Developer: Daniel Mullins Games
Release Date: October 19, 2021
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Genre: Horror Deck-building Rogue-like
It’s not every day you see the horror, deck building, roguelike, and escape room genres combined. Well, now you have, with Inscryption, the newest game developed by Daniel Mullins. What may seem like a simple card battling game on the surface is a rabbit hole that goes deeper than you could ever imagine.
When starting, you sit across a dimly lit table from a mysterious entity whose only visible feature is its eyes. This being acts as the dungeon master to a board game you are tasked to play, where it role-plays various characters you might meet along the way. Every location on the map acts as a different event, ranging from battling entities, receiving new cards, enchanting existing cards, or meeting the occasional “friendly” NPC. Inscryption subtly reminds me of Oregon Trail, where you stumble upon a pelt farmer, a trader, or a campfire. But here, it’s a somewhat cozy feeling that is dark and void of anything humane.
The card battle system is simple to grasp but difficult to master. The basics are straightforward, with each card containing an attack number indicating how much damage it deals and a health value indicating how much damage it can endure. More potent cards require sacrifices of current cards on the board.
Inscryption also, fittingly, introduces inscriptions on each card, granting unique passives. These buffs include the ability to attack diagonally, become immune to damage (unless the enemy has a counter-passive buff), or the ability to attack the enemy’s health directly. As you progress, you acquire cards that contain creatures who can be interacted with. These moments give you hints and clues as to what to do next and provide a sense of comic relief, especially the Stoat.
You and the enemy share a scale, which ultimately dictates the victor and loser. You draw from two decks, a deck of your cards, and a deck of squirrels. Squirrels are mainly used as a blood sacrifice for your stronger cards as they do 0 damage, and the flow of the game forces you to juggle between drawing a squirrel or a more substantial card. In addition to blood sacrifices, there are also bone coins. Every time a creature on your board is destroyed or sacrificed, you get a bone token. Some creatures can only be summoned by spending bone coins. The more you dive into the card system, the more overbearing it becomes with its uncapped potential and depth.
You have two lives, indicated by the number of candles lit next to you on your side of the table. However, every boss battle cripples you with only one try, so if you lose, that’s game over. When you die, the mysterious entity imprints your character on a custom death card that you will have access to in your next playthrough before ending your life. But don’t worry, your deck isn’t the only thing that you have up your sleeve. You have a backpack containing up to three items that act as trump cards in times of dire need. These items include scissors to destroy an enemy’s card, a free squirrel sacrifice card, or a tool to extract your teeth to tip the scale in your favor. Masochistic right?
At first, it was hard to imagine weaving in horror to a card game. Sure, you can add scary pictures, queue spooky music, and make the overall setting gloomy, but Inscryption stands out in ways beyond those inclusions. You may think you have the most powerful deck in the game, with your little woodland creatures boasting high attack and hp, but the game always reminds you that you are nothing in the eyes of this demon. The boss encounters put you back in your place as a pawn in this game of death. There wasn’t a moment where I felt like I could breeze through, and every encounter had to be thoroughly thought out. There’s never been a game where wielding such a powerful deck still made me feel so powerless. And this is how the title pairs the roguelike and horror genres so well.
Boss encounters are daunting and also present unique abilities to keep gameplay fresh. Every boss requires a different strategy and tactic to defeat it. For example, the first boss spawns a pack mule that contains a deck of free cards if you destroy it. The Stoat even hints for you to go for the mule first. Once you get to the second phase of the fight, the boss transforms every card on your side into inanimate gold blocks, preventing you from summoning anything but also granting you free bone tokens.
There’s more than just building up a deck of cards here. There’s an entire narrative to unfold and, ultimately, the cabin for you to escape from. Not only are there a plethora of cards to collect, but each inscription on the card offers variability to playstyles and strategies. The diverging paths on the map provide you the choice of the pass less traveled. Do you take the road that leads to better treasures with a more harrowing battle or no treasures with an easier fight? Every possible encounter on the board presents you with a choice you have to make. There’s never a blatant answer given to you. Arriving at a campfire, do you gamble the chance to increase a card’s health with the possibility of losing it forever? Arriving at a backpack, do you pick the squirrel over the scissors?
Aside from the deckbuilding aspect, Inscryption also acts as an escape room simulator. You can exit the board game to explore the various gadgets and puzzles around you in the locked cabin. The game cleverly weaves together the roguelike genre and the puzzle-solving elements as sometimes the only way to figure out the solution to a puzzle is to die. Solving these is the key to permanent progression, as each one grants you an additional card in your deck or tool to use.
I’ve never played a game like Inscryption before, but I felt compelled to keep going the more I progressed. While there is little hand-holding coupled with a steep difficulty curve, they add to the title’s charm and enigma. It’s addicting to do repeated runs to discover a little more about this torture cabin I’m trapped in. Inscryption offers a hefty amount of replayability, not only through its different deck builds but also multiple endings and thought-provoking puzzles to solve. The more you play the game, the less you know about it, allowing your curiosity to take over and seek those answers across multiple playthroughs.
With its dreary visuals and unsettling soundtrack, Inscryption offers a unique deck-building experience with added immersive puzzles. It creates an incredible atmosphere for a game with such a simplistic and dark design. Still, it delivers it in a memorable way, accessible to anyone who dare set out on the journey. In a world where roguelikes are daunting for some, this is one nightmare that I didn’t mind diving back into.
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