Inscryption has encryptions that defy description.
Daniel Mullins Games are one of those developers that make games that can’t really be explained without spoiling what they’re all about. Pony Island starts out as a game about ponies jumping over fences before becoming something very different. The Hex has game characters meeting at a pub with sinister intentions before destroying any semblance of there being a fourth wall. And now we have Inscryption, a game that starts out as a genuinely excellent card game before going utterly cuckoo crazy at the half-way point.
In the interests of keeping the secrets of this game, I’m going to focus on that first half and avoid any story spoilers. Rest assured that the second half of the game continues to use the same sort of mechanics, but in creatively different ways.
Upon launching the game, you’ll notice that there’s no option to start a new game, only to continue which seems a bit odd, but if you go with it you’ll be dropped straight into the game. You sit in a dark cabin across from a figure swathed in shadow, save their eyes which shift and glow as they speak, explaining the game you’re about to play with them. It seems they’re searching for a worthy opponent in this card based contest, with the ultimate loser facing dire consequences. Over the course of these games, you’ll uncover secrets hidden within the cabin, and within the cards themselves, before attempting to escape from your seeming captor.
The structure of this section of the game is like a cross between a Saw-themed version of Slay the Spire and an escape room. You’ll navigate a node-based map on the table, collecting cards to expand your deck, and facing enemies personified by your shadowy opponent. The map itself is fairly simplistic, with only a few options to go in different directions, but choices are frequent enough to allow you to make informed choices about what node to go to next. Combat is generally unavoidable, but you will get to decide if you want to go for more items to support you in battle, or new cards to expand your deck.
Combat itself is lane based. You’ll place cards on the table facing your opponent, and if you attack them directly, they take damage. If a creature is in the way then they’ll take the brunt of the attack. Creatures can have modifiers that make them cause more damage, have more health, or have special effects like flying or armour. If you out damage your foe — represented by a pair of scales to show the balance of the battle — then you win and move on. Lose, and you’ll sacrifice one of your two lives. I’m sure I don’t need to explain what happens if you lose both.
As I said earlier, there’s more to this than just the card game. Between nodes, you can get up and wander around the cabin, and it’s here that you start to find that things are far stranger than you anticipated. There are secret puzzles on cabinets, and clocks that you can change the time on. Solving these puzzles will give you access to new items and new cards, some of which will speak to you and help you work out how to survive this madness.
And survival is the right word, as you will fail more than a few times as you try to fend off your foe. Your deck simply won’t be powerful enough in your early attempts, but death is not the end. Whilst you will restart the game for another run, at the point of your death you are able to create a new card, using the blood cost — the resource to summon cards — damage and health, and modifiers of your previous cards to create something new and more formidable. I really enjoyed this mechanic, and after a few runs had a dangerous menagerie at my disposal, including a card that could win an encounter in a single strike for a very low cost.
There’s an unsettling atmosphere in the cabin, brought about by the setting itself, and the events that unfold during the game. The scales that represent health has its balance altered by teeth being added to it, and you can manipulate that through an item that allows you to pull out one of your own teeth, or perhaps an eye. Creatures on cards can be stitched together monstrosities that simply shouldn’t exist, some of which tell you of the horrors that have come before.
This is all helped thanks to Inscryption’s distinct art style demonstrated through the cards in all sections of the game, as well as the environment itself. Your opponent moves around in interesting ways to represent the different characters you meet throughout the journey, and the animations when using some of those aforementioned items are somewhat grotesque. Sound too plays a great role here. The limited use of music is effective, and the sound effects are excellent, especially the ambient sounds that play out during events.
Should you complete this section of the game by defeating the fourth and final boss, all bets are off as you are presented with a completely new element to the story presented in a very different way. Inscryption then continues in a way that’s similar, but quite different to what you have done before, granting you more freedom to explore and discover the madness that exists in this world. Saying more would spoil it, but there’s a lot to discover here, both on the critical path and through secret hunting. Of course, first you must defeat that challenging first section.
At times, it feels daunting, as you will lose even when you feel quite powerful, especially when it comes to facing bosses. But persevere and there’s a fascinating fourth wall breaking story that plays with Inscryption’s mechanics in new and interesting ways as you progress. There’s far more than meets the eye, and once you break through that first act, what comes after defies explanation. Ancient gods, conspiracies, and paranoia are all themes at play here, and this is a story worth exploring, especially if you’re interested in ARGs. There’s a community of dedicated players trying to untangle exactly what’s going on if that’s something that you’re into. There’s really nothing else like this out there, and Daniel Mullins Games continue to play with video games as a storytelling medium in interesting ways. I implore you to check this out to discover all those crazy secrets for yourself.
Inscryption is out now on PC.