Inkulinati Early Access Review – Strategic (Th)inking In Medieval Margins


Inkulinati's tactical and strategic depth is equaled by its clever use of medieval marginalia as inspiration for both art, setting, and gameplay. Come for the exploding bean monsters and donkey butt horns, stay for the tricky turn-based combat.

There have always been games geared towards the fastidious, careful player. While they can exist in any genre, they tend to be management or tactical titles, stuff like FTL, Door Kickers, Frozen Synapse, Against the Storm; games in which thinking through every possible line pays dividends — or is even required for it. Inkulinati, which releases in early access today, is another such game.

I suck at these kinds of games, because I’m impatient, I don’t consider my moves for more than two seconds, and I never think beyond the current turn. Yet, I want so badly to play more Inkulinati (and win for once) that I just might have to change my ways. I’m not sure whether it’s the cute art, the funny dialogue, the tactical challenge, or that I just can’t get enough of indie roguelikes, but something about Inkulinati keeps drawing me back for one more run.

Developed by Yaza Games, Inkulinati is a 2D, turn-based tactics game that draws both gameplay and artistic inspiration from the hilarious (and often terrifying) drawings found in the margins of medieval manuscripts. Of course, since it’s an indie game on Steam, it’s also got roguelike elements, with battles and their rewards randomizing with each run, plus meta progression that unlocks new starting options.

medieval monster butt trumpet bard
Some of the medieval margin art is weirder than the stuff in Inkulinati

Your character is a Tiny Inkulinati, a combat artist that uses Living Ink to draw beasts that you then command — or even push around — in battle. In each run, you pick an initial set of beasts that serve as your starting army (with more options unlocking as you earn meta-progression points), plus a few special Tiny Inkulinati abilities and perks. You’ll then make your way across each act’s map (in a manner familiar to anyone who’s played Slay the Spire) in an attempt to reach the rival Tiny Inkulinati at its end. Generally, you get to choose between a couple of paths; you’ll find events and shops, but most often battles.

Some battles are duels with another enemy Tiny Inkulinati; other times it’s only beasts on the enemy side; sometimes it’s your beasts vs wild beasts, with no Inkulinati present. The different formats keep things interesting, as each type of battle requires different strategy and tactics. While battles will mostly involve drawing beasts (which cost Living Ink) and giving them orders, you can also equip Hand actions; when your Tiny Inkulinati is in the fight, these let you poke, prod, and smash nearby beasts on the battlefield. You can also equip abilities that let you draw objects, allowing you to alter the battlefield in your favor. Drawing a barrel can be helpful, but it’s the damage Hand actions that are the most fun — there’s something incredibly satisfying about watching a giant hand come down on an enemy rabbit that’s just bared its butt at your doggie swordsman.

inkulinati hand smash for review
How does he draw with those gloves on?

Despite being in early access, there’s an impressive amount of army variety already: Rabbits are squishy but can put enemies to sleep by mooning foes, foxes steal Living Ink, bean-flinging monsters build up gas and then explode. More beasts are coming later, but there’s already plenty to play with, and nearly every beast has some kind of quirk or unique ability. I was a big fan of the snail, which moves slow like you’d expect, but can one-shot any enemy by consuming them (and then giving a cute little burp).

It’s not just the different beasts you have to worry about, however. The battlefield starts with an assortment of objects that explode, buff nearby beasts, or block line of sight. Throughout the battle, random hazards or ink splatters will appear, forcing you to reconsider your tactics — of particular import are the ink blotches, which you can have your beasts stand on to collect more Living Ink. After just a few rounds, the Apocalypse beings, and the battlefield starts to shrink, or fire appears on random tiles.

inkulinati pre battle for review
You’re given a lot of info before each battle, letting you pick the optimal beasts and abilities (if you’ve got ’em)

It’s the kind of game where you want to think a few moves ahead, but will often have to rethink those moves every round. Your beasts and Tiny Inkulinati are very vulnerable, with health pools small and damage often high. Abilities are powerful, with some beasts able to put multiple enemy beasts to sleep for a turn, deal high damage in a wide area, or one-shot beasts like my guy the snail. Both sides take turns, and each turn you can only move and attack with one creature, so choosing which beast to use next, and how to use them, is incredibly important. After every beast and Inkulinati has taken a turn (and then a nap), a new round begins.

In addition to their unique abilities, beasts have some standard stuff they can do, like make a regular attack or pray (which blocks pushes and makes them stronger next turn). The pushes are perhaps the most important move to talk about: beasts (and the Tiny Inkulinati’s massive fingers) can shove friendlies or enemies, and the pushed creature will slide until it finds a free spot — if there isn’t one, it can slide right off the edge of the battlefield. This constant presence of potentially lethal moves makes every decision crucial, and battles can swing in an instant.

inkulinati wide scene for review
Tiny Inkulinati Duels are given an extra level of drama thanks to a running description of the battle, written as you play

This complexity extends to the game’s overarching strategy as well. Drawing the same beasts over and over makes your Tiny Inkulinati bored, which in turn makes those specific beasts cost more Living Ink to draw. You can relieve boredom at specific vendors or events, but it will also go down if you don’t draw those beasts in your next battle. This encourages experimentation with different strategies, and forces you to try out all the beasts in your army.

You’re also given tough choices at events: Should you trade a Quill (which act like lives, allowing you to keep playing after losing a battle) for more starting Ink? Should you spend gold on a new Hand ability, or another Quill? Should I keep this treasure for myself, or give it to the peasants, increasing my Prestige and making it easier to get discounts at shops?

Oftentimes, I’d find myself picking the option I hadn’t tried before, just to see the great dialogue. Inkulinati succeeds at being casually irreverent, and the humor is woven throughout the game. The little faces the beasts make, the post-battle trash talk, the strange events — they all manage to be funny, without ever trying too hard to be quirky or clever.

inkulinati combat for review
Natural enemies since time immemorial

Despite how much I now enjoy everything Inkulinati is doing, my first few attempts were exercises in frustration. Having your Tiny Inkulinati pushed off the battlefield because you made one wrong move feels bad — having extra Quills lessens the sting, but still. There’s also a lot to take in when learning the game, with every new beast or battlefield object requiring you to read a few paragraphs of information. Being an early access title, balance also hit or miss, with certain beasts and Hand abilities feeling a lot more powerful than others (though this may just be a player skill issue).

It’s easy to recommend Inkulinati, especially given the state so many other games — even supposedly finished games — release in. It’s got plenty of content already, the game feels polished, and it’s only going to get better over the year it’s set to spend in early access. The roadmap promises new beasts, new Inkulinati, new battles, and online multiplayer. Plus, it’s already got hot-seat multiplayer, which makes the devs pretty darn cool in my book.

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Unabashed FromSoftware fanboy still learning to take his time with games (and everything else, really). The time he doesn't spend on games is spent on music, books, or occasionally going outside.

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