Play Your Cards Right

HIGH Finally getting the right deck to defeat the magician.

LOW Not being able to shake the magician’s hand.

WTF Threatening my files is not cool.

Daniel Mullins is the kind of developer that can be easily recognized after playing thirty seconds of one of his creations. His passions are evident, and above all, his biggest interest seems to be… glitches.

Before Inscryption was Pony Island (based around a haunted arcade cabinet) and the more baroque The Hex, which mixed several genres into a sort of metanarrative on the value of videogames and their creators. Indeed, despite their differences in content, all of his works pretend that they’re buggy, or about to crash and burn. He’s even used Steam’s friendlists to great effect. In this sense he’s a bit of a magician, and his tricks are good.

Mullins’ latest creation would initially seem to play like a classic deckbuilder — The first act of the game is seen from a first person perspective, the player creates a deck of animal-related cards (bears, moles, birds, etc.) and will combat opponents in turn-based fashion. Each card has attack and health points, along with special power ups. The first player to tip the scale while dealing more than 5 points of direct damage to the opponent wins.

Inscryption also presents the player with a map, and as one moves around, there will be opportunities to gain more cards, swap old ones for new ones, gain extra powers (like dealing direct damage to attackers or having extra shields), fusing cards together to make them stronger, and more. The objective is to get to the boss of each stage and defeat it.

While this basic setup might seem similar to any number of deckbuilders currently available, there’s a catch — the opponents are divine beings that control several aspects of the videogame itself. It soon becomes evident that things aren’t as simple as they first seem, but I’m hesitant to say more. Sharing even vague details on what happens beyond the first few hours will spoil the surprise, but let me say that anyone wanting just a deckbuilder should probably look elsewhere.

Of course it should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Mullins’ work that Inscryption is about more than cards — again, he touches on themes related to the relationship between creator and creation and, naturally, the role of the player sitting in front of the screen. Indeed, this is one of these rare cases where the personality and will of a creator is so evident that trying to recommend Inscryption to people who have never played one of Daniel’s previous games is problematic.

Along the same lines, I would imagine some prospective players might be perturbed about Inscryption‘s marketing, which seems to position it as a horror deckbuilder with RNG mechanics. This does efficiently describe the first act, but there is so much more to it after that. As such, when viewed solely as a deckbuilder, the gameplay could be described as frustrating or even unfair, but maybe that’s the point — Daniel often suggests that there is much more at stake than play in his games.

Overall, Inscryption probably feels more like a traditional videogame than his previous works, but it’s a more difficult experience, with much relying on one’s luck and the RNG. While I believe deckbuilder fans could be interested, this is likely of more interest to connoisseurs of weird or strange narratives. I’ll leave it at that since saying more would likely spoil the trick, and like any good magician, I’m guessing that Mullins is loath to have his secrets revealed so easily.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Daniel Mullins Games and published by Devolver Digital. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on PC. Approximately 15 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: The game is not rated by the ESRB, but it contains violence, blood and mild horror with enemies like vampires and mummies. Considering the suffocating atmosphere and some body dismemberment that happens quite early on, I would definitely recommend the game for an adult audience.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game features subtitles for all spoken (and non) dialogue, but unfortunately some of the subtitles can be glitched and difficult to read. (See examples above.) The effect can be lessened in the options menu. Text cannot be resized. In my view, the game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: The game is mostly controlled with the mouse in the deckbuilder battles, along with classic FPS controls for the first person sections: WASD to move around, and the mouse to interact with the objects. It is not possible to remap the controls.

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