By Ronald Gordon
It’s not often I find myself playing a virtual card game. Most of the time I actually try to avoid them, partly because of how complex and overwhelming they can be, but also because there’s never really a drive to complete them due to the lack of story and engaging features. However, there is one card game that drew me in enough to warrant downloading an experimental beta expansion just to play it more, and it’s a game in which the only prize you win is a few more minutes of life.
Inscription is a horror deck-building game developed by Daniel Mullins Games and published by Devolver Digital. You play as a nameless traveler who gets locked in a cabin with a shadowy figure who goes by the name of Leshy, and the only thing you’re capable of doing is challenging the creature to a game of his own invention. The rules are simple: play your cards right and when you do damage you’ll add a golden tooth to the scale. Do enough damage and tip the scale over onto your opponent’s side in order to win a battle. Continue winning battles and building a deck of cards, and you’ll traverse several maps until you reach the Final Battle. But just because the rules are simple doesn’t mean winning will be. Soon enough, you’ll find yourself literally ripping out teeth and sacrificing cards just to keep yourself in the battle, because once it’s game over, you won’t be just a player anymore. You’ll become part of the game.
The main play of Inscryption is of course the cards, marked with everything from simple boulders and animal pelts to beasts and creatures never seen before, which you gather as you go along. While some cards can be played without cost. Everything good, like high damage or healthy cards, comes at a price. A majority of beasts available to you will require blood sacrifices in order for you to put them on the board. Blood is gained from other feral beings, most commonly from helpless squirrel cards you can pick up at the start of each turn. The stronger the creature, the more blood is needed to play its card, with some of the rarest and most powerful requiring three or four drops of blood to play. Others require bones, which are small tokens picked up whenever a card of yours is killed by any means. Cards can also have Sigils (Hebrew for ‘treasure’) that act as special traits. For instance, the Mantis card’s Bifurcated Strike allows it to hit twice on two spaces in front of it. Some Sigils can be extremely powerful, like the Unkillable trait, which brings a card back to your hand after it’s taken from you.
The cards aren’t your only weapon in your quest to turn the tide of a battle. You also receive items that can aid you in your various skirmishes, like a pair of pliers that allows you to pull one of your own teeth to add to the scale for extra damage, or bottled cards which are extra cards not counted in your Deck, which can be used for one battle once they’re opened. A Totem is a special type of extra item that allows you to add Sigils to Kin-type cards, or cards that lack any sort of Trait; they take a body with said Trait and add one of the heads from a Creature type. This permits you to make some pretty mind-boggling combinations, my favorite being a Worthy Sacrifice body with a Squirrel head, which makes all Squirrels give three drops of blood – instead of just one – when sacrificed. If random chance somehow becomes your friend, and you happen upon some useful items and Totems, you can build a strategy that boosts your current deck beyond what the cards would normally be capable of.
Inscryption was enjoyable in its own right, as the story mode had some enthralling secrets that pulled you into the lore of the game. But more features were recently added to it that really drew me into the game as a whole. Kaycee’s Mod is a new mode, free to install albeit highly experimental, adding a new spin to the first part of the game, an Endless mode with a mechanic known as Challenge Points. To play a run in Endless Mode, you collect different Skulls, which give you drawbacks and debuffs, in order to stack up Challenge points. Once you reach the required amount, you can start your run with the debuffs you chose, like taking one tick of damage at the start of a battle or losing one space in your item pack. Beat the game with Challenge Points and the required number climbs higher, with tougher Skulls offered and new items unlocked. So far, I’ve made it to the fifth challenge level where the requirements are 50 Challenge Points, and I have to say I love the twist that Kaycee’s Mod adds to the game. Not only are there new options (all your battles involve a Totem for the enemy), but the Mod also allows you to use different starter decks to change up your initial strategy. It also takes away certain aspects of the game that you’ve gotten used to and forces you to adapt to their absence. It’s all so exciting that I can hardly stop myself from playing.
The art of the game makes you feel its gritty and unsettling undertones. Leshy’s dark and dank cabin is filled with unsettling objects. Their grainy textures and the way they‘re displayed makes you feel as though nothing in this cabin is as it should be, especially since there are off-putting piles of mystery meat offered to you should you happen to win against Leshy, and strange flashing lights coming from behind the only door you can find. The style of the cards is slightly unnerving, with blotchy and unpolished inking on some of the stronger creatures making their outline more sinister. Some are even stained with blood or become bloody the more you use them.
There isn’t much to say about music choice in the game, because there’s not a lot of music aside from the small bits and pieces of a score to increase the tension. Inscryption is a horror game after all, so these things only enhance the feeling that it’s something you shouldn’t play in the dark, unless you want to feel a shiver up your spine every time you make a mistake.
Despite it being a new game, Inscryption feels like I’ve played it for ages now. The way strategies present themselves mid-battle, or the way cards interact with each other is something you can attune to quick as a whiplash. But once you get used to the basic mechanics, there are of course methods of thinking outside of the box, or in this case outside of the cards, during the random encounters you may find throughout your game. Chance can either be your best pal or your worst foe, and against Leshy you’d better hope it’s your best friend. I’d strongly suggest the base game to anyone who wants a fun and interesting Deck Builder, even if you rarely play those types of games. Before Inscryption, I had a personal disdain for Deck Builders because of how overly complicated they could be. But Inscryption is simple to understand. And if you’re looking for more than what’s in the base game, I’d highly recommend trying out Kaycee’s Mod. Even in its rough state, there’s still plenty of challenges to be had that make the wins feel all the more satisfying.
Ronald Gordon is a New York Videogame Critics Circle senior intern. He recently completed an internship at Rockstar Games.