Inscryption is an inky black card-based odyssey that blends the deckbuilding roguelike, escape-room style puzzles, and psychological horror into a blood-laced smoothie. Darker still are the secrets inscrybed upon the cards…
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Reviewed on: PC (Intel Core i5 10400F, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1660, Team T-Force Delta RGB 16GB)
Also available for: N/A
Cast: Kevin Saxby, Tahnee Langshaw
Developer: Daniel Mullins Games
Lead Credits: Daniel Mullins, Jonah Senzel, David Hagemann, Kevin Saxby
When the reveal trailer for Daniel Mullins’ new game Inscryption dropped, it was set within an eerie shadow-ridden cabin, with you, the protagonist, sitting across a creepy tale-teller who forces you into playing a deadly card game. When the game was released on October 20th, the cabin was as promised, and the first few hours (or many depending on the luck of the cards) showcased Inscryption’s immaculate card mechanics and seamlessly interwoven folklore narrative. However, fans of Daniel Mullins’ previous games—Pony Island and The Hex—would know the developer works in the metafictional, and the game we saw in the trailer was only Act 1. In fact, Inscryption takes place over three Acts, and by the end, it manages to transcend conventional game restrictions to deliver a subversive and experimental masterpiece.
Self-described as a psychological horror, Inscryption first tantalises you with trepidation. You learn that the cards in your deck are alive, some even able to speak, warning you of the wicked ways of the tale-teller. The disturbing implications escalate as traversing the map of your tabletop adventure leads you to starved travellers wanting to eat your cards and a cannibal Trapper intending to carve your skin into a pelt. Inscyrption forces you to scrutinise your actions and question the ones of the tale-teller. Taking it one step further, you are forced to sacrifice, torture and transmute your cards or yourself to survive. There is a pressing feeling after playing God that something is wrong.
Undeniably, the atmosphere plays a huge role in sowing doubt. You sit in a dimly lit cabin with the tale teller’s whirling orange eyes and long skeletal arms peeking out from the shadows. Occasionally, the room will change. Creaking trees, hanging dead fish, sharp floating knives crowd the table under gloomy lighting. Out from the shadows, the tale-teller dons his wood-carved masks to personify characters out for your blood. It’s unnerving to see them unhinged, unreliable, and even more so the first time he reaches across the table to kill you. That’s right, Inscryption is a roguelike, but your death has more meaning than you think.
Capitalising on your doubt, Inscryption introduces metafictional hints that lay the foundation for its broader narrative. The ‘new game’ option is unclickable on the main menu, so you’re forced into choosing ‘continue’. Intermittently, you’ll hear the voice of a man that isn’t your own, followed by the malfunction of your screen. You can walk around the cabin solving puzzles that will reveal helpful cards and insights into your situation; however, your progress in the cabin is never reset when you die. You are armed with the same knowledge as your predecessor. Inscryption is committed to breaking the boundaries of its reality, which subsequently entangles you in a web of questions you’re compelled to answer.
Act 1 promises horror and unnerve. It demands your attention through drip-feeding disturbing implications of a horror larger than yourself. However, it’s a mechanism to keep you interested until the grips of curiosity overtake you. Because, ultimately, curiosity is the guiding hand that pushes you through the remainder of the game.
Curiosity comes in the form of constant subversion of expectations. When you’re beginning to familiarise yourself with the mechanics and setting of Act 1, Inscryption pulls the rug out from underneath you and says: ‘start again.’ In a new world, in a new genre, with new card mechanics.
By far, this is the most impressive part of Inscryption. The ability to constantly change its form, style and rules while maintaining a strong vision of itself. Thanks to its metafictional narrative that’s working on multiple layers, Inscryption interweaves plot points from our reality, the games reality, and a place much more profound than both of those. Subsequently, the form these layers embody is heavily experimented with as Mullins ascribes each one with its unique, distinct style and genre while weaving the narrative through them.
Grounding Inscryption from departing into total abstraction is the reliable presence of the card game. Progress ultimately relies on your ability to face foes with a competent deck. While the card game evolves and modifiers are added throughout your playthrough, the premise remains the same: you take turns placing cards on the board, either attacking or defending, with the intent to find an opening to attack your foe directly.