Review – [Inscryption]

Overview

Developer Daniel Mullins Games
Publisher Devolver Digital
Genre Roguelike, Card-Game, Horror
Platforms PC (reviewed)
Release Date October 19, 2021

Coming from the creator of Pony Island and The Hex, Inscryption is described as a combination of a deckbuilding roguelike, an escape room, and a psychological horror game. The indie game scene is certainly no stranger to the first and last, but does the addition of an escape room element take away from the experience? Or is the game yet another knock-off of more popular games? In a sea of Steam roguelikes, what makes Inscryption stand out so much?

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: The core gameplay of Inscryption involves the repeated use of ritual animal sacrifice. While not graphic (as the sacrifices are cards), players select creatures on their side of the board to pay a blood cost to summon more powerful creatures. Certain totems can empower certain creature types in the right circumstances. An occult perspective of the existence of souls is assumed.

Violence: While never showing direct gore, a mechanic allows the player to self-mutilate in order to place teeth or an eye on a scale. Suitable noises accompany this action, and the tool used is animated towards the camera to show the action.

Language: “D***”, “F***”, and other crude words appear in the game’s dialogue, though sparsely.

Review

Inscryption can be a difficult game to talk about. Not least of the reasons why is the aforementioned ritual sacrifice found within the game, which can absolutely be a red line for many discerning Christians, and one that I would not push them to muscle through. While the game does not dwell on the ceremony, it is a consistent theme. So, before we properly get into the game, it should be noted that if you have any qualms about occult themes, this game is not for you, and I would be quite happy to point you in the direction of Slay the Spire, Dicey Dungeons, or One Step From Eden.

The second reason that reviewing this game is difficult is because I don’t want to spoil you on what goes on in this game, because somehow, the creator Daniel Mullins has created the perfect fusion between a card game and an escape room. And to give away too many secrets would be just plain rude. Especially considering the insane degree to which Mullins has hidden some of them.

What I can give you, though, is the premise: You’re locked in a cabin with a shadowy figure. His eyes glow in the dark with quiet mischief. Or is it malice? He invites you to take a seat and play a game. Bit by bit, he guides your pawn across a map, gathering cards for your deck to give you a greater chance at victory. At the same time, he throws wave after wave of disposable creatures your way, trying to defeat you and end your run. Pixelated and blurry graphics make his movements unsettling. Somehow, though, there’s a sharp definition to his features and to the rest of the cabin.

Inscryption locks you in a cabin with this shady figure

The Card Game

During an encounter, you place down critters onto your side of the map to deal damage to your host while preventing his own cards from hitting you. Each critter has a different health value, attack value, and blood value. Playing a card requires you to sacrifice other cards equal to its blood value. On each strike, metallic teeth fall on a scale, matching whoever did damage. Some have unique traits that give them an extra advantage. A 0/1 squirrel is cheap fodder to summon better cards, while a 4/6 bear needs you to ditch three other cards. Given only four slots, you’ll have to play smart to get your big creatures out. Or can you finagle your way into getting a cheap powerhouse?

Other spaces on your path give you more advantages. Another card, to add to your deck. A backpack, where you can stock up on one-use items, like scissors and pliers. A campfire full of hungry survivors, where a bullfrog can increase its stats as the campers drool, murder in their eyes. A sacrificial stone, where you can staple the soul of a sparrow onto a bear.

If you’re lucky, and clever besides, you’ll end up with a lean deck full of dangerous critters. Make the wrong choices, and you’ll have a deck full of possums and frogs.

The Puzzle Game

Between matches, though, you can stand up and walk around the cabin, poking and prodding at the curios and knick-knacks. Occasionally, you’ll find that some objects will affect your game, or that your game will affect other objects. As you progress, you’ll unlock more interesting mechanics that will change your game forever.

The puzzle isn’t just the cabin, though. It’s the game itself. And unlike other card games that can obsess over balance, strength, weakness, and action economy, Inscryption wants you to break it. There are many different ways to cleverly set up a deck that can absolutely ruin the game master’s plans. Some of them are obvious. Others are more subtle. All of them are quite deliberate.

The End Game

That’s not to say that Inscryption is easy, especially when you first start out. Your host will frequently throw something at you that seems patently unfair. Pre-grievance revenge, perhaps, for the destruction that you’ll visit upon him later. But the more familiar you get with what cards are good, the more consistently you’ll reach the end of the level.

But ultimately, winning isn’t the point. Oh, it’s an objective all right, and a fun enough challenge that the game received a free expansion, Kaycee’s Mod, not long after it launched. This mod ditches most of the meta-textual confusion and just gives you more of that sweet, sweet card game. But reaching the end boss is only part of what you want to do. And that’s as much as I’ll say about that.

The After-Game

Inscryption, on the other hand, has just as much narrative going on, but the gameplay is so good that they created a standalone expansion so the card-game nuts like me could play as much as they want! I’m not sure that there can be a higher compliment you could give such a narratively-focused game as this. And there isn’t a trade-off in the quality of the narrative itself; The game constantly engaged me. I wanted nothing more than to find the next clue in the quasi-escape-room setup, and progress that story. For a more mechanics-focused guy like me, this is a surprising upset.

I’d like to bring up Kaycee’s Mod again, here, to illustrate a point. I played one of the developer’s previous games a long time ago, Pony Island, and it was a pretty good game. Much like this one, it had a lot of mind-bending meta-shenanigans going on with a creepy tone. But the moment-to-moment gameplay was somewhat lacking at times. Within the narrative that the game had, it made perfect sense as a design choice, but it sacrificed fun for story-crafting.

Ultimately, this is the cleverest card game I’ve played on Steam. I’d contend that this game rises above its common tags, and carves out its own niche as an inspiration for future games of its type. If you are the sort of person who likes puzzles, decks of cards, and/or a spooky atmosphere with a smattering of fourth-wall bending, and you’re not put off by a grim tone, you’ll have a smashing time with this title.

The Bottom Line

 

Inscryption knows exactly how to keep a player engaged, encouraging the player to take advantage of the game mechanics while offering tantalizing bits of progression just beyond the corner.

 

9.5

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