Inscryption is part card game, part horror, and all-consuming

For my first session with Inscryption, knowing nothing about the game and only playing it on the recommendation of a trusted friend, I played for seven hours straight. It meant ignoring my adult responsibilities and most of my bodily functions to do it, but I learned early on that the choice between “eating lunch” and “playing more Inscryption” was a very easy one to make.

Inscryption is a collectible card game (or CCG) like Magic: The Gathering or Hearthstone while also combining elements of roguelikes and hidden object games that’s also an extremely unsettling horror experience. If none of those genres appeal to you, that’s okay. Inscryption blends its various elements together to form an experience so damn compelling that even if the idea of playing a Magic: The Gathering-esque game repulses you, its other parts are enough to keep you rooted to your computer.

There is so much of Inscryption I am desperate to yell about but won’t because a large part of the game’s appeal is the twists and turns that dramatically transform the game from one section to the next. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on what’s going on, the game throws you a massive curveball that shatters all your expectations and forces you to largely forget everything you’ve learned to adapt to new structures. The game is best enjoyed going in knowing absolutely nothing. Continue at your peril.

You start in a dark room talking to a creature of whom you can only see its twisted eyes. It invites you to play cards, gifting you a small starter deck filled with different beasts. Like most CCGs, you play by putting down creature cards that have attack and health values and special attributes that vary from card to card. Each card represents a different animal like deer or ants, and you play them by sacrificing other creatures you have on the board, using them for their blood or bones (yeah, it’s dark). Each time you attack, the damage you do is weighed on a scale. Likewise, damage done to you is also weighed on the same scale. If you inflict enough damage to completely tip the scale against your opponent, you win.

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Tip the scale and you win and there are all kinds of bloody ways to tip the scale in your favor.
Daniel Mullins Games

Once you win the first game, the battlefield changes to reveal a map that looks kinda like a board game, and Inscryption starts to open up. Between card games, you move your piece on the board to different symbols that give you different opportunities to improve your deck and the creatures in it. A very valuable space, for instance, is the one that lets you enhance one type of card in your deck with additional powers. While the idol maker can grant powerful boons to any creature type, your best bet is to use it to enhance an important component of your deck: squirrels.

Inscryption (or at least this part of Inscryption) is centered around animal sacrifice or, more pointedly, survival of the fittest. You cannot play a card without paying its blood or bones cost, and to help earn that currency, you’re given a nest of squirrels to gleefully sacrifice to your heart’s content. They are free to play, but they have no attack power and little health, meaning they exist only as blood or bone sacrifices in order to play bigger, more powerful creatures.

The game tries to make you feel the weight of sacrificing animals to advance. When you need to play a card that requires a sacrifice, the cards already on the board shiver and shake when your cursor (now transformed into a knife) hovers over them. Some of the cards even talk and beg for you not to sacrifice them, or they die solemnly, exclaiming their death was necessary to advance.

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The price you pay for losing is death (and a restart)
Daniel Mullins Games

This early part of the game is unforgiving. If you lose two games, you start over, forced to make new decisions that will hopefully power up your deck better than before. Enhancing your squirrels is the only way to build a powerful enough deck to beat the bosses that lie in wait for you at the end of the game’s four boards. But when you first encounter the idol maker, she doesn’t have a squirrel head to choose from. So how do you get it?

After you lose your first game, the creature lets you walk freely about the room. There are knick-knacks to touch, poke, and otherwise interact with that look suspiciously like puzzles to solve. At this point, you’ve entered part two of Inscryption — the escape room wherein the only way to progress is to solve puzzles to get the items that will allow you to break out of the room you’re trapped in. Just like the card matches, this part of the game is not easy. The puzzle solutions can be very opaque, making it difficult to figure out what you need to do next. Thankfully, you have help. Certain creature cards in your deck talk to you and give you clues. One of them is an annoying stoat who negs you when you make a bad play — just like the tryhards that stalk my local card shop during a Friday Night Magic game and my partner whenever I forget to trigger an instant on his turn.

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Hey, screw you stoat!
Daniel Mullins Games

I didn’t love the escape room puzzles — one in particular is nigh unsolvable without random guessing. But after some trial and error (emphasis on error), I figured them out. Their rewards — powerful cards, the squirrel head, and a knife that instantly damages your opponent for a lot of health at a gruesome cost — break the game wide open.

Inscryption’s appeal comes from the near-limitless ways you can put together a brutally effective deck. It is fun and, even better, easy to assemble a deck that completely steamrolls the creature once you get the right items from solving puzzles. My problem with Magic: The Gathering and other collectible card games is that there’s a high effort to reward ratio. Even accounting for the balance required for a multiplayer card game, there are so many cards and interactions to account for that building a winning deck is extremely difficult. Inscryption cuts out most of the bullshit that comes with traditional deckbuilding games and allows me to get to the good stuff: building a deck so overpowered that I feel like a god.

Inscryption encourages you to build overpowered decks filled with card combos that would be ludicrous to play against in any other kind of card game. Late in the game, I built a deck that essentially granted me an extra point of mana per turn, meaning I could play my high-cost creatures much earlier than normal, reliably killing my opponents by turn three. But Inscryption also seems aware that too much power can actually legitimately break the game. There’s a boss fight that forces you to create card rules that affect all players. I accidentally created a sickening rule that triggered a never-ending loop of random cards entering and leaving the battlefield. Instead of crashing, the game seemed to realize my folly, canceled the rule, and forced me to create a new one. It was disgusting how much fun it was to create decks and rules and creatures so broken the game itself had to step in to stop me.

Inscryption does tell a story. I won’t spoil it, but it’s an interesting, if not creepy, tale that involves death and questionable game development practices. But despite being well-written and unsettling, it wasn’t compelling enough to make me care (which is not ever something I’d normally ever say because paramount to all things, I play video games for their stories). All I wanted was to play more Inscryption. The only reason I know the story at all was because my partner shamed me into going through the story sections instead of just skipping them.

To delve into one significant spoiler: Inscyption’s biggest drawback is that it simply ends. I could play this game forever, but it’s single-player and has a discrete ending that resets the game to the beginning when reached. The game also ends on a bit of a sour note. There’s a point at which it throws so many new game modes at you such that it’s impossible to win. In fact, the game expects you to lose. I hated that. Inscyption’s deck building system is so sublime that I felt cheated when I wasn’t allowed to spend the same kind of time with the new systems that I had with the previous ones.

One of the nicknames for Magic: The Gathering is cardboard crack. It alludes to how deceptively easy it is to spend thousands of dollars amassing the perfect, powerful collection of cards. Inscryption is an insidious game because it is just as addicting as Magic: The Gathering for a fraction of its cost and the space it requires to house your menagerie of cards. You want — need — to play this game, but if you do, make sure you don’t have adult shit to do because once you sit down with Inscryption, you won’t get up again.

Inscryption is available now on PC via Steam, GOG, and Humble Bundle.

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