The fun of Daniel Mullins games is how they shatter expectations. If there’s a problem with having such a distinctive creative voice, it’s that we’ve been trained by its previous games to expect the unexpected. And that’s why Inscryption’s arrival on Switch is such a treat: as the first of Mullins’ games to be released on console, many Switch owners won’t have had a chance to play his earlier works. If you are one of them, you are in for a treat.
The Switch home screen icon for Inscryption is a 3.5 inch floppy disk. The game loads with a flickering CRT filter over production logos, then frames the whole thing like a dusty old computer game that hasn’t been played in a long time. This game is a card game, played against a mysterious Dungeon Master type figure. However, within minutes it becomes apparent that your strange enemy is not talking to you, the player of the computer game, but to an in-game avatar who is playing the card game inside the computer game. So before you’ve even sat down comfortably, Inscryption has you playing a game in a game in a game.
Indeed, Inscryption is a simmering horror story that seems determined to keep you from sitting comfortably at any indicate. Frequently described as a rogue-like deck builder, we think someone put off by that description might still like it. The inscryption might disappoint someone hoping for a straight genre piece. The deck-building game in Inscryption has its place like the dabbing game in Papers, Please: it’s a real game – a good one – but that’s not really the point. In fact, cards are an ingenious misdirection for magic that happens beyond the creatures and stats you’re working with.
It’s not to undermine the fun of the challenge of building a deck and battling through encounters and defeating bosses. The artwork and mechanics quickly drew us in, and some of the cards had so much character they seemed to take on a life of their own. However, new mechanics – new exceptions to the basic rules – are introduced so frequently that you’ll barely get a chance to play the game before it changes. Managing your menagerie of moths, squirrels, stoats and more is a highly dynamic and imaginative experience that (at least to begin with) just doesn’t get a chance to get old. Additional behaviors are added to cards, new events are added to the deployed game board between rounds, and different items are added to the table you are playing on.
Without spoiling anything, Inscryption is not even limited to the table on which the game is based: game within a game within a game is just the starting point. Players from previous Daniel Mullins Games titles Pony Express and The hexagon recognize the themes and artistic ambitions of these games. “Genre mash-up” doesn’t begin to describe The Hex, for example, which sees characters jumping between entirely different games, using new genres to experience the world and story in different ways, seeing things that couldn’t not be seen otherwise. Here in Inscryption, Mullins pushes the idea more subtly but further, exploring meta-narratives on higher and higher planes of existence.
The inscription represents a maturation of the idea. Rather than solving the riddle of how to make something transcend itself, Mullins this time left the question as a dangling and frustrating end. Where The Hex always seemed to chase its tail in a madness of trying to get out of itself, Inscryption turns that nonsense into torment for the player. The game’s inability to escape the limits of itself becomes your inability to escape its grip.
However, Inscryption struggles a bit in places. It sometimes moves too fast and reveals its wild configuration too soon. Act 1 threw ideas at us at such a maddening pace that we took Act 2 relatively in our stride, even despite the continuous reframing of narrative and acting. It took us over a dozen hours to play, there were ultimately plenty of card games to be made for a game that best trades on its refusal to truly be that game. The wonderfully imaginative premise carries the risk that a player wanting a deck builder be frustrated with interrupts but, likewise, a player who prefers interrupts may be bored with the whole deck building. This means that it is essential to enter with an open mind.
As long as you’re willing to dive into the world of Inscryption, the way it plays across different types of games, and not just video game genres, is awe-inspiring. Game design courses often develop concepts using things like card games, board games, and escape rooms. Stacking them on top of each other feels like Mullins is trying to break the manual. Video game elements range from simply sprucing up the presentation, with the haunting and nefarious character of the Dungeon Master and atmospheric props, to implementing elaborate rulesets that would be cumbersome without a computer, to software recognition and material itself in its narrative framing.
It’s hard to talk about the specifics of Inscryption without diluting some of its magic. However, its ingenuity is jaw-dropping, its mood fiendishly haunting, and its presentation top-notch. As a deckbuilder, he’s pushed as far as he can go, and jumping between concepts sometimes demands a lot from the player. The payoff, however, is one of the most impressive feats of video game storytelling. If you’re new to Daniel Mullins Games, you’ll be even more spoiled, but existing fans shouldn’t think they’ve got the measure of what’s waiting on the dusty old Inscryption floppy either.
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