Game Reviews

There’s Something Up with INSCRYPTION

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One of the best pieces of advice I read before starting INSCRYPTION is to not read anything about INSCRYPTION. With that being said, be advised that we are going to talk extensively about the Daniel Mullins Games-developed and Devolver Digital-published card game about playing cards in the dark with a seemingly malevolent entity. 

For those who have yet to play the game, INSCRYPTION is a game full of unnerving and eerie ambience as it spins a tale of both horror and conspiracy. Main gameplay follows a visceral set of rules demanding players ritualistically sacrifice their cards in order to summon stronger ones, complete with bloody sigils as the cards marked for death shake in fear. Over time more rules are thrown at the player, with more combinations and opportunities for victory or utter defeat. But while all this is happening, the player must also find their way out of the mysterious cabin in which they find themselves. 

INSCRYPTION Screenshot

GO AHEAD….MAKE YOUR MOVE….

As the warning implies, INSCRYPTION is one of those games in a very specific genre I’ve taken to calling “There’s Somethin’ Else Goin’ On Here.” Games like UNDERTALE, DOKI DOKI LITERATURE CLUB, and even the more recent iterations of the Five Nights at Freddy’s series arguably fit this genre, where a game feels more like an interactive creepypasta than anything else. Such was the case in a previous Daniel Mullins game, PONY ISLAND. As such, INSCRYPTION is full of those “hang on, wait a minute” moments that set the player on edge and sends their mind racing as they consider what it is they might be stumbling upon.

INSCRYPTION is unique because the story does more less feel like a creepypasta, hitting the same beats as some of the more successful stories found on r/nosleep: an average, relatable person in the midst of their daily lives stumbles upon something horrifying and world-shifting and must grapple with the consequences as they begin to spin out of control. It doesn’t exactly make the player feel as though they’ve stumbled into the world of the game, or that they’ve somehow unwittingly allowed the game into their world like DDLC, or even PONY ISLAND, but it does provide enough real-world grounding and enough things to play with that the player might be concerned as to what the game has access to. This feeling becomes especially present during the boss battles against PO3 where the player’s hard drive is examined and the player is forced to offer up files, or when another boss gains access to the internet to interact with other players. There’s no real moment that hits the player with “this game not only knows my name it is also going to call my parents and tell them how long I’ve been playing it,” but again, that is almost its own specific horror genre at this point.

INSCRYPTION Screenshot

More like the UN-Lucky Carder, am I right, gamers???

Like a lot of horror, the music and soundscape of INSCRYPTION helps it nail that level of ambience. The soundtrack, composed by longtime Mullins collaborator Jonah Senzel, is haunting. The lonesome steel guitar strings and fiddle present in Leshy’s part of the game heighten the horror and transport the player to a nightmare seemingly set in the American frontier. Even the individual themes for the various bosses are a masterwork of sound design, from the striking, almost damning clangs of a pickaxe on rock for the Prospector, to the sounds of flesh being rented and pulled taught in the music for the Hunter and Trader. 

Even among the pixels of Act 2 there’s a certain plaintive quality to the bleeps and bloops of INSCRYPTION. Something that says this was a game that shouldn’t have been played and best left to obscurity. Truly one of the best parts of the game is hearing the soundscapes that emerge as the story progresses.

INSCRYPTION Screenshot

Truly I have been unable to stop considering them, my guy!

But what also makes a lot of the eeriness of INSCRYPTION so potent is that for most of the game it’s an ambience-driven roguelike deck-builder. Much of the game focuses on gaining and modifying one’s deck almost to the point of creating cards that almost break the game in the player’s favor. It’s so easy to accidentally do this that I personally avoided much of the totem matches in the first act because I was so wary that whatever the new rule was would absolutely flatten me. 

And while the player is so invested in the perfect combination of sigils, power and health levels, and special abilities, the game will just sort of insert one of those eerie moments into the mix, and a card will lament its existential prison. The ability to take a break from the strategy, to get up and explore Leshy’s small cabin while poking around at the various puzzles provides somewhat of a release and reminder that you’re exploring a dire circumstance of unclear nature. I wouldn’t be entirely remiss to describe these parts of the game like an escape room, where the player must discover objects and solve puzzles in order to figure out how to get out of the small cabin they’ve found themselves in. 

INSCRYPTION Screenshot

Spring forward, Fall back (into the gaping maw of the abyss)

After PO3 has taken over in the third act, this sense of exploration takes an interesting direction as the player knows more or less what’s going on, but the consequences of the game world being thrown out of whack are more prevalent. Because PO3 is revealed as an equally malignant presence as Leshy, if not more so, the tasks the player performs carry an ominous weight to them. In between flipping switches and grabbing batteries the player still has to build their deck and beef their cards enough to make it through PO3’s new game world. The player knows that working with PO3 will have consequences but it must be done to move forward. 

INSCRYPTION Screenshot

Yeah, no, whatever this is sounds like shit but what’re your options at this point?

INSCRYPTION is, if not a challenging deck-builder, a fantastic ghost story, told in a way that flips the lights on halfway through to reveal that the listener isn’t sitting at a campfire in the forest, but stuck in a factory where the only way to escape is to hear the rest of the story. It’s another meditation on the medium from the developers of PONY ISLAND that, as a matter of fact, has a pretty viscerally entertaining card game built into it as well.

Steven Porfiri
Steven Porfiri is a Merry-Go-Round contributor that grew up on the dusty streets of Bakersfield, California with nothing but a dream and horrible anxiety. He hasn't seen a movie from the current year since 2008 and hasn't played a new game since 2012. You should trust his opinions. You can also find him over at Hard Drive.

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