All card games have one element in common: There is always something to lose. When the game is for fun, every player is constantly losing time they could spend doing other things. In a Las Vegas casino, it takes money to win money, but not every player is going home a rich man. In the 2021 indie game “Inscryption” by Daniel Mullins, your life is on the table, but even if you bite the dust, you will still come back for another round.
The greatest strength of “Inscryption” is the amount of mystique it entails, and it is best gone into blind. The only thing that is apparent from the start is that while you are playing, you sense there is something wrong. For the most part, it carries the familiar deck-building formula from games like “Hearthstone,” but “Inscryption” places it on an altar and casts a malevolent spell on it.
Each battle occurs in a grid. Your goal is to deal more damage to the opposing side’s spaces that are not accompanied by the enemy’s cards. Meanwhile, you must ensure your side does not take too much damage. All cards have a set health, attacking power, and a sigil to represent their ability, like a wing for airborne attacks. You need to diversify your deck and hope that you draw the necessary cards when the time is right. However, it is worth noting that you must sacrifice some cards—mostly squirrels—to put others down due to their cost of blood.
Whenever you are not battling, you are forced to navigate a map with branching paths that have benefits and threats. One path may allow you to empower one of your cards and then fight a big encounter, and another may grant items before you fight against enemies with modified sigils. All of it leads to intriguing boss battles that are easier to lose, complete with the opposition having nasty tricks up their sleeves. The Angler is a standout because he steals your recently-placed card with his rusty fishing hook to use against you. Therefore, you will be wasting squirrels or your weakest cards to lessen the impact.
Failure results in being sent back to the beginning, but it never feels like a hard reset. Something is usually different for every run, whether it is uncovering weaknesses or learning the lore. Regardless, you will only come back stronger. That being said, “Inscryption” gracefully blends the roguelite and deck-building genres together into something never seen before.
Even when you are not at the table playing cards, “Inscryption” has taken your interest by its hand and will not let it go.
One memorable moment during downtime happens early on when you notice your Stoat card is talking to you, discussing a “plan” to escape. Doing so, he asks that you find some other sentient cards hidden in the room. “Inscryption” lets you get up and explore your environment because there are secrets in practically every corner.
Another section involves you playing a retro RPG version of “Inscryption,” except without permadeath and has more cards to play. It is simplistic but grants breathing room from such a risky adventure.
In between acts of the story, you are shown found footage of a streamer named Luke Carder, who collected cards of “Inscryption” in real life and managed to mysteriously find the only digital copy of “Inscryption” on a floppy disk. Soon, things get complicated, and you will be asking yourself, “What exactly am I playing?”
The game absolutely knocks its atmosphere out of the park on top of its stylistically dated visuals and riveting gameplay. Here, there are no “throwaway cards,” only potential sacrifices and meat-shields. Being offered the ability to tip the damage scale sounds promising, until you grasp that it comes at the cost of plucking one of your teeth out, or even an eyeball. Even loss has a dreadful spin on it: if you lose, you get sacrificed, and your character gets turned into a card that can be used by the next character.
“Inscryption” is plainly a masterpiece of its craft. Its foundation is built on mystery and gets more chilling as you seek the truth. This all could not be done without its secret ingredient: Looming dread. While it is still a deck-building game, it experiments here and there and does not ruin its value in the process. What it concocts is a questionable, haunted, and genius experience that begs you to sit down and play the cards you have been dealt.