I don’t know what I expected going into Inscryption (opens in new tab), a bizarre new deckbuilder from Pony Island creator Daniel Mullins, but it wasn’t a talking stoat. Inscryption is a roguelike card game designed to be cleared several times, and after beating it once (which is not actually beating it), I have to see it through. There are so many unanswered questions, most of which sound brilliantly absurd out of context. What’s this ancient knife for? Can I get immortal squirrels again? What’s the deal with the magic camera? Who is this scraggly madman that’s locked me in a cabin to begin with? And we haven’t even gotten to the found-footage horror.
Inscryption is the kind of dream you’d have after playing Slay the Spire for 10 hours and then watching The Blair Witch Project right before bed. Purely as a card game, it’s fairly simple but incredibly cutthroat. Your deck is filled with animals that cost blood to play; the tougher the animal, the more blood you’ll need to play it, from one-blood birds and frogs up to three-blood bears and sharks. You get blood by sacrificing other animals – usually, the squirrel tokens that you draw from a separate, bottomless deck, but sometimes others too. At the end of each turn, you crash your row of up to four animals into whatever’s across from them. Combat is as simple as something like Hearthstone but uses one-sided damage calculation, meaning a 2/1 coyote (that is, one with two attack and one health) could kill a 3/2 wolf unscathed rather than trading.
Tipping the scales
If you attack an open column, you’ll hit the dealer and put some damage on the scale – literally a brass scale sitting right next to you on the gnarled wooden table that you and the dealer use to play this weird-ass game. You win by tipping the scale with five damage – represented with golden teeth piled high – but taking damage will push it back in your direction. This shared health pool can lead to exhilarating finishers where you try to burst the dealer down in one big turn, and also tug-of-war slugfests where you grind out a win by dealing slightly more damage than you take. With a good draw, it’s remarkably easy to win in just one or two turns, but the reverse is also true. Five starting health is not a lot, so if you draft bad cards or brick your opener, you’ll be starting a new run in no time.
Inscryption builds on this simple foundation by introducing new resources and keywords for your animals. You can play some cards by spending bones instead of blood, and these permanent bone tokens are generated whenever your creatures die. A snake with the touch of death will kill anything it damages no matter its health, birds can fly over normal animals to attack directly, an elk may move down the board after attacking, a praying mantis might attack multiple columns at once – there are like 20 keywords in Inscryption, all with a cool, naturalistic logic to them.
The game board adds more wrinkles to your strategy: you choose your path forward based on the encounters you’ll hit on the way. Do you want more one-off consumables to give you an edge in combat? (By the way, one of these items is a pair of pliers you use to rip out one of your teeth for a free point of damage on the scale.) Do you need more cards to fill out your deck? Your cards aren’t shuffled once you draw through them all, so you do need a certain amount of gas in the tank so to speak. Do you want to strengthen one of your critters by a campfire, or sacrifice one to splice its keywords onto another (pro tip: always do this whenever you can)? Do you want to outright remove a card from your deck because it doesn’t fit your plan, or are you willing to temporarily add a worthless pelt card to the mix so that you can trade it at the merchant later on?
These questions build and build and build, and you begin to answer them differently as you encounter new challenges. The boss fights against the dealer’s many personas are no joke, for one. You have to tip the scales multiple times to win these, and winning the first round always activates some wildly unfair rules that force you to think on your feet and will usually checkmate you quite quickly on your first go. Things really ramp up when you start going for overkill damage to earn extra gold you can spend on new cards, framing a perilous balance of safety and greed.
If Inscryption was nothing but a creative deckbuilder with a zoological theme, it would still be good. But it’s the unnerving stuff going on around this simple game that really elevates it. Again, you’re literally playing this game of cards atop a wooden table, and you can physically stand up from that table to explore the log cabin where you’re being held, not unlike a first-person escape room. Without wishing to spoil, you can unlock some pretty critical cards and features through the environmental puzzles scattered around the cabin, so it pays to test your surroundings.
Just as importantly, details and notes hidden in the cabin will advance the plot relayed by the aforementioned talking stoat and his buddies. Early on, this chatty little guy informed me that the shadowy dealer, who not only took me prisoner to make me play in-universe Pokemon but also regularly changes his personality to fit different creepy masks, might have a screw loose. Thanks for the tip, talking stoat, but based on the fact that you’re speaking to me right now, I might not be playing with a full deck myself.
Inscryption allows for some wild strategies, and after beating the dealer with a combination of infinite squirrels and the ability to draw any card I want at any given moment, I can’t wait to see what nonsense I assemble in my next run. Likewise, I desperately need to know what’s going on with this old camcorder stuffed with live-action footage – which I also don’t want to spoil. You know a game is good when you can barely talk about it without spoiling something cool. So yeah, you really should see this for yourself.
Inscryption is out now on PC.