Inscryption is the work of a one-man band, developer Daniel Mullins who was also behind the warmly received Pony Island a few years ago. This is another unique blend of genres that could really only be attempted in an indie release, but the card-based gameplay proves to be far more addictive than you might be expecting.
The game is a haunting cross between a horror game, a first-person adventure and a card-based battler, with a rougelite gameplay experience that evolves the more you play. Disturbingly, when you first boot up the game, the option to pick ‘New Game’ is wiped from the main menu – unselectable. Instead, you’re forced to continue whosever’s safe file existed before you arrived, as you find yourself in a cabin with a mysterious character, illuminated only by his crazed pair of eyes. He teaches you how to play a card game, between the two of you at the table, and if you fail then he’ll kill you.
The visuals are filtered through an unsettling low-res monitor look, and the music and sound effects are awesomely atmospheric. While there aren’t many outright scares, the game emanates a feeling of dread and tension, even when you feel like you’re performing well. The actual journey and progression of Inscryption doesn’t leave this room, as your host lays out the adventure on the table before you with maps, figurines and masks he’ll wear to play different characters. Your character will move through a mostly linear path on the map, with some optional branches, tackling card battles, challenges of luck or opportunities to strengthen your cards or gain helpful items.
The card gameplay itself is central to Inscryption, and it helps that it’s the most addictive part about it. Built around sacrificing weaker cards to play stronger ones, you can place up to four cards in front of you to attack your opponent. If there’s no cards opposite yours, then your opponent will take damage, represented by a set of scales, but if they play their own cards then you’ll have to get through them first. Cards are based on forest creatures and woodland animals, with Squirrels being your fundamental resource, meant to be placed and then sacrificed at the earliest opportunity to put something vicious down like a Wolf with 3 Damage. The more you play, the stronger cards you’ll collect, even routinely combining cards to form stronger versions, or gaining modifiers to really amp up your play style. My favourite was an instant-revive on sacrificed Squirrels, instantly returning them to my hand to be played again and again to quickly get a strong force of cards on the board. The gameplay is easy enough to get your head around, although the game expects you to die a few times as you learn, and there’s plenty of opportunities to develop strategies that suit your playstyle as you head into another run.
Of course, that’s just one side of the game. All of this – playing cards against a bizarre murderous stranger as he dons silly masks and role-plays with you – makes a certain kind of sense. Until some of the cards start talking to you. Beginning with the Stoat card, who’s a great cheeky character, you begin to learn there’s more going on than meets the eye. There’s a further level of story and character work bubbling under the surface of Inscryption, that requires you to get up from the table once in a while and explore the cabin with basic first-person controls. In just the first section of the game, there’s several puzzles strewn around which can help you greatly advance through both the card battles, and progress the story, although disappointingly some can be brute-forced fairly easily. Truly escaping your captor in Inscryption will require both skilled gameplay in the card game, and some good old adventure game investigation. The game also has a habit of upending genre every so often, with lots of surprises along the journey, and to say more would spoil things.
As a rouglite, you’re expected to die over and over again, especially so at certain points when the game is deadset on dealing you a tough boss battle when you’re probably not prepared for it. While this is great for variety and trying out new deck builds to tackle different strategies, it can be frustrating to have a lot of your progress reset to the beginning of the stranger’s little role playing game. And he will actually kill you as well – allowing you to leave behind a card amalgamated from a few others in your collection as a starter for your deck in the next run. While I appreciate roguelite mechanics, moreso this year as they have become more common in games like Hades and Returnal, I’m still not the biggest fan of having to clear the same bosses over and over again, and for me it sometimes felt like progression in the story was too drawn out. But, if you’re more accustomed to the genre, this may not be as much of a problem for you.
Regardless, it’s safe to say this is one of the most original games you could pick up for Halloween this year – a card battler with a genuinely dread-inducing atmosphere, with addictive gameplay that draws you into its dark story and world. It’s not for everyone, but I’d advise looking past the fact it’s ‘just’ a card game if the look and tone interest you at all, as Inscryption digs it sharp hooks into you and doesn’t let go.
-Unique blend of horror, adventure and card gameplay that's completely addicting -Atmospheric, dark, but never goes for cheap scares -Some witty lines and cool evolution in the story
-Roguelite gameplay means you'll be replaying the same bosses and maps again and again -Story progress can be slow