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Review

Inscryption Review

There are things that lurk in the dark, and they want to play cards

I cleared up about five to seven hours of my time to take on Inscryption. After my time with the preview, I had established what I believed to be a pretty good read on how the game would progress – I was confident in both its gameplay structure and what I considered to be the logical ‘ramp up’ in mechanics and difficulty. This neat little card game would be a short and sweet affair, scoring high enough to be a hearty ‘recommend’ to any interested party, and then I would get on with my life and fondly remember it.

Only those expectations were not tolerated by the crew at Daniel Mullins Games. They were not only shattered, they were set alight and the resulting blaze eventually pissed on to truly put them to rest. In retrospect I feel I probably angered whatever dark force had manifested within the title, because this game is far more than what you may expect.

In a good way of course.

Just you wait, this stinkbug is going places

For the sake of review, I have to try and explain the concept of the game. Generally, you play a card battle game, building decks and thwarting bosses, with gameplay broken up by standing up from the game table and dawdling around the room you are in, solving puzzles and perhaps progressing the narrative or unlocking goodies to help your gameplay. You can utilise power ups to change the outcome of the card game, and make clever use of keyword terms that give cards special behaviours. This is all balanced out by a pooled health system, which means both you and your opponent are essentially playing tug of war with a set of hit points that quite literally are represented by weights on a scale – once a side gets too heavy, you lose.

This, in its purest form, defines the gameplay loop – admittedly doing it an injustice by possibly over simplifying it. There is a narrative at play that initially seems to be rather straightforward, but quickly blooms into an entirely different beast.

I mean, I don’t make a habit of sitting in a fire any longer than I absolutely have to

To describe Inscryption simply as a card game does it a great disservice. While the heart of the title will always be its deck building and card-based battles, really it’s how the experience manifests around this core that defines it. While strategies and gameplay loops would swim in my head, really it was the puzzles and narrative beats that did a belly flop into my mental pool. Relentlessly clicking on every nook and cranny, being elated when something reacted – then the endless chin scratching as I started to piece together what it all meant.

Initially these moments were little treats, distractions from the grim reality of my apparent trapped-ness – however over time their nature started to lean more towards the narrative. Rather than receiving, say, a new card to bulk out my deck, I would instead receive a clue towards my situation as a whole – perhaps a warning may be offered to me, or a direction that I was not the only person trapped here. For the first 30% of the game, I felt that numero uno was the only important player in this game; what was really happening was the spotlight was widening to reveal that my supporting cast might be as trapped as I was.

Even when sitting at the table, the clues and narrative can continue to bleed into the gameplay itself. Some puzzles have solutions that can only manifest within the game board – delightful little nuggets that make you excited to leap up from the table and explore. Say, that card with a caged wolf – it reminds me of the wolf statue on the far wall that is also caged. Curious how upon the card receiving damage, and the wolf being freed that you found that the statue was also now released from its wooden prison. At one point I was offered a jar of goop, and told clearly that it was pointless – its in-game text described as ‘Doing Nothing’. So, I used the jar and found that within my card play …nothing happened. But when exploring the room, the jar of goop now sat on a shelf – and it was happy to talk to me. These interactions are spectacular little tidbits that elevate the game beyond its tight gameplay loop, widening the scope far beyond cards biffing each other in the face.

I ended up investing close to 18 hours into Inscryption. Some of this can be attributed to my own personal terrible-ness at card games, but realistically the lion’s share HAS to be leveraged towards the escape-room nature of the game. But, that didn’t change the fact that cards did in fact require battling.

Thankfully, this is a lane-based card battler, meaning you routinely only need to worry about where your minion cards are versus where your opponents may be. For a simpleton like me, this suits me beautifully. A lot of the core loop of gameplay is based around dealing ‘face’ damage to your opponent – meaning it is not blocked by a minion – so that the damage is added to the opponent’s side of the scale, weighing it down. When the scale hits the table surface, a loss occurs – pretty simple stuff. The complexity comes from how you defeat minions, possibly bypass minions, or add weight to the scale via other entirely-questionable (though entirely legal) means. Want to carve out your own eye and place it on the scale? Sure, go ahead – you just have to deal with a pretty iffy field of view until you find a nice replacement eyeball.

To describe Inscryption simply as a card game does it a great disservice

Initially the cards and their costs are quite simplistic. Resources are measured either by how many friendly minions have died, or what living minions you may be willing to sacrifice. You strike a delicate balance between killing your own and spending their bones – but later you will be introduced to even more unique resource systems, and even unique battle layouts. Perhaps you want to juggle a resource system based around playing unique coloured gems to unlock the potential of your cards? Or for those familiar with Hearthstone, eventually I got to enjoy a far more straightforward method of using an energy pool that expands each turn. It’s not beyond the game’s offering to employ a horrific mish-mash of all of the above – but like Magic: The Gathering, once you have diversified your portfolio too much, you’ll likely find yourself gnashing your teeth at how diluted your ‘epic plays’ have become.

The real engaging part of the combat is the use of Sigils. Across most card games, people are aware of unique abilities that creatures may have – generally identified by some kind of identifying symbol or keyword. These affect the behaviour of the cards and creates the depth of play/counter-play that drives the combat. There is a rich variety of Sigils across the plethora of creatures, and they range from funny, to quirky, to downright devastating. There are simple Sigils like ‘Flying’ – which indicates that the creature can bypass a blocking creature and attack your opponent’s face directly – or ‘Stinky’ that forces any opposing creature to suddenly have a weaker attack. Then there are creative and infuriating Sigils, such as ‘Brittle’ – meaning the creature will immediately die after attacking, or ‘Overclocked’ where your card has increased power, but when killed it will be entirely deleted from your deck.

Good sportsmanship means you always shake hands after a game, regardless of how your opponent may appear

The game even throws opportunities at you to tweak and change the Sigils of your cards, and through this arcane art you can conjure up all manner of bullshit. At one point, I produced a card that would deal a whopping five damage directly to the enemies face (‘Flying’), immediately kill itself (‘Brittle’), place a copy of itself back into my hand (‘Undying’) and then drop an explosion on the board to deal 10 damage to whatever enemy was opposite me, and whatever friendly bots were adjacent to me (‘Detonator’). That card’s name? Tall Toot 2000. Don’t you forget it.

Weaponised bullshit is the order of the day, because realistically you will never be playing the same game as your opponent. They do not use a deck, or feel empathy – every encounter is planned around some unique spin of tactics that you now need to deal with. This is made extra apparent during the game’s many boss fights, where the loon-faced maniac sitting opposite you will flat out cheat with their mechanics to put you on the back foot. This is the game’s dark craft at work, and you will feel all the more accomplished by deploying your own unique brand of ‘gotcha’ right back at them.

Thankfully, the game only managed to flirt with the idea of approaching mechanic bloat. Each time I would encounter some new twist or quirk to the gameplay, I felt pressure against that barrier of mechanic burden – but the implementation was always clever enough to make sure it wasn’t simply piled onto my already full plate. There would be a clear distinction in its use, and other elements would quietly fade into the background to ensure you weren’t drowning in Sigils and totems and items and candles and Nano Armor Generators. I was being dick teased with ALMOST being frustrated, the game considerate enough to push the line, but never cross it.

Perhaps my only real criticism to be levelled against the game, and it is a shallow one, is that the many varied and creative ways the game can be played are only truly unlocked once you have completed its story, meaning if you want to perhaps throw down in a particular boss battle or indulge in a specific deck makeup, you will first need to complete the game and finally access the chapter screen. It is minor beyond words, but I did find myself wanting to backtrack and utilise a specific deck opportunity that was barred off to me until the credits rolled.

The numbers Mason, what do they mean?!

In my preview of the title, I described it as a well-styled ‘retro-horrorcore’ – I feel this bears repeating here, because the aesthetic of the game is positively rock solid. I have a low tolerance for film grain in interactive media, feeling that it’s a poor man’s attempt to try and establish a vibe that they can’t establish via their own art, but Inscryption uses it to elevate its grainy visuals in a wondrous way. Visual assets within the game are detailed exactly enough to catch your puzzle seeking gaze, and their 3D styling sits beautifully in the faux 2D presentation of the game. Whenever something animates it is often done in a stilted, almost violent way to add to the uneasy vibe of the game. In fact, when something moves slowly and deliberately it actually fills you with dread, because it often represents something awful is about to occur.

Sound is a lo-fi, clunky affair that would feel right at home emanating from the speakers of a GameBoy Color. And I say this with no disrespect to the designers, because it is a soundscape that fits like a glove. Often music will be entirely absent from the game, so much so that when it does appear during an encounter, it serves to create an unnerving atmosphere that has every right to put you off your A-game. If you are lucky, you might get a quiet ambient track to keep you company.

I don’t remember GO FISH being quite this spooky

What you expect of the game’s narrative seems easy to guess, and the first hour or two may even pass in a way where you feel like you have it licked. Strange characters and encounters will hint towards a darker story, and your own personal journey as the trapped card player feels like a standard ‘overthrow your oppressor’ tale – right up until you take that action, and the game entirely metamorphoses into a whole new beast – and this happens more than once. While cards will always be the core to what you are doing, the worlds and the scenarios surrounding them will change in fantastical ways. A deep and enriching backstory will start to emerge, and you realise that you are deeply invested in a genesis of what is happening, far beyond the tedious concept of ‘how did I come to be here?’ You as a player suddenly feel far more secondary, even tertiary in the grand scheme of backstabbing scribes, lost daughters and magic cameras. I have missed feeling this gripped by a story, it truly manifested like a book that I just couldn’t put down.

I was also tickled at how characters within the game would develop. What started as chatty cards that would banter during plays, eventually revealed relationships between both themselves and Leshy, my initial captor. I was then introduced to a wider world, and the roles they all played within it – delightfully seeing the dynamic of aggressor and victim shift as a greater plot was unveiled. You even get to explore a sinister found-footage story in parallel to the in-game events of a card gaming YouTuber looking into the tale of Inscryption, playing out like an intermission to the mind fuckery that permeates the gameplay sections. These characters and their roles within the saga all coalesce like layers upon layers, turning this crazy experience into an inky black onion.

A sophisticated robotic organism, with enhanced smug expression software

Final Thoughts

Inscryption captured me – more than just in the fictional sense. It was truly thrilling to have my expectations subverted in such a consistent, creative way. It is far more than a deck-building, tactical game – it’s a cerebral adventure that tests every synapse of your puzzle solving mettle, fosters your curiosity and shines an uncomfortable light on the things that lurk in the dark.

Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher

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Inscryption Review
Pitch black and pitch perfect
Far more than a card game, Inscryption is a dark odyssey into an even darker narrative – commanding your attention in an exciting, gripping manner.
The Good
Card battle system is challenging and hugely rewarding
Escape room-esque puzzles are all brilliant
The characters develop richly and will surprise you
The narrative is thrilling
Sound/Visual design is slick
The Bad
If you just wanna sit down and play cards how you want, you kinda need to finish the game first
It’s pretty 'out there'
9
Bloody Ripper
  • Daniel Mullins Games
  • Devolver Digital
  • PC / Mac / Linux
  • October 19, 2021

Inscryption Review
Pitch black and pitch perfect
Far more than a card game, Inscryption is a dark odyssey into an even darker narrative – commanding your attention in an exciting, gripping manner.
The Good
Card battle system is challenging and hugely rewarding
Escape room-esque puzzles are all brilliant
The characters develop richly and will surprise you
The narrative is thrilling
Sound/Visual design is slick
The Bad
If you just wanna sit down and play cards how you want, you kinda need to finish the game first
It’s pretty 'out there'
9
Bloody Ripper
Written By

Known throughout the interwebs simply as M0D3Rn, Ash is bad at video games. An old guard gamer who suffers from being generally opinionated, it comes as no surprise that he is both brutally loyal and yet, fiercely whimsical about all things electronic. On occasion will make a youtube video that actually gets views. Follow him on YouTube @Bad at Video Games

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