There’s a technique popular in classical music called variation: a composer will take a single melody or musical idea and explore it in many different ways, potentially twisting it into dozens of different styles and structures without the overall work ever getting repetitive or tiresome. While that’s not exactly a concept unique to music, it is a practice I couldn’t help but be reminded of while playing Inscryption – an undoubtedly odd connection to make, given that it presents itself as a horror-themed roguelite deck-building card game. But dig beneath that somewhat familiar shell and it reveals itself to be nothing short of a symphony of exciting twists, clever concepts, and consistently surprising iterations on the fundamentals that hooked me in its very first minutes.
Inscryption holds much more than meets the eye, and a lot of what’s so impressive about it are the unexpected places it ends up taking you. That means getting into many of the specific moments that make it so special will blunt their impact to a certain degree, so I am going to try to keep this review as spoiler-free as I can – both in terms of its story and some of its mechanics. That said, you only have to watch its launch trailer to understand that this isn’t just another Slay the Spire-inspired entry into a genre that has begun to feel a little too derivative recently. In fact, it manages to partially live in that genre while simultaneously tearing it to pieces.
Much like developer Daniel Mullins Games’ iconic Pony Island, Inscryption plays with meta themes in more ways than one. In this case, you start off playing a roguelike card game against a mysterious adversary shrouded in darkness, but the overall structure isn’t actually one that’s meant to be infinitely replayed. It took me about nine hours to reach the end of Inscryption, and it’s a proper campaign that tells an interesting and spooky story, takes a few justified jabs at card game culture, and stands as a genuinely fun card game of its own.
That game takes the form of head-to-head battles against an AI opponent: you play creature cards onto your side of the board which will automatically attack whatever is across from them each turn, be that opposing creatures or nothing at all. If it’s the latter, any damage they would have done is instead added to your opponent’s side of a tipping scale, but any damage you take will tip it back toward your direction – once one side of that scale is at least five damage heavier than the other, the match is over. That makes each fight a fun strategic tug-of-war, where taking a hit one turn could mean you’re just out of reach of winning the next. Exciting bosses can also challenge you with prolonged encounters and unique twists, ranging from a miner who turns your creatures into chunks of gold to some later ones that broke my expectations in legitimately jaw-dropping ways.
That’s the core of Inscryption that always stays constant, but the creatures you’ll use, the way you play them, the extra mechanics they have, and the structure of the metagame around each match all shift drastically as you progress. For example, the resource for playing stronger cards starts out by forcing you to sacrifice smaller creatures to fuel bigger ones, which can make for some tough but rewarding choices. But before long you’ll also get cards that instead spend “bones” generated when a friendly creature dies, adding another layer of planning to each decision. Later sections even explore systems closer to something like Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering, which keeps Inscryption’s relatively simple fundamentals constantly fresh.
Similarly, while it starts off using a branching roguelike structure recognizable to anyone who has played Slay the Spire, picking between paths and upgrading your deck as you go, it doesn’t stay that way the whole time. Without spoiling any surprises, the skin and bones of Inscryption can change just as dramatically as its meat, but the heart at its center always keeps everything pumping to a familiar beat. That’s good too, because it’s not too difficult to stumble upon exploitable strategies that feel great in the moment but ultimately reduce any tough choices substantially, meaning certain sections might start to wear thin if they went on for too long on their own. Instead you get a delicious platter of all the games Inscryption could have been without any one of them feeling like a disjointed demo or half-baked idea, and watching it evolve so comprehensively is pretty incredible.
Of course, slinging cards is only part of what Inscryption will ask you to do. In wonderfully strange fashion, it will also occasionally have you to stand up from the literal table you are playing at to explore the 3D room it’s held in. There you’ll solve simple escape room-style puzzles like finding the combination to a safe or figuring out how to unlock a container – many of which are tied directly to the card game itself in clever ways. They aren’t the most complex riddles in the world, with the matches themselves being where I had most of my fun, but the overall vibe of Inscryption shines in these sections. Its dark, retro-ish art style is excellent across the entire campaign, and the creepy mood throughout is perfectly unsettling without ever really dipping into genuine “horror.”
And while it’s hard to say anything at all about the plot itself without ruining some of the surprise, Inscryption’s haunted story is a genuinely compelling one as well. It’s told through a mix of written dialogue and FMV cutscenes, and it provides a great (and often unexpectedly funny) structure to house all of its clever ideas. It feels like the kind of urban legend you’d find propagated across creepypasta posts on message boards and other corners of the internet, but not in a way that feels dated or derivative.