“Scary” isn’t usually a word that comes to mind when talking about digital card games. Some deck-builders, like Hearthstone, include cards that depict menacing monsters, but those creatures are never going to pop off the paper and yell “boo!” With careful, turn-based gameplay, deck-builders are generally more about building strategies, not atmosphere.
Inscryption, on the other hand, is a full-on creepshow. It’s a new game from Daniel Mullins Games, the developer behind cult indie hit Pony Island, that smashes quite a few genres together. It’s a card game where players assemble a deck of woodland creatures, each with their own cost, abilities, attack power, and health total. It’s also a roguelike, similar to Slay the Spire, where players have to complete a series of battles in one successful run. Oh, and all of that is happening in the middle of a meta escape room that players can solve in between rounds.
And did I mention that you need to make blood sacrifices to summon cards?
Let’s take a step back. At its core, Inscryption isn’t too hard to grasp. Players are dropped onto a board with a few cards. Their opponent is a mysterious shadowy figure who sits across from them and acts as a sort of dungeon master controlling the adventure. Some board spaces allow players to add more creatures to their deck, strengthen stats, grab useful items that can be used during play, and more. Other spaces trigger battles, which happen on a 4×3 grid. The goal is to tip a scale on a table by dealing a certain amount of damage to your opponent using creatures. The game master will play their own cards, too, so players will have to make smart moves to counter incoming attacks and win.
Each area culminates in a boss battle with special mechanics (the first boss is a prospector who can turn your creatures into gold piles). Put together a successful deck, beat the bosses, and win the run. It’s an easy to understand card game system with a deceptive amount of depth. I’ve only begun to describe the myriad of tools at players disposal.
All of those ideas are drenched in a layer of horror. Inscryption features an unsettling atmosphere, turning it into an eerie experience that always surprises. Blood and bones replace mana as the currency used to play a card. Teeth are its primary currency. One item lets players stab their eye out and drop it on the scale to gain five points. The side effect is that it, naturally, darkens and blurs their vision. Luckily, bosses will offer players a drawer full of replacement eyeballs after they’ve been defeated. The game is filled with deeply weird, disturbing moments like that — which constantly make me want to dig deeper.
It’s the game’s escape room mechanic that really makes it something special, though. The entire game takes place in a small room that players can walk around. It’s filled with interactive objects like a safe and a cuckoo clock. The more you chip away at the roguelike, the more clues and items you get that’ll help you solve the room. Early on, I receive a Stoat card, which begins talking to me through the paper. It mentions a safe combination appearing in a book. I step away from the board and turn to find a rulebook sitting on the table, which acts as a glossary that explains every card’s abilities. Sure enough, I find a combination scrawled on one page, setting off a chain of room solutions.
That gives the game an excellent sense of progression. Even failed runs would give me more information, allowing me to unlock more secrets within the room. I always feel like I’m making headway and that pushes me to keep playing. Completing a run of the game’s central roguelike is a good hook on its own, but I’m more driven by my desire to figure out who the heck this shadowy figure is and how I can escape this room.
At the moment, I’m completely engrossed. Every time I turn the game off, I find it crawling around my brain like a spider. I’m not just plotting good deck strategies, but trying to figure out what exactly that glowing hammer on the wall is and how to get it down. I’m terrified by my shady captor, but I can’t help but continue to load the game up like an oblivious teen running toward the serial killer.
Inscryption launches on October 19 for PC.