Wednesday, November 10, 2021

[Review] The Bizzare, Ever-Shifting, Folk Horror Card Game ‘Inscryption’ is a Delectable Descent Into Weirdness

‘Not everything is at it first appears’ is a common tool in horror-led storytelling, but in Daniel Mullins’ folk horror-styled Inscryption, it’s less a tool, and more the entire toolbox. I’ll say this right now, go into Inscryption as cold as you can. Hell, don’t read another word here if you want the optimal experience. It’ll be worth it.

With almost nothing in the way of preamble, Inscryption plops you down across a table from a pair of eyes lurking in inky darkness, and has you begin a card game you know next to nothing about, and not-so-vaguely threatens mortal punishment for failure. Oh, and it’s also kind of a board game too, with a playing piece moving across paper maps, choosing paths to battles, bonuses, and hungry men huddled around a campfire. When you fall to the mysterious stranger in card-based battle, you find yourself back at the table, and back at the start of the game.

With the deck stacked against the player in more ways than one, it’s no surprise that sooner or later, failure is coming, and that’s when you start to figuratively creep towards a very deep-looking rabbit hole of the weird and the unsettling. Some of the playing card critters can talk, and they’re looking to escape this situation just as much as you.

Soon it becomes clear that while you’re imprisoned here in a seemingly endless loop of rogue-lite death you are not confined to the table, and can move around the log cabin the game is situated in, and are able to interact with objects contained within it that could prove useful in getting out of the cabin. So now you have a card game, a board game, and an escape room bundled into one, and even this barely touches the opening of that aforementioned rabbit hole.

For now, though, this is as far as you need to go. To descend any deeper into that hole would take away too much from the experience, so let’s just head back to that table in that cabin and examine that a bit more, shall we?

Inscryption’s card game is based on woodland creatures and cryptids, so you get squirrels, wolves, otters, ravens, and the like alongside some unsettling, unspeakable creatures. At its core,  the card game follows the same rules as most. Cards have hit points and damage points, and there’s usually a cost involved in using them that scales depending on that card’s power. You play on a board of 12 spaces, four for you in a row, with four for the stranger, and the middle four where his cards come to attack. If there’s an empty space to attack it deals directly to the player in the form of teeth that go onto a scale sat on the table. Whoever gets five teeth in front wins the match, which leads to plenty of nervy battles that can see someone on the brink of defeat in one turn end up crushing their opponent just two moves later.

The cost of cards is in blood sacrifice. Squirrel cards, for instance, only exist to be sacrificed, and each of those is worth one drop of blood towards a sacrifice. Obviously, the better the card, the higher the cost, and if there’s not enough of those bushy-tailed rodents in your hand, or not enough space on the board for them, then you could always sacrifice a  low-level card to accommodate. Each animal has its own basic attack and defense patterns, such as the Mantis that can attack left and right of its space, or the raven that can fly above enemy cards and deal direct damage. Most are fairly ordinary, to begin with, but as the playing piece progress across Inscryption’s maps, there’s plenty of opportunities to grab more exciting cards and discover ways to augment the cards you’ve been dealt.

On the map, there are stops that pitch you into battle against the stranger (who has a penchant for playing every role in his story) and others where you find ways to improve your deck. There are ritual sacrifices of one card’s special ability to give to another, pelts to buy in exchange for goods, trials that give you a choice of decent cards if certain requirements are met, and, in one of the creepier aspects of the game, a campfire that boosts a card’s power or health once as they rest by it, but also allows you to gamble on further boosts as extremely hungry survivors draw nearer to the animal. Losing a card to that gamble sees a brief, but graphic, description of what those people did to your poor animal card. 

Each map culminates in the stranger putting on a particular mask to become the boss fight enemy. These battles further twist the rules to suit the stranger, throwing in special abilities designed to upset your best-laid plans. For instance, the first encounter against a crazed prospector starts in a fairly standard manner, but when you take the first of his two lives (you also get two in general play, but for boss fights, it turns into a one-life attempt) he starts the second by turning any cards you have on the board into gold that has no attack power and rids you of whatever cards you previously had for the rest of the battle. So if you were unfortunate enough to have played some of your better cards to get out in front early on, it’s now left you at a bit of a disadvantage.

The room itself holds tools you’ll need in order to turn the tide more effectively, so figuring out how to solve its puzzles in-between rounds is essential. As you progress, the cabin itself begins to show subtle changes, and the talking cards you acquire look a little different. The cabin is small enough that you can see everything it holds pretty quickly, but there’s always something in it that offers a dark juicy secret you can’t yet uncover. The drip-feeding of whatever story is behind your incarceration in this cabin, and the personal history of your captor is done with just the right amount of ambiguity and offbeat swerving that drives the desire to beat your captor and discover more. By the time you do get to the point you think the answers are all there, Mullins throws in a wriggling sackful of new questions.

The game’s second act shifts into something quite different, which if you’ve played Mullins’ Pony Island should be somewhat unsurprising, but it’s commendable that this turn isn’t some shock value grab for attention, but a natural, and delightfully absurd, progression of what the game has really been about. I can imagine it’ll be a little too jarring for some, and for a brief window, it does feel like it knocks the wind out of the game’s narrative momentum. Thankfully, it soon recovers from that breather to continue going wild in the aisles.

Inscryption’s constant shifting lends plenty to the game’s atmosphere of dread and unease. For a large portion of my time with it, I felt like I was on the back foot, surviving against a malicious entity, and having my hopes built up just so they could be dashed against the hard, sharp rocks of defeat. That small amount of freedom in the cabin manages to make it even more like a prison and adds to the sense the stranger is reveling in toying with his prey over and over again.

There could be an argument it outstays its welcome, and I’d understand that as a criticism, but personally, the ambition and invention put into the ever-expanding nuttiness on display in Inscryption makes this a forgivable sin. Inscryption has breezily waltzed into the game of the year conversation for me thanks to its ever-changing blend of folk horror-infused card-battling, dark humor, and its increasingly strange, yet compelling story.

Inscryption is out now on PC via Steam.


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