Is this memorable deck-builder a must-play Nintendo Switch game? Find out in our spoiler-free Inscryption review!
I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during the pitch meeting for Inscryption. To summarise all the twists and turns presented to players in this 8-10 hour experience would have surely required one of those string-covered evidence walls you see in detective shows. Developed by Daniel Mullins Games and published by Devolver Digital, Inscryption combines roguelike elements, deck-building mechanics, and escape room puzzles into a creepy and complex package that is constantly reinventing itself.
For the sake of avoiding any spoilers, this review will only cover the gameplay featured in the below Nintendo Switch reveal trailer. The bottom line? With an incredibly tight gameplay loop that remains consistent throughout, Inscryption is a wildly unique take on the deck-building genre with unapologetic shifts in art direction and bursts of meta-narrative moments that, while memorable, won’t hit the same for everyone.
Inscryption Review – Gameplay
Inscryption’s opening hour slowly eases you into its core gameplay loop and roguelike elements. You wake up in a dark and eerie cabin, sitting at a table across from your host, and captor, Leshy. This shadow-clad, mysterious figure hands you a small deck of cards and politely asks you to play with him. Almost like a game master running a one-on-one Dungeons and Dragons session, Leshy rolls out a parchment-like map, hands you a player token, and describes to you where you are and what you see. The map has branching paths that lead to unique spaces, some of which hold events that can alter your deck, and others start up a card match, all leading to a boss fight.
When a duel begins, you draw a hand, the cards adorned by wolves, squirrels, turtles, and other forest critters, and a scale is placed on the table. With each turn, you draw a card and place as many cards as you can in the four possible slots in front of you. Some stronger cards require the blood of weaker cards to be summoned, others cost nothing to be played, and at the end of your turn, all your cards will automatically attack the slot in front of them, either hitting an opposing creature or your opponent.
Enemy cards will either be damaged or killed, while hitting your opponent directly will tip the aforementioned scale towards them. On your opponent’s turn, your cards are at risk of being killed and any damage you take directly tips the scale back in your direction. Whenever the scale tips five or more points in either direction, the match is over, and the victor is declared. If you win, you progress along the randomly generated map to the next event space or card match. If you lose…
As with similar games in the genre, like Slay The Spire, you start with a small deck of cards and grow it by winning matches and progressing through the map. You’ll unlock rarer cards that can return in subsequent runs, including cards that talk to you, offering clues and commentary, cards that require bones to summon instead of blood, accrued every time a friendly card dies, and cards with Sigils. Sigil abilities add deeper strategies to your deck, like venomous snakes that kill target cards in one attack or birds that fly over opposing cards and attack your opponent directly. As you progress, your opponent’s decks will also grow, forcing you to make strategic choices on which cards to take with you and how to play them.
Great, Cards Talk Now.
Card abilities are plentiful, starting you off with a handful of simple-to-understand Sigils before adding more complex skills to master. The well-paced rollout of unique Sigils allows for new strategies to be developed throughout the entirety of the game. Thankfully, all the Sigils are detailed in your trusty rulebook, which Leshy gracefully allows you to peruse at any time.
While murderous intent is on their mind, Leshy is a fair game master, permitting you every advantage possible. These range from a two-wick candle, allowing you to lose up to two matches before…well…, and up to three consumable items that you can use in any match, like scissors that can cut up a single enemy card or pliers that can help you tip the scales by any means necessary. Leshy’s ever-watching presence and off-putting friendliness evoke continuous discomfort that not only builds the game’s disquieting tone but an uneasy sense of curiosity. This is most prevalent as Leshy allows you to literally leave the table and walk around the dark cabin.
The quaint interior of the small room you’re trapped in is filled with curiosities to investigate. From puzzle boxes and a locked safe to a cuckoo clock and carved wooden animals. Everything in the dark room is connected to one another, and discovering how they link is a part of the addictive loop that Inscryption puts you through. While these puzzles are all relatively simple, I found the journey to get to the solutions incredibly engaging. Finding random numbers somewhere unexpected or using rewards for solving puzzles in sometimes violent ways all continued to pull at the secretive thread that ties everything together. It was exciting to find a new card hidden in a strange place in the room and bring it back to the table hoping it would help my plight against Inscryption’s excellent boss fights.
There are several bosses in the game that oppose your fight for freedom, each accompanied by their own unique look and feel. They pose a real challenge, adding unique mechanics to their matches and requiring you to beat them in multiple phases to claim victory. The Angler will hook your cards and reel them onto their side, while The Prospector will turn your cards into useless blocks of gold. Thankfully, these fights are not randomly generated, so losing to the Angler the first time you face them will only mean you have the knowledge of how they play and what kind of deck to build on your next run to defeat them.
Well, Howdy Ol’ Timer.
I found some runs of Inscryption’s first act to be a piece of cake before getting overwhelmed by a new card I hadn’t seen before, other runs simply did not go in my favour and a duel was over before I knew it. Losing a match in the game’s first act is, simply put, disturbing. I felt an absolute dread every time I realised it was over and Leshy’s arms reached across the table.
Before your demise, Leshy takes you into the back room and asks to take your picture. Mechanically, this allows you to combine elements of a few cards from your run into one new card. You could combine the low cost of a squirrel with a turtle’s high defence and a snake’s venomous bites into one deadly and durable card. Alternatively, you could take a card with a high attack, a bone cost, and a flight Sigil to create a powerful combination card. After naming the card, Leshy takes your photo, and you start a new run, your newly created card in hand.
While there are a lot of mechanics introduced in Act One of Inscryption, they are drip fed to players in a simple and easy-to-consume way. You’re never rushed to make choices and are allowed time to understand every new card, location, and consumable you find. After learning from defeats and finding useful secrets in the dark room, a power shift in my direction eventually came as everything clicked into place. The game still feels challenging from start to finish, but because the core gameplay mechanics are the only part of Inscryption that doesn’t entirely change, once I wrapped my head around what I was doing, I felt adept at everything that the game threw at me in Act Two and Act Three.
Inscryption Review – Plot
Not much more can be said about the plot of Inscryption without diving into spoilers, but I will say that upon finishing the game, I was torn. I was impressed by how often I found myself constantly surprised and curious at the game’s twists and turns, and the core gameplay never once felt stale. However, it was personally a begrudging journey to get to the incredibly tense conclusion, which left me uncertain if I enjoyed what I had just experienced despite it being utterly engrossing.
The Right Kind Of Creepy.
Moments of meta-narrative are captivating, the uneasy tone is maintained throughout, and the narrative only gets more interesting as you progress. My biggest gripe, however, revolves around changes to the game’s art direction and some new additional gameplay elements. None of the shifts in the second and third acts are necessarily bad, they just weren’t for me. It is to that extent that some players who pick up Inscryption may also find these acts to be jarring or unpleasant, while others will only love the game more for it. In either case, seeing the game through to the end is still worthwhile, even if only because there isn’t another game quite like it.
Inscryption Review – Visuals and Audio
The art directions in Act One of Inscryption may be one of my favourite style choices I’ve seen in a game in recent years. From the sketched designs of the playing cards, to the wooden carvings and masks brought to the table, this homely and rustic aesthetic stands out among the dark themes featured in the game. Unlocking a cute squirrel wood carving one second, then looking up and seeing Leshy’s ever-watching eyes swathed in darkness the next wonderfully builds upon the dread that is set by the game’s score.
From the moment the game begins to the moment that credits roll, Inscryption does an excellent job maintaining its macabre tone. An ever-present humming kept me on edge and intrusive sound effects kept me enwrapped. Cards attacking each other are paired with loud thumps, the wood creaks as you walk across it, bones crack, and blood squelches. Every movement in Inscryption is accentuated by incredible foley work that only brings you deeper into its world.
This visual and audio design is at its best during boss fights. The lighting in the room shifts as the environment changes, all while the sinister score thematically shifts to suit your opponent. The danger you are in during these duels is given gravitas in the way that all the anxiety leading up to them is amplified by what you see and hear. Take a listen to The Angler boss theme below!
The incredible audio design is consistent throughout the game, and while I was underwhelmed by it, the second and third acts’ visual aesthetic is well-detailed and developed. The shifts in style in Inscryption can be divisive, but the quality of the work cannot be understated.
Inscryption Review – Conclusion
Inscryption is an impressive entry in the roguelike and deck-building genres. Its card game mechanics are as addictive as they are layered, with constant additions that keep the core gameplay fresh until the very end. It runs great on the Nintendo Switch in both docked and handheld modes and boasts polished sound design and compelling moments of meta-narrative. While not all the twists work for me, when it subverts expectations, it does so spectacularly. This may not be a game that everyone will enjoy at every step. Still, the mystery of Inscryption is engrossing, dread-inducing, and a testament to how wonderfully weird storytelling in video games can be.
So, why should you play Inscryption?
- It tells an engaging, unpredictable, and shocking story.
- The core gameplay is one of the best in the deck-building genre.
- Its dark themes are the perfect kind of creepy.
- There’s nothing out there quite like it.
But why shouldn’t you play Inscryption?
- Violent themes can be uncomfortable for some.
- Some gameplay twists are jarring.
- Changes in art direction may disappoint.
A review code on Nintendo Switch was kindly provided by Devolver Digital for the purpose of this review. If you enjoyed our Inscryption review, check out more of our Nintendo Switch game reviews here!
Author: James Grech
James is a writer and absolute dork who is as passionate about making puns as he is about video games. From Melbourne, Australia, when he’s not playing Dungeons and Dragons or rocking out at karaoke, you can usually find him engaged in some kind of story. Keep up with James on Twitter, or check out his Folio for more game reviews!