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Inscryption is a game that is full of mysteries and surprises. It’s a game that is primarily created by Daniel Mullens. It began life at the Ludum Dare 48 hour game jam, where the code, art, and audio was all created in a solo effort by Daniel. The original build of the project that would go on to become Inscryption can be played here. It was originally released for PC on October 19th, 2021, but has since recently been released on PlayStation. By making its way to consoles, it inspired me to check it out and very quickly inspired this review.
Okay, time to figure out what’s on this thing.
When you launch Inscryption, you are greeted by a pretty standard main menu with a not so standard quirk. The option to start a new game is grayed out, and the only way to begin playing is to continue a game that has already begun. This curious first interaction with Inscryption serves two intertwined purposes. On one hand it plants the seed of curiosity in your brain. A seed that will, over time, grow into a most useful ally. On the other hand, though, it helps set up the game’s cold open, showcasing Inscryption’s exceptional ability to provide interesting questions with even more interesting answers.
As the game begins, you open your eyes and see that you are sitting at a table in a dark room, or at least as much of a table as the small nearby lamp allows you to see while darkness consumes everything else around you. As you sit there, you quickly realize you are not alone as a figure slowly creeps toward the small sanctuary that the lamp’s dim light provides, coming just close enough to the light’s edge, revealing only its eyes. However, as menacing as they look, they only want to do one thing: to play a game of cards.
Sacrifices Must Be Made
Inscryption is a lot of different things. It’s a card game, a rogue-lite, an escape room, and a psychological horror experience. It’s the convocation of ideas from the mind of Daniel Mullens, expertly conceived, crafted, and connected together to form an unforgettable experience.
At the core of each of these ideas, though, is the card game, and what a card game it is. Inscryption manages to find the perfect balance of borrowing tried and true mechanics from the many card games that came before while also injecting a lot of its own flavor, which helps to separate itself from the pack. The cards have familiar iconography that represents damage and health. Some may even have familiar mechanics like flying and deathtouch that will be recognizable to card game veterans as well. The game’s resource system and how you play these cards, on the other hand, is quite unique.
In order to play cards, you must sacrifice others, as denoted by each card’s blood cost. The game gives you a deck of Squirrel cards that you can draw from, if you choose, which are specifically designed to be sacrificed. When a card is killed, either by combat or sacrifice, its bones become a secondary resource which can also be used to summon specific cards. This loop of spawning, sacrificing, collecting bones, and then summoning more powerful cards is a loop that is simple on a surface level but contains a lot of depth as well.
Defeating enemy cards clears a path to your opponent, and dealing damage directly to them will award you with teeth that are placed on a scale. The scales will go back and forth as damage is dealt in each round, and the first one to have 5 more teeth on their opponent’s scale than they have on their own is the winner. This forgoing of the traditional health system found in most card games allows for some pretty wild swings. Knowing when to keep small creatures on the board to defend, and when to sacrifice them for bigger ones, becomes an agonizing decision as one mistake could be all it takes to end a run.
A Single Path Revealed Itself
I say end a run, because this is no ordinary card game, just like the creepy set of what seems to be floating eyes is not just your opponent. The entity sitting across from you will also act as your dungeon master, of sorts, as in between card matches, they will place a map in front of you, allowing you to choose nodes on a map to travel towards. As you continue on this odyssey, the figure will narrate every step you take.
These maps are where the rogue-like elements come in as they are littered with icons that represent different events that will take place upon arrival. Some icons represent different battle opportunities and challenges. Others give you an opportunity to build, thin, or otherwise enhance your deck in various ways. Getting to know the game’s various cards, and ways you can manipulate them, invokes a similarly satisfying sense of mastery that fellow titans of the rogue-like genre provide.
Inscryption’s card system, at its core, is quite balanced. However, the stops along the map give you ample opportunity and freedom to break that balance and create some truly broken and overpowered cards. This is by design, though, as the shackles of balance are not really needed much in what is entirely a PvE experience. Discovering ways to break the game is part of your quest to mastery and, as the game goes on, will become more important than you could ever begin to imagine. Upon finishing the game’s story, this will be put to the ultimate test with the included “kaycee’s mod,” which provides Halo “Skull-like” game modifiers for even tougher challenges.
You also are given a backpack with useful items to be used when all else fails in battle, helping to tilt the scales in your favor. Including an emergency squirrel card to get something on the board in a hurry, or even a set of pliers to rip out one of your own teeth to place it on the scale, you’ll do whatever it takes to give you an edge.
As you travel through each of these maps, the path will eventually end at a boss encounter. During these encounters the figure across from you will dawn a mask and change personas to embody these boss characters. Not only are these encounters significantly more tense from an audio visual perspective, but they also offer some of the most satisfying mechanics in the game. However, those mechanics also provide the game’s greatest challenges, and if that challenge proves to be too much for the deck you have constructed, then it’s back to square one.
I Would Like a Memento
Upon death you will wake up in a dark room with enough light to see the figure from the table, or at least its eyes. They will explain to you that, while death is not the end (this is a rogue-like after all), they would like a keepsake from your last journey. This sequence is the introduction of the “Death Card” mechanic in Inscryption, where you will use cards you have collected during your run, including any buffs you may have given them, to construct your own custom card. You do this by choosing cards from your past deck to make up this new card’s cost, power, defense, and effects. You then name the card, and the figure in the door will use its strange camera to take your picture for the card art.
As you continue to try, fail, try again, and fail again, you will construct a death card every time. These cards can be acquired in future runs at many of the stops on the map, so they can give you that little bit of an edge with each consecutive run. They also give you a bit of a feeling of presence in the game, as each time you draw one of these, it serves as a reminder of past attempts. Death cards are not the only way to give yourself an advantage in Inscryption, though, as there is another feature in this game that really sets it apart from every card game that I have ever played: the ability to stand up from the table.
Stretch Your Legs
Anytime you are looking at the map, you have the option to get up out of your chair and walk around. While doing this you will notice that you are locked in a cabin, of sorts. Even though you are in a somewhat small space, there are a lot of things to look at. Everything here is meticulously placed and has some kind of meaning, even if that meaning is not immediately obvious to you. That is because, as you will quickly realize, you are, in fact, inside of an escape room. Solving puzzles in the cabin will unlock new tools and cards to help you the next time you sit down, including mysterious talking cards who seem to know more than they let on.
It is also during this time away from the table that a lot of the game’s story will start to slowly unfold and bring to light a possible way to escape this card game’s infinite loop. The atmosphere here is incredible, and it is brought to even greater heights by the fact that no matter how you look at the figure sitting at the table, you will only ever see their eyes. Eyes that follow your every step around the cabin. As soon as the game begins, the feeling of being trapped starts to sink in, and there is no better way to enhance that feeling than to give you a little bit of a leash, as being able to move closer to an unreachable freedom can oftentimes make that freedom feel even further away. It is a concept in which this exploration mode implements flawlessly.
While Inscryption will never win an award for its pixel count or life-like visuals, it has its own unique art style that it implements very well. The grim cabin atmosphere is constantly eerie and unsettling thanks to its dim lighting, overall ambiance, and ever present set of eyes watching you. This art style translates into the cards, as well, as the thick lines and imperfections found in each card’s drawings and construction strikes a resemblance of the sketches you’d find in an ancient folktale book.
On top of this, you have a fantastic soundtrack with a smart use of bass and melodic humming that never lets you shake the eerie feeling that the game’s visuals provide. While the game features nearly no voice acting, the subtle animations of characters and their audio queues while speaking fit in wonderfully with the atmosphere that the game is trying to build.
Death is Not the End
Inscryption is a game that is full of mysteries and surprises, and so is this review. One surprise I will share with you now is that, while everything I have explained thus far about Inscryption is true, the entire experience described above is only the game’s opening act. You see, Inscryption is as much a game about playing cards to escape a creepy cabin as The Matrix is a film about a Thomas Anderson, IT professional by day and computer hacker by night. This game has layers that I won’t go into in this review, because the moment that you get to peek behind the curtain deserves to be experienced first hand. It’s an experience that I didn’t see coming and will likely never forget. It’s an experience that I would encourage anyone with even the slightest interest in card games to see for themselves.
Indie games are the birthplace of innovation in today’s gaming landscape, and it’s because of this that we often judge them on the sum of their parts. We ignore some of the stumbles to find their greatness within the bigger picture. Sometimes, though, the greatness becomes bigger than the picture, and you are left with a masterpiece. You are left with Inscryption.