain type of card – give wings to canine cards for example), to a transmutation system allowing one card’s special ability to be transplanted onto another, and much more. 

You can also acquire peripheral items (an extra squirrel in a bottle perhaps), which can be used during battle for an extra assist. Also, the teeth you acquire for being ruthless and doing more damage than necessary in a battle can then be exchanged with a hunter for pelts, which can, in turn, be exchanged with a trader for powerful cards later. 

As you can tell, there’s a whole lot going on here (I haven’t even touched on the sigils, which afford a lot of depth to the gameplay), and we haven’t even come to the drastic turn Inscryption takes midway through, which changes up the gameplay significantly. The objective, at first at least, is to defeat the 3 bosses in the 3 maps of the game, each of whom while at first may seem intimidating, can be reliably defeated with the right build once you figure out their specific gimmicks and derive the right strategy to counter them. 

This will surely take at least a few tries for most of us, depending on skill level, but here’s the rub – each time you die and your roguelike run ends, your player is somehow transformed into a card by this cabin-dweller, whose attributes (health, damage, cost, sigil), you get to choose from cards in that run’s deck! This can lead to the creation of some overpowered cards if you’re lucky, which definitely helped me get further and further each run, before finally beating the final boss, pumping my fist into the air, uppercutting some poor innocent ghost who never did anything to anyone. I loved this kind of emergent difficulty-lowering system, which really works – it makes the game slightly easier but not annoyingly so, and since this is excellently justified in-game, it doesn’t take you out of the experience. 

Upon doing so, you’ll face the final boss, who can be a tad bit unfair, but super satisfying to beat. Once that’s done is when the game takes an abrupt right turn and turns into something wholly, deliciously different. 

… Stay for the Spooks …

Before we dip our toe into that though, let’s take a moment to appreciate the excellent atmosphere and uniquely spooky vibe of Inscryption. From the very beginning, the game pulls you into the fun but eerie aesthetic excellently (talk about a great Halloween game!): The art style is effectively creepy, the overwhelming darkness in the cabin saved only by a few candles is haunting, not to mention the ominous, looming presence of the card-dealer himself. 

The card-dealer especially is an ingenious creation – his overall demeanor, face hidden in the darkness, eyes that turn into spirals when he speaks, speech that comes out only as a deep bass that rattles between your ears, scrambling your insides, and long-fingered hands that insidiously grab you when you die, it’s all so, so immaculately executed. 

This persists during gameplay as well, since it’s him who teaches you the game himself, commenting on your actions, mocking or praising you as he sees fit, which is exponentially better than a bland tutorial through text boxes. 

The three different bosses in this first act of the game – indeed, all the characters you meet in this table-top game – are all just literal masks that this cabin-dweller wears, role-playing them which added a sort of dungeon master in D&D aspect to it, which I found gleefully fun. Though the music didn’t necessarily stand out except for one of the boss tracks (the humming one), the sound design overall is extremely well-done and sets the atmosphere perfectly. 

This atmosphere is enriched by the very controls of the game – maneuvering around the board is done in such a way that it keeps your senses heightened – each movement is swift and jittery, you can almost feel the nervousness of the protagonist in every move. This carries over to the player’s movement as well – yes, you’ll be allowed to stand up and leave the table in between rounds. Movement and looking around is jerky and quick, almost like a quick visceral dash, which keeps you on edge. I appreciated this story-telling-through-movement aspect greatly since it’s a pretty unique idea, nothing else comparable comes to mind besides the visceral movement in Doom (weird comparison, but you’ll see what I mean). 

… Take In the Meta Intrigue …

Plus, the whole time you’re playing, you know something (many in fact) isn’t right – there are mini-puzzles spread around the cabin (though I wish there were more or were harder to solve), and the talking cards hint at something deeper going on – and this overarching mystery compels you to keep playing even if you somehow don’t enjoy the core deckbuilding gameplay.

I shan’t deign to psst you in on any details because that’d ruin the experience, but holy shit does the narrative take some wild genre-bending turns. There are about 3 and a half major, WTF I was not expecting that, M Night Shyamalan-style twists over the course of the 10-14 hour game. 

Though I shan’t divulge any of the specifics of the narrative, I do feel obliged to mention the twists that it takes in terms of gameplay, to properly do my job as a reviewer, so if you would like to experience Inscryption the best way possible, I suggest you skip straight to the Real Talk section. 

Still here? Alright, I’ll keep this short, huddle up. So about 4-6 hours or so (depending on skill and luck) into the game when you finally manage to beat the boss, the game shifts to a Her Story-esque desktop view, with video files available to scrub through, allowing you to finally draw back the curtains a little and start to piece together the story. Going into Inscryption, I was expecting some meta-narrative for sure, seeing as this is Daniel Mullins we’re talking about, but I was not expecting any sort of live-action footage, which took me positively aback and had me grinning wide, on the edge of my seat.

It doesn’t stop there, for Inscryption proceeds to take another wild turn, the game turns into you actually playing a top-down, hardcore GameBoy-style version of a fictional version of itself, a game within a game within a game, so to speak.


… Until It Kinda Sorta Overstays Its Welcome


Though I did initially find it very cool, sadly, I started to fall off the hype train a little bit. You see, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve never been a huge fan of card games/deck builders, I find them hard to get into it (so many cards, combinations, and strategies, who’s got the time?) and extremely frustrating (especially the luck-based ones), and this abrupt shift to a more unforgiving tactics-based card battler was not really to my liking.  So yes, when the game drastically changed from a roguelike, overworld build-focused game to a more hardcore deckbuilder, it became almost a trial-and-error puzzle game to me – I was forced to carefully think about the opponent’s deck and make meticulous changes to my own to counteract it.

I can see why this would be fun to certain kinds of people, but it definitely began to lose me at this point and went on for way too long in my opinion (I’m a noob in this genre though, so take this with a grain of salt). In fact, I found it so frustrating that after much procrastinating and multiple half-hearted attempts, I succumbed to my inner ‘lazy games journalist person’ and didn’t even finish the game, preferring to watch the last couple of hours of it online instead.

An accessibility feature to lower the difficulty in this section, allowing more people to fully experience the narrative would’ve been highly appreciated, but I can understand how an indie studio may not want to spend the extra time and budget on it, especially since most who play this will likely be deckbuilding fans who are sure to enjoy even this section anyway.

Plus, as a huge fan of the earlier aesthetic, this abrupt shift to a GameBoy art style felt like a severe downgrade, although a few stand-out, visually beautiful sequences at the very end, which change up the tabletop area, did manage to impress and pull me back in. The whole spooky vibe also disappears when this switch happens, and since that was an aspect of the game I greatly enjoyed, this was again somewhat of a letdown.

The narrative, on the other hand, keeps escalating as you progress in this section, with more video files being unlocked, and though it’s consistently compelling and intriguing to watch everything unravel and start to make sense, I’d be lying if I didn’t think the storyline, when looked at from a bird’s eye view, isn’t fairly convoluted, arguably unnecessarily so.  

In all honestly, though the story goes to some interesting places, for me, the most amount of pure enjoyment to be had was definitely in the first act, with its roguelike aspect and exploring the cabin, solving its many puzzles, and talking to the cards. That being said, I can definitely appreciate and commend the lengths to which Mullins manages to go to to keep the narrative persistently fresh and interesting. It’s nothing short of remarkable and is sure to excite fans of the genre and of meta story-telling in general, a whole lot. 

Real Talk

Inscryption is a dark and spooky deck builder which not only boasts deep and constantly fresh card mechanics but also features welcome elements of other, unexpected genres and narrative mediums to tell a mysterious, multi-layered (albeit slightly convoluted) meta-narrative, at a sense of scale and ambition that I’ve never before seen attempted by a videogame. 

Suffice it to say, if his name hadn’t already been solidified in the indie hall of fame before, Daniel Mullins has surely done it with this one – Inscryption, ladies, and gentlemen, is one for the books, and this is coming from someone who usually detests card-based games as a rule. 

With how innovative and ambitious it is, Inscryption is definitely a solid game of the year contender and is not only a must-play for deckbuilding fans and fans of meta-story telling but also at least a must-try for fans of gaming as a medium, plain and simple.

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