Inscryption is awesome. To tell you why it is so good however would ruin the whole experience. In this review, I am not going to spoil anything, but if you have any intention on playing this, I’d steer well away from the internet until you’ve seen the credits roll. I want to gush about it so bad, but I’d be doing you a disservice, as would you if you were to go hunting for further information.
On the table
Inscryption is a rogue-like deck building game, mixed with an escape room, mixed with a nightmare. The resulting cocktail is initially pleasant, but really develops to be something exceptional the longer it lingers on your pallet. For those curious, Inscryption is developed by a guy called Daniel Mullins and more note-worthily published by Devolver Digital (I review a lot of their stuff, apparently), as with a few of their titles previously, there is more to this than meets the eye.
Your goal is to escape the cabin within which a crazy old man wants to play endless rounds of cards with you. If you fail, he kills you and you awaken as a new victim. If you can beat him at his own game though, you are presumably allowed to leave the cabin and go free. You navigate several short boards, with encountering different events along the way, shops, opportunities to acquire new cards, the standard rogue-like fair. Create a strong enough deck, and you might just be able to win, claiming your freedom. Fairly standard so far then, something that is tailored to my tastes, but deck building alone does a not a good game make.
The game is also presented with a unique first-person perspective, even during card battles, which allows for free looking around the table. Whilst this is immersive, it also means that you are unable to perform some actions which you would normally expect to see in a card game, such as knowing how many cards remain in your deck, what the discard pile looks likes, etc. Ultimately, this decision pays off as the immersion felt from this perspective far outweighs that of the minor frustration of the omission of these features.
The set dressing here is also delightfully grim, with “power ups” in one instance, coming in the form of a pair of pliers, with which you can pull out a tooth of yours to score an extra point against your opponent – we’ll come to the game itself shortly. As you play, you also have several cards which have the ability to speak, likely a symptom of the bizarreness of the situation, but they become interesting companions, especially as the story progresses.
You begin solely with the sarcastic stoat card, who often criticises your moves, which I found quite entertaining, especially to be met with a “… great, thanks” when he was placed in harms way. The roster quickly grows beyond this as you are introduced to more mechanics both on and off the table. It was always exciting to find a new talking card who hinted at ways that you can escape the clutches of the twisted games master.
Cards have sigils on them which allows for them to perform unique actions, many of these standard for a card battler. Examples of this include ‘thorns’ which deal damage back to cards which attack, wings to attack over the top of cards and much more. A key part of the card system revolves around stamping these sigils from one to another to make extremely powerful, often unfairly so, cards. New sigils are introduced at a rapid pace as you progress the story which keeps things interesting and really gets the imagination flowing as to what monstrous card you could print next. I printed several truly game-breaking cards which was a lot of fun and allowed for a sense of playing with the game, rather than simply just playing the game.
Each battle is decided by a deadly set of scales in the centre of the board, Each point of damage you inflict adds a weight to the opponents side, when they have a weight difference of >5, you win. This creates a tense tug of war as the scale tos and fros between yourself and the maniac on the other side of the table. This does mean that games can sometimes be decided in a single turn, which can be extremely satisfying, but also discouraging if you happen to miscount and lose your final life as a result.
You encounter certain bosses throughout your run, all of which are extremely creepy. The lunatic you play with dons many masks throughout each game, none spookier than these boss masks. Each of these climactic battles imbues a new personality into your opponent and provides quirks which must be overcome in order to prevail.
The initial Prospector boss for example has a pickaxe which he can use to turn your creatures into rocks. Learning how to best avoid these at first unfair mechanics gives a great sense of mastery over the card systems put in place. Being able to beat the creator of the game at his own game feels great, much like the finale of the Duelist Kingdom arc in Yu-Gi-Oh.
One touch which I found incredibly neat and unique to Inscryption was the creation of “Death Cards”. Each time you fail a run, you re able to amalgamate a brand new card using attributes from the creatures in your deck which can then appear as rewards in future runs. My ‘Swagius’ card was a sure-fire way to increase my chances of victory once I had him printed. This means that each run is never wasted, as a new powerful card will be added into the rotation causing subsequent runs to be easier. This kind of encouragement turns the question of “if I can beat it” to “when I can beat it”, especially welcoming in a game which, at first, can seem quite punishing.
The second part of Inscryption is then the “escape room” portion. At any point, you are free to leave the table and explore the claustrophobic cabin, forever watched by the piercing gaze of your captor. The joy here is seeing how these elements off the table, are able to intersect with the elements on the table. I won’t spoil any of the solutions to the puzzles, but there are some really cool overlaps between the two.
It is extremely satisfying to solve the various puzzles around the cabin, most puzzles are punctuated with a satisfying ‘clunk’ as pieces fall into place and mechanisms begin to come to life, not unlike something straight out of The Crystal Maze. I’ve never been into games like The Room, but this really did suck me in with the dark atmosphere and sound design which envelops every aspect of play.
Off the table
Sounds pretty by-the-numbers for a rogue-like game so far, right? Well allow me to pique your interest some more. I am now going to describe a list of things which I would compare Inscryption to, what I wouldn’t and what some of the main themes are, hopefully without spoiling it, but just enough to make you want to pick it up (which you definitely should).
Inscryption is like:
- The 2012 movie The Cabin in the Woods
- A lasagna made of algebra textbooks and Limewire files
- Thinking you finished your GCSE test early before turning the paper over and seeing “section B” 10 minutes before the end
- The Penrose Stairs if it was created by Wizards of the Coast collaborating with MI5
- The end of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater which just keeps going and going, and going
- Hitting ‘equals’ on your calculator repeatedly after a multiplication sum
- Going to meet your accountant only to find that they have been replaced by a cow, which now refers to itself as your “accowntant”, and demands that you “moove” your assets into the dairy industry
Inscryption is not like:
- Magic: The Gathering
- A strong cup of tea at your nan’s house after she decides to use the “good mugs”
- That cute sound that guinea pigs make
- Gulping lukewarm water at 4am after a long night on the craftiest of ales
Inscryption tackles big issues like:
- Is it possible to truly balance a video game?
- What struggles do game designers go through?
- Is designing a game enough to drive someone to the brink of sanity?
- Why has nobody made a sequel to the Pokémon Trading Card Game on the Gameboy Colour?
- Why do card games captivate us so?
Please give it a go
Hopefully I have given you enough information to know whether Inscryption is for you or not. I cannot speak highly enough of the game, but frustratingly, at the same time I cannot really speak about it at all. Give it a go and drop me a comment below how you would describe Inscryption without spoiling it.
Inscryption is now available on console making it more accessible than ever. However, if you can play on PC, I would recommend picking it up there, for reasons that will become apparent as you play.