Review: Inscryption

Back in 2016, Daniel Mullins quickly made a name for themselves with Pony Island, a brilliant indie title that impressed everyone with its surreal, creepy vibes, a bizarre yet successful blend of genres, and a captivating story with unique meta twists about the nature of games themselves. It was a joy to play, and as can be seen via the link back there, it was also a nightmare to review. It was one off those titles that was so offbeat and jam-packed with surprises that you had to go into it blind, just taking our word for it that it would be genius. And after a similar game with The Hex, Daniel is now back with what may be their biggest game yet, Inscryption. And once again, it’s an insane masterpiece that easily challenges those who dare review it.

Inscryption begins with you inside of a mysterious cabin alongside one other person, Leshy. You can’t get a view of who they are, as all you can see is their glowing eyes in the middle of a pool of jet-black darkness. They invite you to play a card game with them…though it’s not like you have a choice. It’s a simple game. You place down creatures on a two by four grid, sacrificing others to bring in stronger creatures according to their cost, attacking opposing empty spaces in order to damage your opponent or other creatures that occupy that space. Each creature has varying attack and defense levels, and certain sigils that can grant them special abilities. Deal enough damage to unanimously tip a scale in your favor, and you win, proceeding to travel along a map in order to gain new cards, buffs to existing cards or other items that can help you along the way.

Simple stuff at first, but as one can guess, it doesn’t stay simple, although we don’t want to explain exactly why that is. After a certain point, Inscryption proceeds to take things in many different directions, both from story and gameplay standpoints, and yes, once again a Daniel Mullins game has become difficult to review because of all of the various twists. Now, if you’ve seen certain bits glimpsed in freeze frames in any of the game’s official trailers, you might think you’d have some idea of what’s to come, and might have an idea of what could possibly happen. And you would be wrong. One way or another, Inscryption will throw you for a loop.

Inscryption is notable, however, in that even throughout all of its various insanity, the main gameplay focus is on deckbuilding and playing card games. It’s just that as you progress, different mechanics, restrictions, formats, etc begin to appear. And with that, suddenly you have to adapt to opponents with different attack strategies as well. One benefit you have is that you can see which cards your opponent is about to play, allowing you to prepare, but you still have to properly manage as varied and balanced a deck as you can in order to succeed against anything thrown at you. As Inscryption progresses, it somehow hits that sweet spot of being simple yet complex in all of the right ways. Some might make obvious comparisons to the likes of Slay the Spire, and while that may be valid, it becomes clear that this is a type of card game properly paying ode to the likes of the greats such as Magic: The Gathering, and clearly has enough hard work put into its card game to the point where it could easily stand on its own, even without the creepy cabin trappings and maps filled with various tricks and treats.

Of course, while you can stay on the map and go for various pit stops along the way that can provide buffs such as combining two identical cards to create one stronger card, sacrificing one creature so another one can gain its sigil, purchasing pelts with currency gained via excess damage that be be traded for rare cards later, and more, even greater goods are found when you get up from the table in between matches and walk around. Inscryption also combines escape room action on the side, allowing you to look around the cabin and solve various puzzles not just to gain certain items useful in progressing the story, but rare cards and items that can give you an advantage in battle if you know how to use them. They’re particularly well-crafted puzzles as well, sometimes requiring a little outside-the-box thinking, sometimes as easy as looking up a code, but always enjoyable.

And once you have the various rewards earned either through puzzles or places to visit on the map, you can then indulge in the greatest joy of any deck-building game: finding the best combination of cards and/or trinkets and items that allow you to straight up wreck the game as much as possible. For this writer, it was the joy of unlocking a special squirrel totem that, when given to a woodcarver on the map, can be combined with any of any of the other totem parts given to have all squirrels in the deck gain a certain sigil, like other animal totems. Here, though, one of the sigils offered was one that returns cards bearing them back your hand when killed off in any way. And thus, things began to click.

Squirrels are the only creature that can be played without a sacrifice or prior death, as you choose each turn to draw from either a standard deck of creatures or one with nothing but squirrels, either getting a new combatant or more sacrifice fodder that can bring those combatants into play. Usually, this only means playing one or two squirrels per turn, and thus only one or two creatures sent into play. But with my new totem, I could play them for no cost, sacrifice them, then have them immediately pop back into my hand in order to do it again. A near-infinite loop of squirrels, allowing for a near infinite army of wolves, ravens, molemen and even the squirrels themselves, since they also provided the perfect, cheap defense now.

This is just one example of the types of impressive, insane and enjoyable strategies that Inscryption allows, and figuring them all out is a joy. With my newfound infinite squirrel army that was in a constant flux of life and death, I was able to plow through all of the bosses by properly utilizing said army, and had reached the supposed end in no time (in hindsight, this would actually explain why my initial playthrough clocked in at just over ten hours, as opposed to the estimate of fifteen to twenty hours that was given). But as mentioned earlier, a strategy like this still only gets you so far before things change in strange ways.

Aside from providing a brilliant card game, the other thing Inscryption succeeds in is being surprisingly unnerving. And the impressive thing is how it’s all done via various forms of black comedy. Certain special cards you come across begin speaking to you in snarky tones, but it becomes clear that something was done to them. The bosses you face see Leshy donning bizarre wooden masks and adopting personas such as that of an old-timey prospector, but with looks and tones that plays things for laughs, but also makes you think that these people will have no problem with killing you. Leshy is basically this twisted dungeon master, playing it and clearly having a ball.

Oh and that part we mentioned earlier about currency earned via damage? That currency comes in the form of teeth, which are also used to measure damage, seemingly getting knocked out of each player’s heads. And one item you can collect to deal extra damage is a pair of pliers to use on yourself. The part about combining two cards? That comes from a pair of insane mycologists who literally stitch two halves of the cards right down the middle. Occult symbols appear, card buffs are granted by cannibals, and all of it is played for balances of laughs of shudders. A highlight being a moment where Daniel once again shows off how to properly play off of your paranoia. It was a moment where even if I knew what was presented on the screen wasn’t real, it was actually enough to get me to quit the game for a while, questioning if they’d actually dare to go certain places, afraid to come back. And it was brilliant.

The horror vibes are further amplified by the aesthetics, which are dead-on perfect as well. The dark setting, the use of Leshy’s eyes, the fifth-gen styled graphics and the use of older media to play up the creep factor, the ear-pleasing atmospheric soundtrack that highlighted everything, the shifts in lighting when you enter certain areas and take on bosses, even all of the various props used around the settings, all of them work together perfectly in order to chill you to the bone at just the right level. It’s a unique and brilliant horror tale, one that has you in a death grip until the very end, where it truly shocks you in ways you didn’t expect. And keep in mind that there could be hidden secrets and endings that could possibly make it even scarier, but even as is, Inscryption’s story is a possible horror classic.

Closing Comments:

Inscryption manages to combine an expertly-crafted card game, a nail-biting tale of horror and enjoyable escape room adventures into another genre-defying gem and easily one of the year’s best games. Whether you come for the gameplay and strategy, the story and atmosphere, or both, you’ll walk away awestruck at the sheer, brilliant madness you just experienced. Daniel Mullins does it again, and once again, we urge readers not to read the reviews or other coverage as much as possible and just go in blind, experiencing this twisted odyssey for yourself. You’ll be glad you did.