When Devolver Digital and Daniel Mullins reached out to us to get a sneak peek at their latest game, Inscryption, I practically leapt at the prospect. Mullins made a major impression back in 2016 with his genre-warping, fourth wall destroying, retro horror title Pony Island, and his self-aware murder mystery title The Hex in 2018. Naturally, after sitting down and playing the one-hour demo, I was left equal parts confused and intrigued.
The demo for Inscryption starts with a tutorial for what appears to be the core gameplay: a deck-building game. You wake up in a log cabin in the middle of a rainstorm, and a mysterious figure in the shadows is dealing cards and explaining how they work. You get a hand of creature cards like squirrels, stouts, and wolves, and play them on a four-square grid. You can play as many cards as you are able. Once you end your turn, damage is dealt to your opponent, represented by bones placed on a set of scales. Your opponent does the same. This process repeats until one scale reaches the floor.
On paper, it's an odd mashup of Dominion and Yu-Gi-Oh!. Certain cards require sacrifices. There are different rules regarding terrain which can jam up the grid. Certain creatures have special abilities like transforming into something tougher, being able to fly, or dealing instakill poison attacks.
It's only when the game moves away from card battles that things become interesting and far more sinister. Between matches, a map will cover the board featuring branching paths. You move your figure to these areas of interest and play out different events shown. This is how you get additional cards to your deck or power-up cards you already own. You can also get helpful one-time use items like bottles full of additional resource cards, or a pair of pliers to pull one of your own teeth out for a “free hit” on your opponent.
That last part was the big twist I was expecting given Mullin's prior work. It was at this point in the demo that Inscryption allowed me to get up from the table and explore the cabin at my leisure. What I discovered didn't exactly inspire comfort or warmth. I found a bunch of escape room-themed puzzles all drenched in rustic Appalachian horror kitsch. The carving of a squirrel holding a golden knife. A clock with its hands pointed in random directions. A rule book with drops of blood sprinkled over the pages. Then there was the matter of my mysterious opponent, shown only as a pair of eyes and gnarled hands coming out from the darkness. The cabin is fully lit; all but the space this unsettling card shark was settled in.
Things didn't get better as the actual card games continued. The unsettling opponent started using cards and systems I wasn't aware of, and even started commenting on why I didn't play a different card in my hand. Then some of the cards themselves started talking to me; their descriptive text changing into text like “I can't remember who I am” or “this madness must end.” The only solace I had with these developments was that some cards gave me clues to the various puzzles found throughout the cabin. By solving a few of them, I discovered even more cards to add to my deck, which helped give me an edge against the shadow man's surprise rules.
Things came to a head in the demo's boss fight. The demonic entity put on a wooden mask to make him look like an old prospector and threw additional tricks at me. I lost the first time due to my entire row of creatures being turned into gold nugget cards then chipped away. What happened after wasn't exactly pleasant. I had to make several decisions about cards that were in my deck and was asked my name. The game then restarted again with me back at the start of a new map. But as I played, I saw a new card in the deck, one that had my name on it...
Overall, my first impressions of Inscryption are ones of excitement and anticipation. It is dripping with a macabre, malicious atmosphere. The mixture of environmental puzzles and deck-building works really well. But above all, Mullins' penchant for tearing down the very language of game design itself for thematic tension and clever multilayered puzzles are just as strong as ever. I cannot wait to see how this particular tale of a cabin in the woods plays out.
TechRaptor previewed Inscryption on PC using a copy provided by the publisher. The game is set to release some time in 2021.