Some of you readers may know by now that I am not a huge fan of deckbuilders or any sort of card game. Breaking into the genre is proving to be more difficult than imagined, and few titles are really clicking for me. That doesn’t mean I hate the deckbuilding genre, because I am willing to dip a toe in and eventually submerge my entire body into this pool of cards. One of which I played last year and got me into deckbuilders. Slay the Spire. It had a simple premise to destroy a mysterious tower spiraling into the sky, but lots of complexity and mechanical depth lying underneath. It was fun to figure out what synergy of cards worked together and had the right amount of challenge to reward the player for when they overcame a challenging floor. It was a great game, but I never really beat it. Probably due to the roguelike aspect and how a few screw ups before a powerful boss fight would mean the end of a steady run. I don’t hate the roguelike aspect of Slay the Spire, and it kept my interest longer than a majority of other roguelikes. However, if we were to do a combination between a roguelike and a deckbuilder, I want it to have both mechanical depth and satisfying progression. Also not saying Slay The Spire is not satisfying to play through. Thankfully, I did find a deckbuilding roguelike that satisfied my needs. One that I’ve been keeping a keen eye on since it was revealed. A deckbuilding roguelike that I actually managed to finish. I played through the entire game recently and it may just be one of my favorite games that came out last year. That game was Inscription by Daniel Mullins.
Daniel Mullins is a solo independent developer who has been working his way up the ladder for the past five years. His work isn’t that well known, but he’s well respected for what he has achieved. I love independent games and developers, but I especially respect solo developers. Making a game is hard enough with a small team and low budget, but making a game all by yourself is another subject. It means you have to be talented at programming, writing, music, art design, and much more. You have to worry about all the major elements to a game. It can be stressful work, but somehow solo developers manage to pull through and create incredible experiences. Greg Lobanov created the wholesome narrative driven adventure Wandersong, and last year he also made Chicory: A Colorful Tale. Justin Stander made the stylish mind-bending acid trip that is Katana Zero and is currently making an expansion. Then there is Lucas Pope who made Papers, Please, a bureaucratic border patrol simulator with some competent world building and Return of The Obra Dinn one of the most innovative and most well-made detective games ever made. Yep, I just spent a paragraph rambling on about solo devs. I really respect these individuals and Daniel Mullins is a great exception to this category.
Some of Daniel’s early work includes a simple pixel management game called Keep It Alive, where you must drive a train through dangerous territory while making sure a heart in the back corner doesn’t die out. After that he began his first big game named Pony Island. It was released back in 2016 to little attention, but underneath the silly name was an intriguing game. You play as a deceased soul slowly being wrapped in the devil’s grasp and forced to play an arcade game designed to take your soul. However, another soul teaches you to write the game and hopefully be the devil at his own game. It was an interesting way to tell a story and teach players what it is like to program a video game, and Daniel Mullins would expand this trippiness with his next release The Hex. Six video game protagonists across different genres are having drinks at a bar, but the owner receives a phone call stating someone will commit a murder that night. You help the six protagonists scavenge for clues, but at the same time figure out how they all fell from grace. At first the game starts as a murder mystery, but soon delves deep into the video game industry and all the problems that arise from it. Showing us how corrupt greed and corruption plants deep even in lighthearted individuals. Both games were really cool concepts, and Daniel Mullins was showing off as much creative genius as possible. His next game would be a little more than a narrative focused experience. It would be his next game yet.
Back in 2018, before the official full release of The Hex, Daniel decided to participate in a game jam where the main theme was sacrifices. During this time Daniel got back into playing Magic: The Gathering, a popular fantasy card game, and decided to base his game jam project on the sacrifice mechanics in Magic and make a card game entirely centered on sacrificing cards to gain the upper hand. There were high downsides for the high risks you played, but strategizations would be the key to victory. Daniel soon published his project on itch.io and it gained immediate attraction. People loved this new concept and found the sacrifice mechanic to be a fun twist to deckbuilders. Daniel knew the idea had potential, so after The Hex came out, he decided to take his game jam creation and turn it into a full game. He eventually partnered up with big time publishers Devolver Digital, basically the A24 of the video game industry, to get his game out to the public. During E3 2021, Daniel revealed his new game centered around sacrifices. Originally titled Sacrifices Must Be Made, his new roguelike deckbuilder was known as Inscription. It was a mashup of deckbuilding, horror, genre blends, and anything else you can imagine. Hype was building up for Inscription and when the game finally came out it didn’t disappoint. A lot of critics loved what Inscription had to offer, and stated it was one of the most unique games to come out during 2021. It was nominated for multiple end-of-the-year award ceremonies and some even chose it as a Game of The Year candidate. Inscription was special and I’m so glad that I finally played it. This review is going to be a little hard without mentioning spoilers, so I’ll have a section diving into the later sections of the game. Okay? Okay. Today I want to talk about why I absolutely love Inscription and why you must absolutely play it. Stack your deck, pull a tooth, lose an eye, and prepare to face the many beasts that lie down the road.
Before the game can start you hear a voice in the background. You aren’t told who this voice is and why he is chiming in, but it sounds like he is preparing something. The game’s menu screen appears before you and you can now start the game. The new game button isn’t a viable option as it is dysfunctional. Probably just a bug that will be fixed later. You choose to hit the continue button and we are then dumped into a dark, cold, empty room.
There’s nothing much in this room. Just a wooden table in front of you. Suddenly a pair of eyes in the fair distance creak open, and once these eyes are fully awake, they zoom in towards the table. Someone else is in this room and they welcome your presence with a deep echoing pitch. The shadowy being tells you to play his game and he’ll reward you handsomely if you beat it. He teaches you the rules of the card game. Place down weaker cards and sacrifice them to play stronger cards. The cards are represented with different creatures and living organisms, but upon sacrificing one of your starting cards it begins to speak. Before you can even investigate further the card disappears. The being wraps up the basics and plots a chart onto the board. He makes up a journey for you, the player, to enjoy and partake in.
You journey down a forest path with a gang of wild beasts, hoping to reach the end and make a safe haven. The being gives you more tools and cards as the game goes on, but even though he is giving you more strength the game isn’t getting any easier. He has a couple tricks up his sleeves and before you know it you are forced to lose. He then tells you to fetch a candle as you are allowed to die two times before the game is over. He allows you to walk around the room and take your time. You find yourself in a cramped wooden cabin, but you have this eerie feeling while wandering around. Who is this man and why is he forcing us to play his game? Why are there no windows in the cabin and why is it dark? Why are there no other individuals inside the cabin? What’s with the only door out of the cabin being locked up, and what’s the ominous flashing light being this locked door? You fetch the candle, sit back down, and play more of this being’s game. You eventually lose again and the shadowy being knocks you unconscious. You are dragged into another room unable to get back up. The shadowy being tells you to fill out a card and sign your names on it. He says that all it needs now is a photo. He pulls out a camera and snaps your picture. Your life signs going out in the background as the screen flashes white.
You wake up at the table again, but this time the being addressed you as another individual. He says the last person at the table lost, but maybe the newcomer can get further. You are given the starting deck again, but one of your cards begins talking to you. The Stoat, a weak sassy little creature, states that the being sitting at the table is crazy and he’ll keep the player in the room as long as he can. The Stoat says that the player must find a way to escape the cabin, but for now we must play along with the being’s deadly game of cards. The Stoat also tells us that other sentient cards hide in the cabin, and by solving the several puzzles in the room we may find them and they may have a plan to escape. That’s what we decided to do. We die repeatedly until we find the way out of the cryptic cabin. For sacrifices must be made.
Inscryption is a deckbuilder roguelike and hopefully you know how roguelikes work. You start off each run with a small deck of weak cards and as you progress further your deck gets bigger. Possibly getting stronger cards to counter more difficult obstacles. If the player dies before they reach a boss, they lose one out of two of their lit candles. If they die a second time or die during a boss, then they are killed. The being in the cabin then drags them to a room and has the player fill out the stats to a card using cards already in their deck. They then transform the player into a death card and the run is over. Forcing the player to start back from square one.
That’s how Inscription works, but let me go into full depth how a run plays out. You are put onto a forest path and can click onto what point to move towards next. You can somewhat see what points lie ahead, and sometimes there may be a split pathway offering the player choice on what sights they want to visit or what items they may want to pick. Points with skulls on them mark an upcoming fight and when the player lands on them they are forced into a battle.
The player is given four rows to place down their cards. Each turn the player draws a card from the pile, and when their turn is over, they can ring the bell in the corner. Creatures that the player places down onto the board will attack the opponent’s side, and during the opponent’s turn they will play cards they have and attack your side. When tiles with no creatures placed down onto them take damage a golden tooth will be placed onto a scale. The goal of each battle is to weigh down your opponent’s side of the scale first. If he does it first, then you lose. Most creatures deal physical damage, but they require sacrifices to be played. The only card you can play that has a free cost are Squirrels, and they die in one hit and do no damage. However, you can sacrifice the Squirrels to play down stronger cards. For example, The Stoat requires one sacrifice so you can sacrifice one Squirrel. The Wolf requires two sacrifices, but rather than sacrifice two Squirrels, which take more turns to be drawn from the pile, you can sacrifice one Squirrel and the already placed down Stoat. Fights are all about taking risks and a lot of questions may pop up. Should you try to fill all four rows with as many attack creatures as possible or rush out the stronger creatures as fast as possible? Some creatures may have traits or perks that can be incredibly useful. A poisonous bite which kills a creature instantly no matter how high their health is. Thorns that damage the opposing card if attacked. A split attack pattern, so rather than attack the card in front the creature attacks the two diagonal rows. There are even cards that require bones rather than sacrifices. Bones are collected from deceased creatures and can be spent on creatures that use them. This creates even more strategies during combat, and it offers a second resource for the player to work with rather than mainly sacrifices.
Your journey down the main road will drop you at multiple sites and visiting the right places can give you the right cards. You may earn simple cards, cards with flight, cards who dive underwater, rare cards, and death cards. One key aspect of Inscription is that it puts a heavy emphasis on making sacrifices as a mechanic. Your death card for instance is created at the end of each run and can be picked and played on future playthroughs. It means that death/losing can benefit the player and the player can get further if they create an overpowered death card. Other instances would be enchantment sites where you can sacrifice a card with sigils to give another card the traits they have. There are campfires which can increase a creature’s attack power or max health and you can increase it further by sitting longer at the campfire, but risk losing the creature if it jumps away from the fireplace. There is a fusion sight where you can take two duplicates and forge one strong card made of the two. Then there are sacrificial sites for when your deck gets too large. Sometimes you’ll encounter NPCs willing to trade. The Skinner who will give you Pelts in exchange for gold teeth you may have gained through overkill damage. The Trader who will give you new cards for the pets. Then there is the Carver who can help you make totems. The totems activate when certain creature types are in your deck and give the creature of that type a specific perk. Like all wolves will do split damage, or elks can now fly. One totem I made was squirrels having an infinite number of sacrifices, meaning I didn’t have to waste turns plucking them from the pile.
Occasionally you may find supply caches and they will give you items to use during battle. You can carry a maximum of three at all times and they are all one-use items. Like a player that pulls a tooth out to add a point onto the scale. A bottle containing a squirrel card to play, so you don’t have to waste a turn to draw one from the pile. A paper fan to give all your cards the power of flight for one turn. Scissors to cut up an opposing card instantly and much more. Some of these cards are only available once per run, and these are the incredibly risky cards. There is the Angler’s Hook which allows you to drag an opposing card to your side and make it fight for you. Then there’s the Knife which places a lot of points onto the scale but limits your field of view. You can gain a new eye once the battle is over, but the Knife will no longer be usable and a new one cannot be earned from supply caches. Use these items wisely.
You can explore the cabin in between fights and there’s quite a few things to do. Remember that the Stoat said the cards and items that will help you escape are hidden in the room, and it’s your job to find them. Some puzzles are unsolvable at first, but the game will drop hints on how to find the solutions to them first. Solving cabin puzzles will grant you new cards being added into the game, or those key items to activate other objects in the room like the knife. Explore and solve whenever you can, because you want to be able to escape once you defeat the game master.
Finally, there are the bosses which stand between you and progression. You are limited to one life during boss fights and must knock out the opponent two times to win. Bosses will have specific mechanics and rules you must prepare to face, and around phase two is when you play extremely carefully. The Prospector, the first area boss, will kill all the cards you have placed down during phase two and turn them into gold nuggets. Your companion cards will give you tips on how to beat bosses and some of these make them more trivial. The first boss may seem hard due to it being the first area and not having that many cards in your deck. However, if you can kill the mule card as soon as possible you gain more cards to use for the rest of the match. I won’t spoil bosses beyond the Prospector, but these bosses are puzzles as well so understand them quickly. That’s all I have to say right now. Hopefully you can beat the game master and escape the cabin.
Spoiler Section (Mostly Story Elements)
So, this is the section where I talk about later story elements and how Inscription changes as the game progresses. This game is best experienced going blind and I really don’t want to ruin it for any of you who haven’t played this game yet. Try to skip to the next section if you haven’t played Inscription and plan to play it. If you don’t care or have played the game, then stick around. You have been warned dear reader!
The player unlocks two other talking cards similar to The Stoat while exploring the dark cabin, The Stinkbug and Stunted Wolf. They find a film roll hidden away in the cuckoo clock and grab it before the being can spot it. The Stunted Wolf tells the player that they must beat the being before they can escape. When the time is right, they must use the film roll. When the player does beat the being though we hear the voice from before the game started speaking once again. A camera is then knocked over and we are given a series of videos. There is an ARG element to Inscription, otherwise an Alternate Reality Game, and through here we learn what is going on. We aren’t actually the ones playing Inscription. A trading card youtuber named Luke Carder has been streaming the game ever since he got it. He has been collecting cards for years and has quite the following going for him. One day he gets a hold of four packs based on a card game known as Inscription. He knew the card game came out when he was a child, but remembered it had a short lifespan due to unknown causes. He then proceeds to open the card packs and finds one of them to be resealed. A card within the resealed pack has coordinates on it and takes him to a digging site nearby. He finds a floppy disk buried beneath the ground and upon installing it he begins playing a computer game based on Inscription. He is absolutely adoring the game and having a great time, but he looks up if other people have the game he doesn’t seem to find any evidence. Luke finally beats the cabin owner and is dragged into another room. He then has the option to grab the camera stored next to him, and if you manage to get the film roll then you can finally take a picture of the cabin master and turn him into a death card. You find the glowing source of light locked away was the new game button. You press it and immediately Inscription begins to change. From here Luke begins a dangerous descent into the game’s code. Four beings known as Scribes exist and they each have a way to create cards. One of which was the cabin master Leshy, the master of beasts, and he was trying to protect us from what lies behind the scenes. The other three Scribes were the ones transformed into talking cards. Grimora, who controls the undead and writes with her quill. Magnificus, a painter and a magician. Finally, P03, a robot who manufactures his equipment. Luke begins to discover more about why the card game was cancelled years ago and begins to learn some truly disturbing things while playing the game. It’s a horrifying trip into madness and the game makes you want to discover more of it.
During the second act of the game the structure completely changes. The roguelike aspect is removed in favor of simple adventuring, and there are a couple new mechanics introduced. You can now pick up card packs which randomly give you five cards. Your deck can now be selected through a screen, and you are allowed to retry a battle as much as you want. There are two new resources during battle. Batteries which charge up each turn and allow you to play strong robot cards. Then there are gems which can be placed onto the board and power up magic-based cards. The hammer is a tool that can be used to kill any card you place instantly. Meaning you can clear up space for other cards or build up bones much faster. Eventually the formula of the game changes again and while I don’t want to spoil too much I might as well explain some more mechanics. Like a much proper upgrade system for cards, a checkpoint and fast travel system, a shop to spend money, and they have a mechanic similar to Dark Souls for when you die you must travel back to the area you died at to recover lost cash. The game keeps changing, but for the better and it helps prevent it from becoming bland. Hopefully, you can uncover the mystery that lies underneath and find the true fate for Inscryption.
I think Inscription is a fantastically well-made deckbuilder and one of the best the genre has seen in a while. Is this game for everyone? To be honest with you, no, but if you give this game a chance then you might just find the reasons why this game is brilliant at what it does. Having a mechanic that focuses around sacrifices helps create a new level of strategization. It makes you reconsider the resources on hand and how you spend them. Should I play multiple smaller creatures, or sacrifice them all to play one strong one? How should I use up my bones? Should I use this item yet or save it for later? Should I go to this location next? Do I sacrifice this card to benefit this other one at a ritual site? This is the type of thinking I get from a game like this. The game is skill based, but it can weigh on random number generation at times. You may get a bad hand or your opponent will place down cards you have no way of countering. Sometimes you may get a card selection that is crappy and be forced to take cards you don’t really want. The death card system is a great mechanic, but also a really flawed one because it means you just have to get a couple good cards during a run and select the stats to make an overpowered one. Usually get a card with high attack power and health, then a card with a low cost or not cost at all, a trait usually the split trait to attack multiple rows at once, and then make a bunch of these and that’s how you break the game as quickly as possible. Death cards are hard to find early on, but you can make enough of them to make overpowered cards pop up more frequently.
I didn’t mind this at all because progressing through Inscryption is really damn satisfying. The game gives you clear advice on how to beat difficult sections or how to solve key puzzles, and overcoming odds is a huge leap towards success as it shows how much knowledge you gained. You may use RNG to break the game, but at the same time you are breaking the unfair rules of the cabin master. You learn to find ways to benefit yourself and rig the game that was rigged from the start. It’s great and it makes the player determined to progress.
The story is surprisingly good. The sense of mystery as to what is lying underneath the surface. Figuring out who is lying to you and who you can truly trust. Discovering the history of this game and the characters that possess it. I won’t spoil it, but I thought the ARG elements were pretty good. Some players may find it cringy due to the reactions the actor creates, but I found it to be interesting and adds depth to the world. Show how the stuff in the game relates to the real world and how it falls apart the deeper you go into the game’s code. Inscription is also a good horror game as well, with how it nails it’s tone and atmosphere. Part of it may be due to the art style and how griddy it looks. It’s this weird mixture between 3D modeling and dark colored inks, and it looks really good especially since the lighting and condensing of the camera helps as well. The sound design is great with each creak and step in the cabin producing a soft echo. Letting you know that you are trapped in a room with a mad card dealer. Inscryption is a great roguelike, maybe a little better than Slay The Spire, but I am glad the game gets rid of that aspect later to focus more on the mechanics and story. It’s not that the roguelike aspect was bad or anything, but there was a point where I just wanted to progress further into the game. It did though and the game surprised me with how it changed. The ending is a real mindf*ck and gets you wondering what you just played, and there are several secrets hidden deep within the story. Stuff that will require research through online forums and articles to fully understand.
My time with Inscription was quite good and my personal runtime wasn’t half bad. A majority of gamers beat Inscription within eight hours, but my playthrough lasted around fifteen hours due to how long it took me to get through the roguelike aspect and beat late game bosses. I didn’t hate the amount of time it took though, because every hour with Inscription was a fun use of my time. I highly recommend Inscryption and it’s a shame Daniel Mullins’ work hasn’t blown up, because clearly this guy knows what he is doing. It’s not a perfect game, because it walks a tightrope between balanced and unbalanced, but it is fun to play and has a lot of cool ideas on display. In the end I am going to give Inscription a 9.5/10 for excellence at best.
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