Scares on the cards

Card games get creepy in Inscryption.IMAGE: SUPPLIED
Card games get creepy in Inscryption.IMAGE: SUPPLIED
INSCRYPTION

From: Daniel Mullins Games

For: PC

Rating: ★★★★

By MICHAEL ROBERTSON

I’ve always thought horror was strange. Who would willingly play a game designed to frighten them? Well, myself of course. Horror has always been fun to play through and it comes in different forms, whether a jump-scare fest or a slow psychological burn.

Daniel Mullins, creator of suspenseful puzzle game Pony Island, and bizarre murder mystery The Hex, now brings us his unique take on card games. It’s not just a card game, for starters. It’s a psychological horror, deck-building rogue-like, with escape-room like puzzles.

The player finds themselves in a darkened room, a pair of yellow eyes staring at them from across the table. This figure remarks that a new player has come to play his game, then passes you some cards, and explains the rules.

The card game itself is extremely simple to understand. The field is divided up into four rows. Cards have an attack and health value, and a cost which you have to sacrifice other creatures to summon. At the beginning of every turn, you can draw a creature from your deck, or a squirrel, a free creature designed to be sacrificed for your more powerful creatures. During your turn, you can place as many cards as you want, or use items, and after your turn has ended, your creatures attack the creature in the row opposite them, or the opponent if there is no creature there. Then play passes to your opponent and they do the same thing. To win a match, you have to ‘‘tip the scale’’ in their direction by attacking them until you are five hit points ahead.

That’s the basics, but as you live, die, repeat as is standard in a rogue-like loop, more mechanics are added. Some creatures can attack different rows, some creatures move after attacking, some creatures evolve... the game never stops expanding its strategic edge.

The game’s randomised path is laid on a map, with branching paths leading out to different events. Some events give you cards, others grant player buffs, others buff cards, some give items, and all of them are useful in some way. Even if you don’t have the specific requirements for an event, the game will give you a prize anyway, so every path and event will give you something to help progress.

When you die you create a death card, using the cost, attack, health, and special abilities of those cards to create an extremely powerful card. This is added into the game’s card pool for your next life to find and use. You’ll find that you’ll die several times in this game, creating more and more useful cards. My most useful death card was a monster, instantly winning a match if I got it out early. This is the main way to power up, as battles get extremely difficult near the end.

It’s not just you and your cards, however. There are a few cards that can speak to you, giving you hints or story information. They also have their own personalities; the nihilistic Stoat, the optimistic Stinkbug, and the grounded Stunted Wolf. I always liked seeing these guys come up, but they run out of dialogue fairly quickly and are more of a curiosity than something that actually drives the plot.

Playing cards isn’t the only thing you do in the game, though. You can get up from the table and have a look around, solving some basic puzzles which will give you advantages in the card game. This could be gaining actual cards, or introducing completely new mechanics, like the ability to re-roll certain cards that were given to you.

The sound design is excellent. Sound is everything in horror, and the weird low bass tones representing the main antagonist’s voice, the low chorus-like humming that plays during boss battles, small sound beeps that represent the talking cards are all extremely unsettling and very well done. A special mention for the visual design as well; the inky black art displayed on the cards enhance the horror atmosphere.

The only real issue I have with this game is dying. Yes, it needs to happen, but sometimes you can just get bad cards, or you make one poor decision and just lose a good run, which feels pretty bad. Additionally, the game throws unwinnable situations at you from time to time. These seem to be for story purposes, but it’s still annoying when you’re on a roll and then the game decides you’re going too fast for it. Additionally, some battles can be extremely hard — especially the boss battles — and you’ll feel trapped until you get a lucky break.

And unfortunately, I can’t go further. After beating the boss and getting some much needed revenge, the game entirely shifts gears. Everything that happens afterwards constitutes a major spoiler for the world and story of Inscrpytion. While I wish I could go into more detail, I hope I’ve inspired you to have a look at this game. Part card game, part strategy, part puzzle, part horror, it’s all fun.

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