Due to the nature of Inscryption, I am providing a warning. This is not a spoiler-free review. If you are already interested in this game, it is best you know as little as possible and jump right into it. My review will cover some of the gameplay mechanics that occur later in the game, so consider yourself warned.
Inscryption is a puzzling game…in that it is a puzzle game. The best way to describe Inscryption would be a narratively driven, meta, card, puzzle game. A messy description, I know, but it is rather difficult to define the game as a whole due to its act structure. Each act changes the mechanics enough to keep things fresh and tell a story.
The Card Game
The game starts off as an atmospheric rogue-like. Players find themselves in a cabin playing a card game with a mysterious opponent. Like other deck-builder rogue-likes, you can choose rooms on a board to visit, add or modify cards in your deck, and do battle.
This a realm of kill or be killed. Most cards have a blood cost, requiring the player to sacrifice their own creatures to summon stronger ones..It is creepy, dark, but oh so engaging!
The board has four lanes in which cards can be placed. While the player only has one row, the opponent has two. One for active creatures and another that shows what creatures will move to the front line when there is an empty space below them. When a turn ends, creatures automatically attack those directly across from them.
An interesting twist on the formula is that neither the player nor the opponent have an HP bar. Instead damage is tracked on a tug-of-war scale. When direct damage is dealt, the scale ticks toward the receiving player. However, the scale is shared between both players in the game, resulting in a tug-of-war to the death.
Cards are not simply about their stats. Most cards have special abilities that drastically effect play styles. The Cat can be sacrificed infinite times, but can still be killed by opposing monsters. The Elk will move as far right and left on the board as it can after attacking. The Adder can instantly destroy a beast with one attack.
At certain points on the map, players can sacrifice cards and move abilities to another card, resulting in super cards with up to two effects. Sacrifice a Cockroach so your Cat will now return to your hand when killed. Give your River Snapper a guard ability due to its high HP. It is incredibly fun figuring out synergies and discovering absolutely broken combinations.
And that is what Inscryption is all about. This is not about a perfectly balanced card game. Inscryption wants you to stumble into and learn broken combinations. What is more fun than mowing down your opponent with your never ending supply of cats?
In between battles, the player can get up from the table and explore the cabin room. There are various required puzzles to solve with a little escape room flair. The puzzles were not too difficult, though I have gotten stuck and wasted a lot of time not realizing I could progress the story by doing something.
The Twist (Spoilers)
Now you might be thinking, “Wow Frost, this sounds great! I love rogue-likes!” And this is where Inscryption barges into your room, yanks open your blinds, rips your warm blanket off, and whispers in your ear,
“So…do you like trading card games?”
And then it lost me. The art style changed, the tone and atmosphere changed, and the game stopped being a rogue-like and became a collectible card game with some light grinding and planning your deck before a battle. The exact kind of card games I frankly do not enjoy that much. It is a hit or miss curve ball that has made some players feel tricked by false advertising.
Interestingly, the core card battle mechanics are amped up with new mechanics. New deck types and cards are introduced, player cards can be manually cleared off the field, and money is more important than ever for buying new cards. There is no penalty for losing anymore as you can open your menu, tweak your deck, and try again immediately.
All in all, it works…but I can’t help but feel the game was much more enjoyable when things were simpler.
I felt torn for the rest of my playthrough. I actually considered dropping the game since I was enjoying it less and less, but, for review purposes and my own curiosity, I kept on trucking to see where this was all going.
So, why are we playing cards with a weird guy in a cabin? The player is actually trapped and is being forced to play cards until they beat the stranger. If they lose? Well, you will find out soon enough.
Those familiar with this developer know that there is usually a meta narrative involved in their games to some degree. By meta, I mean that the game knows it is a video game and uses that setup to pull off some neat tricks and gimmicks.
In addition, there is an entire ARG (Alternate Reality Game) going on in the background. Live action videos starring card fanatic, Luke Carder, play a role in telling this narrative. As with many ARGs, hidden codes and internet wild goose chases are par for the course. The live action video segments felt like awkward skits with friends which detracted from serious scenes that were supposed to invoke tension.
The tension was riveting. The stranger across the table is often just a floating set of eyes STARING and watching your every move. The best horror, in my opinion, is when you cannot see the monster and instead your brain fills in the gaps of what it COULD be.
The stranger dons different masks and takes on the role of different characters, like a dungeon master. The sound design plays into this as their creepy bleeps and bloops change as they change roles.
Cards felt alive. Squirrels would winced upon being sacrificed, accepting their sad fate. Others have dialogue and it feels wrong to sacrifice them, even if it is the right play.
The ambient music tracks were suffocating and bleak. Boss fights felt intense with reverberating drums and horror stinger sounds. The Foley work was well done as items would slam and clang on the table, gold teeth would satisfyingly plop in your money bowl and cling off of each other, every tick of the health meter reverberates menacingly in your ears. While I enjoyed the later acts less, the sound design was still satisfying and on point.
I’m not sure what to say about Inscryption other than it was personally disappointing. I wanted a dark rogue-like game with some story to go with it, and it WAS THAT…until it wasn’t. Not to say I think the game is bad. I actually think many people will absolutely love it.
Inscryption simply lost its charm. The twisted game turned hollow. My immersion was and, aside from a few cool fights, I found myself going through the motions trying to finish the game and mark it off my list.
Update (12/16/2021): A free mini-expansion called Kaycee’s Mod sets out to please fans of the rogue-like experience in Act 1 by offering increasing challenges and more content for this part of the game. The feature is currently in beta.
Note: GameOctane received a digital code from the publisher for the purpose of reviewing this game. Any code or product intended for review is distributed to the team to review and stream for our audience. All opinions therein are from the author alone.
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- Absolutely creepy, dark, lovely atmosphere
- Gameplay keeps evolving as you play in interesting ways
- Interesting twists on the card game genre
- Great sound design across the board
- Ability icons always have description tool tips available
- Gameplay twists that never feel as good as the first Act
- Loses some atmosphere and engagement in the middle
- Intriguing narrative, though not very memorable
- Awkward acting in live action segments
- Meta elements that basically require looking at online forums
- Minor UI and control issues at times
- A few confusing puzzles and unclear progression requirements