Inscryption was nominated for “Best Indie Game 2021” and in my opinion, it definitely would have deserved to win that title for many reasons. When I played the demo, I fell in love with its systems and mechanics as well as its eery and threatening atmosphere. When it came out, I essentially binged through it and loved every aspect of the full release. Still, I hesitated to write a review because I frankly didn’t know how I could write about what makes this game so great without taking away from the mystery and potentially spoiling the experience for people that haven’t played it yet. Well, I had plenty of time now to think about exactly that and hence, I present to you my review of a great roguelike-deckbuilding game that is much more than just that.
Developer: Daniel Mullins Games Publisher: Devolver Digital Genre: Card Battler, Roguelike, Deckbuilding, Mystery, Thriller Release Date: October 19th, 2021 Reviewed on: PC Available for: PC, Android Copy was purchased.
For anyone that isn’t in the loop, Inscryption is made by Daniel Mullins, the creator of Pony Island and The Hex. If that doesn’t ring a bell, you’re in for a treat because those games are equally bizarre and fascinating, often breaking the fourth wall, setting up mysteries, and essentially creating opportunities for the player base to theory-craft. Inscryption is no exception to this! The game blends deckbuilding roguelike mechanics with escape-room style puzzles and psychological thriller elements, creating a fascinating experience for anyone that is into both deeper mysteries and strategies! Initially, you’ll find yourself trapped in a dark room with some shadowy figure that prompts you to play a tabletop game. You can get up at any time and interact with the different objects you find around the wooden cabin but the game itself is played on this board, narrated by said shadowy figure. Who is this person? Where are we? What exactly happened to us? What is this game? Is there a way out? You’ll find out as you play the game!
The game itself revolves around the aforementioned deckbuilding roguelike mechanics. Each run, you’ll build a deck consisting of many different cards that you can upgrade, sacrifice and empower. These cards have an attack stat, a health stat, and special effects but they often require blood or bone costs. A “stoat” card, for instance, has a cost of one blood, so you’ll have to sacrifice one animal to place that down, while a Grizzly requires three sacrifices. Each round, you get to draw a card from your deck or from the squirrel pile and essentially, you’ll have the chance to place squirrels down solely to block attacks or to sacrifice them. There are a lot more mechanics to the game, such as items, shops, special rooms in a “Slay the Spire” like fashion… but you’ll learn it as you go as the game continues to explain these features as you cross them. When you’re not sure what a “sigil” does, you can always right-click it to look it up in your lexicon.
The mechanics may remind you of other games but there is much more to it than what meets the eye. Through excess damage, you’ll earn currency in the game in the form of teeth that can then be traded for pelts that then can be traded for cards, for instance, which adds a layer of difficulty as you’ll have to deal with them showing up in your deck. Similarly, you may find yourself struggling as combat is over quite quickly if you’re not careful. The game can be incredibly relentless, especially due to the creative boss fights that you’ll find in the game. Each boss has some sort of key mechanic that makes them stand out and feel unique or unlike anything you’ve seen in other similar games… and that mechanic is further enhanced in the second phase, which I found mindboggling and amazing. The difficulty curve may be steep at times but there are certainly more than enough ways to create a powerful or possibly even overpowered strategy, be it through synergies, totems or exploits. But the game in the game isn’t the only way to play it as some cards may speak to you, giving you hints as to how to possibly exit this lodge!
While Inscryption’s card game mechanics are interesting and have a lot to offer, it is still a bit of a thriller with a plot that you’ll want to advance. Believe me when I say that it has a few twists to it that are simply mindblowing. Part of the charm comes from the sense of immersion. I don’t like throwing around this term as it’s a bit of a buzzword being used when people don’t actually know what it means but thanks to its setting and execution, I’d imagine that it’s quite fitting to say that the whole experience of Inscryption is very much what you’d call immersive. You’re in the game, after all. You can move around and interact with things and this little Indie game can very much suck you in, never to be seen again. Once it takes hold of you, you may spend hours playing runs upon runs, getting frustrated at losses while celebrating victories and it frankly takes ahold of you quite easily through its many little secrets, gimmicks and cool moments.
What has to be said, though, is that this great experience that I had is being gatekept by some rather unsettling or gross moments that may not be for everyone. For starters, it’s a thriller. Some may even say that the game is more of a horror game… and while I didn’t find it scary, it certainly was quite intense at a few moments here and there. At the same time, it also has mechanics in it that even I found unsettling and almost triggering. For example, you may use a plier to remove one of your teeth and place it on the scale to get a point. The visual for that is indeed immersive but I found it hard to look at the screen or listen to the sounds of it because of how unsettling it was for me. Sure, you can handicap yourself by not using the dagger or the plier, in this case, but frankly, I would have liked a setting to disable said visuals better. I do appreciate the settings that let you disable the noise effects in the game or the screen shake but I would have loved some more accessibility in that regard.
But even if you have to look away from the screen, I don’t think that these few moments ruin the experience overall. It is still very much immersive, for better or for worse, and the threatening and eery atmosphere paired with the amazing twists and graphics are what truly make this game shine. Inscryption is beautifully executed and manages to captivate the player and not let them go until they finished the story. Even after that, it still keeps you questioning what actually went on and what happened. There are aspects to the game that I can’t go into detail about in this review as mentioning it would take away from your experience but I found it incredible how dark and ominous the plot could get. When the fourth wall got broken, it felt surprising even though I expected it due to Daniel Mullin’s previous works. I can highly recommend checking out Inscryption, especially as there is now a beta available, named “Kaycee’s Mod” which effectively adds an Ascension-style mode to the game with less lore but more cards, decks and gimmicks. Truly delightful!