The best games have perfect clarity. “This is the experience I want you to have,” the game says, and your role as the player is simply to enjoy it while it lasts. Inscryption, the latest game from the maker of the subversive Pony Island, knows this well.
Inscryption, out today on Steam, starts the player not even by allowing them to start a New Game from the menu. Instead, you’re only offered the option to “Continue”, a harbinger of what’s to come.
You soon find yourself in the middle of a locked cabin, sat across from a shadowy, creepy dealer. It’s all very Hand of Fate, but instead of the cards coming to life as a third-person action RPG, Inscryption follows in the footsteps of Slay the Spire‘s deckbuilding.
You start out with a rudimentary deck, a map with no more than two lanes and a string of various creatures you might find in the forest: wolves, cats, squirrels, turtles, and all other sorts of things. Each card has a cost and power of its own, and most of these mechanics will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s played any modern deckbuilder over the last few years.
Where things vary a little — as somewhat implied by the googly eyes peering out of the shadow in the image above — is the horror strewn throughout. To play most creatures on the board, you have to sacrifice a creature that’s already there. Most creatures will have a blood cost, indicating that you have to sack one, two or three creatures before they can be played on the board.
The board is pretty simple, consisting of four lanes. If there isn’t a creature blocking the way, that creature will deal any damage through to its owner. Tip the scales enough in your favour and you’ll win the fight. Similarly, you have two “lives” — although you’ll only ever have one life in the game’s various boss fights.
Your “pathways” on these maps are pretty limited. There’s only really ever two main choices and the amount of potential calculus to make on these runs is supremely minimal compared to something like Slay the Spire or Klei’s roguelike deckbuilder, Griftlands.
But where Inscryption doubles down is the environment. At any point during the map phase, you can press S — like Pony Island, this game is built around mouse and keyboard — and step away from the table:
I’ve kept what’s in the GIF to a minimum to avoid spoilers, but you can immediately see there’s a whole bunch of things around the cabin to interact with. There’s a ton of little puzzles, leveraging your knowledge of how the game’s combat works, objects unlocked through runs, and sometimes your willingness to just click on random things will be rewarded.
You’ll also be given direct hints as you play, although I won’t explain how or why those moments occur. The way Inscryption doles out the little nuggets of information is what adds to its creepy vibe, and the more things are spoiled, the less magical it becomes.
One criticism, however, is that the deckbuilding is probably more reliant on RNG than a lot of other games in this genre. Games like Griftlands or Monster Train make sure to give the player ample opportunity to remove cards from their deck, helping optimise it for the most difficult bosses at the end. Inscryption relies upon you sacrificing creatures to play new cards, so by nature your deck tends to fill up relatively quickly, and over time it’ll fill up with a ton of junk.
That ruins some of your agency, and it’s not helped by how a lot of the map interactions work. Often you’ll be choosing from a small selection of cards that might not always fill the roles you need. Sometimes your deck will quickly become stacked with cards that have too high a cost either in blood or bones (bones are acquired every time one of your creatures dies, or is sacrificed). There are options occasionally to balance that, either by sacrificing cards and their sigils (special abilities) for other cards, and sometimes by sacrificing two cards of the same type to form a more powerful, single card.
But there’s a lot to balance. The way sigils work can be extraordinarily powerful, or completely unhelpful, depending on what you’ve drawn. The cat, seen above, has an infinity icon that indicates it stays on the board after being sacrificed. That’s extremely handy — and even more powerful if you can get the sigil attached to your squirrels, which are a secondary deck you can draw from that basically serve as fodder to get out your bigger wolves, bears, fliers and so on.
But the more and more I go on about Inscryption, the more it’ll slightly sour the experience. Like Pony Island, Inscryption is an experience best enjoyed cold. Stop reading, go and grab Inscryption, and have a blast when it launches on October 20. It’s blend of creepy horror, interactions, blood sacrifices and the pixel-art aesthetic is one of the most entertaining things you’ll play all year.
Off you go, now — and don’t forget to smile for the camera. Or don’t. It doesn’t make a difference anyway.