Date: October 18, 2021
Daniel Mullins has been messing with the fourth wall — and the players beyond it — since 2016, when he released Pony Island. A resounding success, Daniel followed it up with The Hex, a very meta take on video games. Now he’s done it again with Inscryption, this time borrowing Hand of Fate’s narrative device in which the player sits at a table, playing a card game curated by a mysterious figure.
But while Hand of Fate took you from the game board into a 3-D tactical map, Inscryption goes in the opposite direction, actually having you stand up from the table and move around the small, dark cabin you’re playing cards in. The way these little breaks from the game are implemented is incredibly effective, and makes it easy to forget you’re not really there in the cabin, playing a roguelike deck-builder with some of the cutest/ugliest woodland creatures ever put to pixel.
And what a deck-builder it is. All singleplayer card games end up being puzzles to some extent, but Inscryption really leans into that idea, creating a series of card matches that require you to constantly shift your strategy and adjust your understanding of the game’s rules. There is an almost comical amount of special modifiers that cards can have, and each boss plays by its own set of rules. You can’t just build a generically strong deck; instead, Inscryption requires you to carefully consider the upcoming challenges when picking your next card or upgrade.
The rules of the card game itself are fairly unique, a blend of typical creature combat and board game style positioning. There are no spell cards, only creatures, and most of the game boards provide only 4 slots for you to place your units in. All units automatically attack at the end of their owner’s turn, and units only deal damage when attacking. You can see what units your opponent will play next turn, and even damage them with overkill damage — it isn’t chess, but thinking a move or two ahead is essential for victory.
Even just playing your cards is done in an interesting way: most creatures require sacrifices to be played, so you’ll have to kill one or more of your units on the board to get a new one out. This is generally accomplished by sacrificing squirrels, which are weak creatures that you have a near-limitless supply of. At the start of each turn, you can choose to either draw from your regular deck, or from your squirrel deck. Given the brief length of most matches, each draw decision feels like a big one, and deciding when and how you’ll get your cards on the board is a fascinating challenge.
The game’s victory condition is also something I’ve never seen before: instead of reducing your opponent’s life total, damaging your opponent adds weights to a scale. Tip it far enough in your favor, and you win the match. This creates a tug-of-war style back and forth that I found very exciting, with the scales swinging wildly from one turn to the next. Going from an even score to victory or defeat only takes 5 points of damage, and many creatures do 2 or 3 damage — it’s possible to win (or lose) quite quickly.
Winning a match allows you to move your game piece forward one space on the map, which contains all the things you’d expect to see in a roguelike deck-builder. Some locations let you upgrade a card or pick a new one. Others contain battles, and there’s a handful of other fun risk/reward choices and push-your-luck mechanics. These are all portrayed with excellent art design and dialogue — the stranger you play against puts on masks and uses props while narrating the story of your character’s journey through the game.
You can also permanently add cards to your deck by solving puzzles scattered throughout the cabin. In addition to new cards, solving some of these puzzles will allow you to acquire an item that can be used to influence the card matches in some way. The puzzles are a nice way to break up the card playing, though none are particularly challenging. They aren’t just there for fun, however; many of them serve to advance the plot in some way, and so it makes sense that they aren’t too difficult to solve.
About that plot: there’s so much more I want to say about Inscryption that would ruin a lot of what makes the game great. Without giving too much away, know that the time you spend with the mysterious stranger in the cabin is only the first act in one of the coolest, weirdest stories I’ve ever seen in a video game. If you’ve played Daniel Mullins’ other games, Inscryption might feel like more of the same (albeit bigger and better), but I went in unfamiliar with his previous work and was honestly blown away by the way Inscryption’s narrative is delivered.
The ending fell a little flat, but the journey to get there ranks among my top video-game stories of all time. This is thanks in large part to the writing, which is excellent throughout. The dialog was funny when it wanted to be, unsettling or downright scary when it wanted to be, and not once did I roll my eyes at “video-game writing” — games like Inscryption are starting to make me feel like I can’t even call it that anymore. Know that the story is unashamedly fourth-wall-breaking, so if that’s not your thing, you probably won’t enjoy it nearly as much as I did.
Inscryption is equal parts weird narrative adventure game, puzzle game, and deckbuilder, and the different elements of the game come together in a way that is much greater than the sum of its parts. I’ve been thinking about Inscryption non-stop since I finished it (which took me about 12 hours), and it’s definitely going to be one of those games that I judge all similar titles by — although I wonder if I’ll ever play another game quite like Inscryption.