I’ve never really been much into tabletop card games. If you don’t count the couple years in college I lost my life to Magic: The Gathering, that is (and I don’t remember much of that time, considering that was right around when I turned 21…). Setting that specific time aside, tabletop card games just never really appealed much to me…digital ones even less so.
When deckbuilding-based video games started becoming popular in the indie scene, they mostly passed me by. I would think to myself, “Oh, it’s a game about building a deck of cards…doesn’t seem interesting,” and I moved on without a second thought.
However, the genre managed to sneak its way into my life via One Step from Eden, a game I picked up since it looked like a homage to the Mega Man Battle Network series. Turned out deckbuilding mechanics were a key part of the game. “AHAHAH,” that game yelled as I poured hours of my life into it, “WE GOT YOU NOW, NOW YOU’RE ADDICTED.”
While I haven’t gone out of my way to find more deckbuilding-based games, it wasn’t a genre I decided to ignore anymore. And when I began to hear rumblings of an upcoming horror-based one, it definitely caught my eye.
Developed by Daniel Mullins and published by Devolver Digital, Inscryption is set for release on October 19th, 2021, for PC via Steam.
The Cards Tell a Tale
You wake up in a cabin. Dusty, dimly lit, various knickknacks strewn across the walls. The only way out is locked. There’s a table in the middle of the room, with someone else sitting on one side of it hidden in the shadows. The only thing you can see is a pair of disembodied eyes. It invites you to play a game. A card game, and a rather gruesome one at that. Perhaps if you can win the game, you’ll be set free. But the stakes are high…life or death, even.
The core story of the game isn’t much to write home about. A seemingly mundane game made high-stakes by putting your life on the line, it’s not an unheard of premise in media. But the atmosphere Mullins creates around it is what sells it.
Inscryption isn’t in-your-face horror. It about the little things, the unsettling things that begin to build as you proceed. Your mysterious opponent doesn’t appear immediately murderous, but there’s definitely something…off…about it. It allows you to stand up from the game and explore the cabin whenever you wish between card matches, revealing just how claustrophobic your environment is.
Shortly after the game begins, you quickly discover that this odd entity isn’t the only character here. Eventually, some of the cards you’re using in the game begin talking to you. Giving you hints. Calling you out on bad plays. Developing a personality. Everything is mysterious, everything is off-kilter, which makes the tale being woven incredibly intriguing.
Now, it’s no secret that there’s a meta aspect to Inscryption. The advertising for it hasn’t hidden it, and just the fact that the game is made by the developer behind Pony Island is an obvious giveaway. I won’t dive in to the specifics for wont of spoilers, but I can say, they present a blend of content those familiar with meta gaming have come to expect, as well as some truly surprising moments that had me shouting explicatives at my monitor.
I wish I could say it was excellent and gripping all the way through its runtime (which took me about ten hours), but the plot kind of stumbled for me right at the finish line. I wish I could explain why, but, again…spoilers. To be as vague as possible, the plot just didn’t wind up as conclusive as I had hoped it would be.
Tooth and Claw, Blood and Bone
Inscryption presents a blend of deckbuilding, card battling, and tabletop storytelling in its core mechanics. Your opponent presents a map to you, upon which you move a small piece representing your character along various paths. Each node on the paths activate various events: collecting items, adding cards to your deck, and, of course, card battles.
The card battle gameplay is simple at first. You have two decks to draw from – a side-deck of Squirrel cards, which are free to play on the board, and a main deck of core creature cards. The creature cards require either blood or bones as resources to play on the field. Blood is gained by killing creatures already on your field…which is where those free-to-play Squirrels are mostly used. Bones are earned every time one of your creatures dies.
So, a typical rotation sees you playing Squirrels, then sacrificing them to play creatures that can attack the opponent. Sacrifice those creatures to get more powerful cards out. Spend the bones you’ve accumulated from the sacrifices to play other cards.
Quickly, though, more and more quirks are added to the gameplay. Some cards can have “sigils” on them, which give them special properties. One may be marked as flying, which allows them to attack your opponent directly even if the opponent has a creature card in front of it. Another may be marked poison, which will instantly kill any creature it attacks.
Various events on the map can also affect your cards wildly. Some stops may let you sacrifice a card with a sigil to transfer it to another card. Another might buff a card’s power…but at the risk of losing the card altogether. You can collect items to affect your resources on the field, or parts of a totem that can be put together to give a permanent sigil to certain cards.
To wrap up multiple paragraphs of description with one cliché: Inscryption is easy to learn, but hard to master. By the time you complete the first map, there’s so many variables in play to make a fresh-faced onlooker’s head spin. Luckily, the game does a great job at teaching the mechanics, spreading out the introduction of all of these variables enough that it doesn’t become overwhelming.
After my first two or three runs, I had these systems down pat, and began making some truly interesting builds and plays. Once you have the variables working in your favor, winning battles in Inscryption becomes incredibly satisfying. The boss battles you come up against also demand your knowledge of these variables, as they present some unique mechanics to work around, such as having cards stolen from you or turned to useless gold bricks.
And, as if the game didn’t have enough going on, standing up from the table turns Inscryption from a deckbuilder to a first-person adventure game. Exploring the cabin you’re in, you can find various objects that act as puzzles. Some puzzles must be solved to move the plot forward. Others are optional, but can provide some powerful cards or items if you can solve them.
I hinted at it a bit earlier, but the game does have some rogue-like elements as well. Death is expected in this game, and you’ll likely have to restart and run again many times over before you’re able to clear every map. However, it can also be a boon, as upon losing you get to create a “Death Card.” This card draws its resource requirements, power, health, and sigil from randomly-selected cards in your current deck…and if you get lucky, you can create something game breaking. After one run, I managed to create a 7-power, 7-health, flying card that only required two blood to play. When most creatures max out at five health and winning a match only requires hitting your opponent for nine damage in the absolute worst scenario, this single card carried me through most of the game in a single run.
Too bad I screwed up at the final boss of that run and lost it. Oh well, luck can’t last forever.
I already spoke of it when discussing the story, but I need to reiterate it again: Inscryption does a marvelous job with its atmosphere. The environment you’re playing the game in is creepy and foreboding. The off-kilter animations of your opponent leave you consistently unsettled. Even the simplistic designs of the cards and board you’re playing on contribute to the atmosphere, like this is a game a killer scribbled together as an excuse to gather more victims.
The audio design adds greatly to this oppressive atmosphere as well. The limited music often feels weirdly hollow, like it’s missing a track, generally feeling ‘off.’ Many moments are backed up by simple grinding sound effects or droning noise. Really, everything is built to make sure the player is never too settled in.
This off-kilter presentation continues into the meta aspects of the game as well. Can’t be too detailed here, of course, but rest assured, the audio-visual design remains top notch even once things start getting…different.
Sell Your Soul
I’ve been looking for a good horror game for the Halloween season. I didn’t expect it to be a deckbuilding game.
Inscryption is an amazingly well-put-together piece of work. The atmosphere presented…well, I’ve already doted on it multiple times. And I’ll do so again: it’s unsettling, occasionally oppressive, and always keeps the player on their toes. It could easily carry the work on its own, but luckily the card game mechanics are solid and sound as well. It’s easy to pick up, but with a ton of variables to allow customization and multiple viable approaches to the challenges provided.
If only it didn’t stumble literally right at the finish line, I’d call this a near-perfectly designed game. Unfortunately, that last moment soured me on the experience…not enough render the whole thing moot (a la Mass Effect 3), but I just can’t shake it off.
Despite that, Inscryption is a game that I can recommend highly. Even if you’re not typically a fan of deckbuilding games (just as I used to be), if you want some unsettling vibes for the season, this is your game right here.
Review copy provided by Devolver Digital for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Devolver Digital.