Inscryption is an enigma. It’s dark, layered, and leaves a distinct taste in your mouth well after you’ve consumed it – like a chocolate cake baked with a high percentage cacao and someone forgot to add the sugar in. On the one hand, its look and texture are familiar and pleasing to the palette. On the other, with each consecutive bite you know something is off. Get a knife, and keep it handy, because we need to slice into this deceptively delectable dish a bit more to see just how much it tips the scales in its favor.
For transparency, I went into this future cult-classic indie game with a near completely blank slate. Other than hearing the name and that it was a card-based roguelike, I knew nothing else. Now that I have finished the game, I’ve been reminiscing on mental snapshots and screenshots I captured over and over, which means I have yet to read any other reviews or watch any videos. While forming my own completely unique opinion about a game that is highly open to interpretation and speculation has its pros and cons, within the realm of gaming, there is little better than experiencing an engrossing game free from any preconceived notions.
The tough part about writing a review for a game such as Inscryption is trying to balance giving enough information about the game without revealing too much. I’ll put it this way – if sunlight were unfiltered thoughts, and pure darkness was a completely spoiler-free review, I’ll try and leave you facing only the moonlight. How’s that sound? Also, if I start to delve into spoiler territory, I will give you a fair warning beforehand. Just know I have lots of feelings about this game – some are good, some bad, and others neutral. That said, my overall sentiment of my time with this paradoxical indie title is very positive, and I’m so glad I saw it through to the end.
THIS IS … INSCRYPTION!
Minor spoilers ahead, but I feel it’s necessary. This is your warning! Though with gaming outlets, social media, etc., I can almost guarantee you’ve seen or heard worse.
Here’s the short of it – if you were to ask me to describe Inscryption in a sentence, I would say it’s an unholy amalgamation of the holiday classic, Groundhog Day with the horror movie, Saw. Puzzles that may hold answers to save your life, being trapped in a deadly game where the outcome favors the house, repeating the same thing over and over hoping for some hint at what it all means…and someone, somewhere, always watching. And no, it’s not Jigsaw…or Bill Murray for that matter (phew). But wait – I thought this was a card game?
It’s also an adventure game, a mystery, a series of puzzles, and an endless number of decisions to make. I mentioned in a recent tweet of mine that “One thing is certain – you gotta already love or learn to love strategy card games.” This is because before you embark on the adventure, uncover the mysteries, or solve any puzzles, the first decision you are going to make is what card will you first play. The second, is what card you will play next. If you feel you fit into one of those two categories I mentioned my tweet, then it’s almost certain you will love Inscryption.
CAUTION! SPOILERS AHEAD! SKIP PAST SAMMY THE SPOILER SQUIRREL TO ‘THE PLOT, THICKENED’ TO AVOID THEM!
A very huge part of Inscryption is the discovery that this game plays out in what could be described as acts. But typically, you wouldn’t figure that out until you finish the first one. As surprising as the second act is to discover, there are in fact four very distinct portions to the game – each of them providing quite the experience, all tied in together by certain pieces of lore that will be seemingly scattered around aimlessly, but together paint an interesting picture by the time you’re done.
I mention this because you may get frustrated in the beginning. Progress starts to come, piece by piece, like building with Lego bricks. Each movement to a new space on the game map, discovering what each icon represents, creating a unique playstyle with your favorite cards, are the metaphorical bricks added your Lego creation as it starts to take form. Just when you start to imagine all the fun you’ll have with this humble Lego creation, a spaceship – named Confidence – you face a new boss that slaps that ship out of your hands, immediately takes your picture to remind you how sad you were when it happened, and tells you to clean it up and start again.
I’ll say this – STICK WITH IT! You’ll be thankful you did.
THE PLOT, THICKENED
When you start playing Inscryption, it introduces you, the player, as an unnamed and unseen (presumably human) protagonist engaging in a card game at the request of an unknown figure…again? Dialogue points to this experience not being your first time, or at the very least, you not being the first person they’ve played with today. You are then taught (or re-taught) how to play this card game by said figure, who is sat across a table from you, cloaked in darkness. In an unknown location within a locked room, and nothing but dim candlelight illuminating a pair of piercing eyes from across the table, you have no choice but to comply with playing their game.
It could just be me, but for someone essentially being held hostage by a creepy person I find your character surprisingly calm. You’d think maybe your heart would be beating a bit loudly, or some adrenaline-fueled fight or flight response would kick in. But, no, you quietly sit at the table. In fact, you don’t talk at all. While silent protagonists are a common trope, there are indications that you perhaps could talk, or at least make sounds if you wanted/needed to. It’s an interesting detail to ponder anyway, as this game does little by chance.
Hey – depending on how long you’ve been here, maybe conversation just got stale and you’ve nothing left to say. Maybe their calm demeanor puts you at ease. Perhaps somewhere along the line you realized no murderous captor worth their salt would subject their confinee to endless card games. Or, let’s not rule out the possibility you’ve succumbed to Stockholm syndrome along the way as, apparently, you’ve been here for some time. Whatever the case, it appears you aren’t in any immediate danger anyway.
(Minor spoilers in the next couple of sentences!)
As I mentioned earlier, Inscryption plays in distinct parts. Act 1 is what I would consider the intro. It teaches the player the skills needed to play the base card game (which is, I suppose, one of the few constants of the entire game), and slowly introduces more and more core mechanics (and characters) with subsequent attempts. Because yes, you are basically meant to die at least a few times before you make any meaningful progress.
In educational/teaching terms, this could be referred to as a form of ‘chunking,’ which is breaking up the material into manageable sections (think “bite-size”) for the player to not be overwhelmed early on. I appreciate this approach in any game that I play, even with nearly 30 years of experience under my belt.
For the curious, here’s a quick rundown of the card game. Feel free to skip ahead of the numbered paragraphs here if you don’t care to know how the card game works.
- You have a starting deck of around 4 unique cards. I say around because it can vary – I’ll leave it at that. Aside from those unique cards, you’ll also have a stack of squirrels (no, not that kind). Squirrel cards serve as no-cost sacrifices to play your unique cards, or as general cannon fodder/non-human shields if you’re a heartless-I means ruthless card player.
- Each unique card has a specific sacrifice required to be put into play. It is listed on the card as a symbol. The price paid to play a card is also the return you will get upon sacrificing that same card. A sacrifice is the voluntary destruction of one of your own card(s) in play.
- The price shown on a given card is either paid in blood (represented by a blood droplet) or bones (represented by a bone). Without getting into optional modifications, upgrades, etc. that you are introduced to over time, Squirrels, the thankless martyrs of Inscryption, are unique in that they do not cost anything to play, but still offer one blood and one bone upon being sacrificed, or just one bone if killed by an opponent’s card.
- Each card played will have a value for attack and a value for health as well. Attack is listed on the left-hand side of the card and health is listed on the right-hand side.
- The board is made up of three horizontal rows of four card slots. The row closest to you is the only row you may play a card in. The row closest to the opponent is where they will play their cards. However, the center row is only available to your opponent as well, as each card played will need a second turn to advance to the center row to be able to face off against your (the player’s) cards in play.
- Once an opponent’s card is directly across from a player’s card (in the center row), each turn, the cards will attack the card opposite of them until one of the cards is destroyed. Once a card is killed, it is removed from the board.
- If an attack is done on a turn when no card is directly opposing it, the attack will tip a scale by the value of the attack listed on the card that is attacking. If the scale is tipped by 5 notches in either direction from the center mark/equilibrium, that side (opponent or player) loses.
- To win, you must tip the scale toward the opponent to the fifth notch (easier said than done sometimes).
The game also features quite a variety of card battling. Normal battles have special variants that grant certain cards with a buff depending on the special animal totem they have; bosses, on the other hand, have their own very special gimmicks that you’ll have to both learn and contend with. The first boss, the Prospector, has a passion for gold mining and will seek it in your cards – just don’t expect to be able to use them again afterwards
I will say, even with knowing what’s to come, much of the success in this game comes from how you stack your deck, the moves you make in game, and a couple of small blessings from RNGesus sprinkled in, such as the starting cards dealt to you each match. Don’t despair, though! For those who are really looking to make progress in this game, I wouldn’t want you to leave you without access to some pro tips, lest you feel the struggle like I did. Should you want to take a peek, here are a few of my own personal spoiler-free tidbits (you can always skip these if you’re a glutton for punishment though):
- Try and keep your sacrifice costs low. The less you need to sacrifice to continue putting cards on the board, the better.
- Keep your deck size manageable. I hesitate to say small, because it can be beneficial to have a sizeable deck, but making sure each card you keep is useful to your strategy is what will really make the difference. What that strategy is exactly is up to you.
- Test out as much as you can. This means where you move, the cards you play, the cards you sacrifice, etc. As mentioned earlier, very little in the game is there by chance – experience it all.
- Go in with the expectation of losing a few times. It makes it easier to stray from your play style comfort zone and feel a bit prouder when you’re inevitably holding that L at some point.
CAUTION! SPOILERS AHEAD! SKIP TO THE CONCLUSION IF YOU WANT TO AVOID THEM!
You know, it’s pretty incredible that, thinking back, I originally thought that the first section was the entire game. And I’m sure that’s by design. Truth be told, I was ready to be happy with that! I was a few hours in and greatly enjoying the challenge. My stance on game difficulty with all the games I’ve played, reviewed, and criticized has simply become this: If you challenge my reflexes, I can live with an L. However, if you challenge my intelligence, I will not rest until I am left victorious. Inscryption took my philosophy as a personal challenge, and despite the learning curve, I eventually came out on top.
And that is where things really kicked into high gear.
WHERE’S ASH? WAIT – THIS ISN’T EVIL DEAD?
Once you finally best the three main bosses, you find yourself walking to a cabin – first on the game board, but then also with your character. Your brisk walk down a dark path fit for an 80’s slasher shows you sights and powers beyond what you’ve become accustomed to in the game. You realize you are gearing up for the final showdown; the battle to end all battles. For the first time, your captor is truly revealed.
And let’s just say, they’re ready to throw everything at you to turn the tides in their favor. If you manage to survive, that is when Inscryption truly begins.
But I’ll leave that for you to experience on your own.
PROS AND CONS
Most of us have heard of the resource conundrum before – maybe not by that name, but it’s essentially this: Money, Time, Energy – you can only ever have two at a time, but never all three. Well, I’m convinced the developer, Daniel Mullins, subconsciously took a similar approach to making this game. Story, Gameplay, Graphics – only two are allowed to be elegant or refined at once, leaving the remaining third factor to be completely unhinged. While that undoubtedly makes for some very interesting and unique combinations as you play through the game, it also means at any given time, depending on how critical you are, there might be something left to be desired.
In Act 1, the story and gameplay are very refined. It’s an incredible, mysterious, introduction and becomes the segue that sets the stage for the rest of the game to come. But the graphics alias pretty hard. Some assets at certain angles had such a jagged edge I swear I heard “Where the party at” playing in the background at one point. Unfortunately, and I hate myself for saying this, for a lot of games & ports on Switch, it’s just something to be expected at this point. Side note – it is said that every time someone speaks on the quality of Switch ports, a YouTuber gets their wings…which they then promptly use to fly to their camera to film a video speculating on the release of a Switch Pro.
In Act 2, things take a huge turn (maybe even for the better if you happen to be wearing the ever-popular, rose-tinted, nostalgia brand™ sunglasses)! The gameplay and graphics are absolutely top notch – like to the point where I wish this section was its own game fleshed out even further. But you know what that leaves, right? Absolutely UNHINGED story updates. Mind-blowingly so, in fact. Self-fulfilling prophecies, power struggles, a survival nut that’s probably listened to one too many JRE episodes, usurpers…I don’t even know where to begin.
Act 3 is by far the prettiest looking of the bunch, with what I also felt was the best part of the story. Mostly because it was the easiest to follow, and ends with that classic, satisfyingly cliché villain explanation of how you’ve ‘played right into the palm of their cold evil hands, muahahah’. Unfortunately, it was at this point where the gameplay for me got a bit repetitive – specifically in the card battling.
It honestly pains me to say this, because there is so much greatness in this section! New features, new ways to play, bounty hunters, and incredible boss battles. Not to mention the amazing addition of being able to get a bit more creative with certain aspects of your deck! Unfortunately, it’s hampered by the odd decision of making battles a little too frequent for the style, and forces you to restart progress at the closest of the sparsely-scattered checkpoints if you happen to lose any battle along the way. It’s so close to being a perfect section, and it’s mildly frustrating that I can’t say that it is.
Act 4 is what I would consider the epilogue of Inscryption. I won’t reveal what happens here, but let’s just say since there are no other combinations left to make in the game’s resource conundrum, the dev said “Screw it – it’s ALL unhinged now.” All the rules go out the window and you’re left with bated breath, wondering what will happen with each second that passes.
Honestly, I think it’s such a fitting way to go out with this game. While I wouldn’t necessarily say everything comes full circle, the game certainly leaves a lasting impression. I would highly recommend this game to any fan of card-based deck builder games, and those who appreciate a good plot twist. The final climactic scene still bleeds in my mind like the ink on a freshly made card