Inscryption is my surprise spooky time sink of the year

Cards against insanity.

On paper, Inscryption is not a game I would like. In fact, it’s a garbled amalgamation of genres and themes I would categorically avoid when searching for a new game. Roguelikes? Deck builders? Trapped in a low poly spooky cabin? You’re alright mate. But in the spirit of completionism (and playing every single potential game of the year contender where I like it or not) Inscryption was bartered into my library on sheer prowess, and into the woods I went.

Inscyrption is the latest offering from the team headed by Daniel Mullins, maker of 2016’s creepy puzzler Pony Island. Surprisingly, I haven’t played that either, so all I knew about Inscryption going in was “you get some cards, you get some puzzles, you get to die a lot.”

The game boots up, and for some reason, the ‘New Game’ button is greyed out. Fearing some sort of bug, I popped over to the internet, known for its truth-telling, to see what was going on. One guide told me that this is a bug, and pressing continue will start the game in exactly the same way, so I did. Little did I know.

Inscryption starts you off in a dark log cabin, and you’re sat at a table facing a monster that brisky introduces you to their homebrew card game. This is the game’s primary mechanic; to get out of here, you need to beat the game. It’s fairly simple to grasp off the bat – you have a deck of cards featuring certain animals and objects, all with different power levels for attacks, and a health level. You play your cards against each other on a 12 slow grid, aiming to deal damage to your opponent. If a space on the board is empty, one of you will take or deal damage corresponding to the power level of the card adjacent to it. The damage is added to a scale, and whoever’s side hits the floor loses.

As you make your way through what is essentially a tabletop board game that this odd prick has created, you’ll land on spaces to power up your cards, splice two of the same into one, and bag power ups that’ll aid you, such as extra bone tokens (bones are a currency you can use to play certain cards) or simply, a pair of pliers you can use to brutally yank your own fucking teeth out in order to tip the scales back in your favour.

You can stand up from the table, give your calves a wee stretch, and wander around to see that Leshy – the aforementioned creep – has “accidentally” left puzzles dotted around the room for you to solve, that’ll also aid you in winning the game and escaping. There’s a safe with a hidden code, a set of puzzles on a wall, and powerful cards that’ll sway your hand.

Should you die, which will absolutely happen, Leshy will take you round the back and turn you into a card. Very cool and normal behaviour. The card will be made up of stats picked from the ones in your hand that round, you name it, and he snaps a big ol’ image of you to slap on the front. The card can be named, and will appear somewhere for you to use in the future, so choose them well.

I was quickly swept up in the routine of card games, darting around the room attempting puzzles, and racing to uncover an overarching narrative about why I was trapped in here. I became completely entranced by the rounds, which flipped so rapidly between skin-of-my teeth clutches and absolutely cruising through the board with no problems. The core loop is brilliant, and I couldn’t get enough of it. 

The design is gorgeous too – not a game I would pick for its aesthetic but in this setting, it feels divine. Inscryption is not full of jump scares and cheap gore, it remains collected for the majority of the time and cherry-picks the opportune moment to go absolutely off its nut, and I loved it. 

While Inscryption is difficult, and at times, absolute bollocks, it never seeks to cheat you out of a good round. I soon found myself completely entranced by the card game – which provided just enough challenge to see me off a dozen times, but never unfair to the point where I couldn’t be arsed. And soon enough, I’d mastered it, I’d scooped up a handful of buffs that basically turned me into a god, I battered Leshy into the ground and escaped the cabin.

Except, I really didn’t. Tabbing out to the main menu again, satisfied with what was an exceptional game, I noticed that the ‘New Game’ tab had become available. It felt like some sort of new game plus affair – perhaps I can hop back in and play a harder, more detailed version of the first-person card game, a few enhancements, maybe there’s Steam workshop support? Mullins wants you to get your money’s worth, right? 

I don’t want to spoil what comes next, but I do want to suggest that you absolutely play Inscryption. Even if like me, the look of it doesn’t align to your tastes, this is a marvel of design that shouldn’t be missed.

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