REVIEW: Daniel Mullins pulls the rug out in card-battling Inscryption
Updated: Feb 8
Somewhere in the last few years, trading card games took the world by storm. Content creators flocked to buy up booster pack after booster pack, all in the hopes of fortuitously pulling the most valuable cards live on camera. Hours spent opening packs of common cards can become worth it with just one valuable card pull, giving viewer and creator alike a rush of serotonin that is frankly addicting.
Playing Inscryption, the part-puzzler part-card game experience that caught our eyes during this year's Devolver Digital Showcase, gave us that high over and over again. It started and it felt like pulling a perfect 1999 First Edition Shadowless Holographic Charizard #4 (last sold at: $137,350).
And then, just hours later, it was like I just pulled an Alpha Black Lotus (last sold at: $71,346). And then, as I sat in silence watching the credits roll by, my heart rang out the same way it would if I got my hands on a 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card (last sold at: $6.6 million).
All that to say... SPOILER: It's very good.
Just the Facts
Developer: Daniel Mullins Games
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platform(s): PC* *platform reviewed on
Release Date: Oct. 19, 2021
Key provided by Tinsley PR.
Those in tune with the indie scene will recognize Daniel Mullins as the developer of fan-favorites like The Hex and Pony Island. His games are incredibly meta; they're hard to pin down to just one genre, and fairly consistently, they develop rabid followings. For good reason.
Mullins hides layered secrets in his games, asking players to engage with every piece of the work, even implementing fascinating alternate reality game (ARG) experiences that have folks unearthing floppy discs out in the real world. His games regularly zig when you expect them to zag, shifting genre, style, and focus at a moment's notice.
Inscryption is no different. This is why we're approaching this review a bit delicately. Every screenshot in this article comes from the game's first chapter. We'll talk in broad strokes about what comes after, but trust us when we say that you are much better off experiencing the secrets of this game for yourself.
The game opens with you waking at an empty table in a barely candle-lit room shrouded in darkness. A pair of eerie glowing unblinking eyes floating just ahead of you. These eyes come with a voice that addresses you as a challenger and asks if you're ready to play again. You are dealt a hand of cards and the game is afoot.
Unsure of your surroundings but engulfed by the game, you play — progressing your wooden miniature on a cloth map and strengthening your deck. The objective of each card match is to drop your opponent's side of a scale to the table, tipping the scales further with weights earned for each point of direct damage you deal.
"It blows my mind that Mullins is still able to wield his surprises as effectively as he does, even holding a reputation as a table-flipping expectation destroyer."
You will lose. And when you lose, you die, turned into a card for future challengers to wield against the man across the table. But eventually, you'll win. You'll solve all of the man's riddles, face off against masked foes like The Angler and The Trapper, and overpower his cards with your own. And that's when things really change.
Inscryption is unflinching in almost everything that it does. With dithered shadows, an eerie foreboding, and near-constant reminders that you aren't in control of the situation, the game punches you in the mouth right away. You're offered a pair of pliers and told it can help you. Little do you realize that "help" means yanking out a tooth to tip the literal scales in your favor. So when you're eventually given a knife... you know it means no good.
Mullins is always telling several different stories at once. What he captures in the game's first section is echoed throughout the experience, telling stories of control, conspiracy, and the meta aspects of gaming in its many forms. The tone may stray from its initial horror, but the foreboding remains throughout. And everything about it is executed with a boldness that deserves appreciation.
Characters you meet along the way are charming, the scenarios you find yourself in are increasingly perilous, and Inscryption kept a steady pace throughout the 13 hours I spent exploring every nook and cranny of the experience.
One of my favorite gaming moments of 2021 happens toward the end of the first section... and then again at the end of the second act... and again in the game's closing moments.
It blows my mind that Mullins is still able to wield his surprises as effectively as he does, even holding a reputation as a table-flipping expectation destroyer.
In the first act, the card game represents something of a deck building roguelike — not dissimilar to games like Slay the Spire and its most obvious comparison point, Hand of Fate. These games start you out with a fairly simple (usually themed) deck of cards. You gather random sets of cards as you progress, all in the hopes of creating a deck of monsters and abilities that work in perfect harmony to outlast your opponents. Lose once (or in this game's case, twice) and you're back to the start.
In Inscryption's system, you draw from one of two decks — beast deck and squirrel deck — and play cards from your hand. Each card has health and attack points and some have a unique ability attached (called sigils). Most beasts require a blood sacrifice in the form of the squirrel cards, which can be played at any point. Eventually, you are introduced to bones, another resource that is gathered whenever beasts are sacrificed, that can summon an entirely different breed of beast down the line.
At its core, Inscryption is a card game with ever-growing puzzle elements along its edges. Even as things shift all around it, the Inscryption experience can be summarized as: sacrifice and synergy.
After each battle, you are allowed to choose one of a few points to navigate to on a map, each providing some sort of risk and reward. You can level up attributes of your cards by letting them rest by the fire... but risk them getting eaten by the desperately hungry survivors of the woods. You can transpose a card's sigil onto another... but lose that original card in the process. Sacrifice.
Not unlike other roguelikes, death is a reward. Death means your character turning into a card — one that you have a hand in making. You choose the cost, power numbers, and sigil of these cards by picking from a selection of cards you gathered in that particular run. This unique system allows you to create some especially broken (aka overpowered) cards to work alongside the factions of beast cards you collect as you progress. Synergy.
Even as other aspects of the experience start to morph around the card game, those two tenets stick around. I'm far from an expert in card gaming strategy and even I found some beautiful ways to cheese my way to the ending and feel infinitely smarter in the process. That being said, a few difficult fights bogged down the late-game thanks to a stubborn belief that my deck needed no tinkering (and a realization that I didn't really know how to fix it anyway).
It should be noted that in Inscryption, what you've seen is not what you get. If you were in it solely for the roguelike experience, that is one aspect that fades away over time. The surprises in the story come with some major shifts in the card gaming focus, and those changes can overwhelm if you were expecting a certain style of game.
That actually is another source of strain for me: a few mechanics certainly took me way longer to understand due to their sudden emergence in what was otherwise a well-explained and tutorialized card game.
Deck building remains a key component, but the ways in which you build those decks and how much control you wield shifts as you go along.
"What we've seen shown and demoed is certainly not all there is to Inscryption's full experience — but that's exactly why I loved it."
So, how much did I enjoy tinkering within Inscryption's card gaming systems? I almost wish there were a way for me to engage with the card game outside of the story, either prolonging the roguelike section with later game systems introduced or even through some form of multiplayer.
As hinted previously, Mullins likes to blend genres and he certainly does here as well. Outside of Inscryption's card gaming, the game's first act also introduces a few puzzle game elements. After a few rounds, the man across the table invites you to get up and stretch your legs within the cabin's tight quarters. Akin to an escape room, you are encouraged to fiddle with everything that's not nailed down to figure out all the secrets of the darkened room: skulls, candles, and trinkets that can impact your gameplay.
Oftentimes, the puzzles ask you to re-engage with the card game in some special way — such as playing a certain hand displayed in a portrait on the wall — bringing the two worlds even closer together. It's an extremely rewarding experience that pays off in both stronger cards and story progression.
The first act's puzzles reflect some version of those found later in the game, regardless of its shifting identity. Mullins hides secrets in these puzzles that leave you feeling like you're unraveling some great mystery. I felt like I had uncovered most of what the game had in store, but after reading some of the game's secret guides and poking into an ARG-obsessed Discord server, I realized I had only scratched the surface of it all. Aesthetically, Inscryption makes its intentions known from the outset. It quickly becomes unnerving, using darkness in a beautiful way to make your fear and curiosity less about what you can see and more about what's hidden just out of view. What IS in view is beautiful in its own right, from the card art to the environments you'll find yourself in. And, with its own form of morbid beauty, the game's soundscape will sink its teeth into you as well.
The soundtrack shows incredible flexibility, with plucked strings and bassy synth tones evolving into upbeat chiptune work and ambient electronic noise by the endgame. One track in particular will haunt me for a while, paired perfectly with the tense encounter it accompanied.
I'd also like to shout out the game's few bits of acting as well. A bit cheesy, but completely earnest in its own way. The less said the better, but you'll know it when you see it.
On the whole, Inscryption has style and utilizes it very, very well.
Daniel Mullins has consistently made games that are extremely meta, that transform drastically over time and make use of all forms of media in gaming. Some players have lashed out claiming a sense of "false advertising." What we've seen shown and demoed is certainly not all there is to Inscryption's full experience — but that's exactly why I loved it. You're constantly fighting back against the game, in more ways than one: Endlessly asked to learn new things, forced to reckon with changes to the formula you'd learned up to that point, and required to think outside the box from beginning to end.
In an industry that operates so heavily under tradition and expectations, games like Inscryption come along and shake you awake, reminding you where games can go and what they can be.
video games are good and Inscryption is . . . REALLY REALLY GREAT. (9.5/10)
+ a progressively more intriguing card game system at its core, a story that consistently and constantly surprises, and an unnerving style that pulls you in instantly
- a few pacing issues as tons of new mechanics are dropped in your lap, some frustratingly difficult encounters
I've only said this one other time in VGG's first year, but Inscryption is the type of game I made this site to talk about. So please try it out and let me know what you think. I just want to talk to more people about this game!
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