Inscryption is the next game from Pony Island and The Hex creator Daniel Mullins, and having spent two hours playing its new demo this week, this creepy deckbuilding game has immediately shot up the list of my current game of the year contenders. It's dark, it's spooky, it's compelling, and in typical Mullins style, there's a heck of a lot more going on here than meets the eye. For starters, why the heck are my cards talking to me, and why is there one with my own name and face on it?
Right from the off, Inscryption doesn't mess about on the weirdness front. You wake up in front of a dark, candle-lit table, and all you can see on the other side of it is a pair of ominous white eyes that spiral into a mad shade of orange whenever words growl out of their invisible mouth. You are trapped here, it seems, and you're about to play a deadly game of cards.
The setup immediately calls to mind Hand Of Fate, Defiant Development's underrated deck-building RPG series that plays out a bit like a tabletop game, only here's it's infinitely more sinister. Not only does Inscryption's mad dungeon master narrate your journey as your wooden character figurine makes their way across a Slay The Spire-esque branching map scroll, but he also dons misshapen, handmade masks in order to play different support characters and bosses you meet along the way. There's something disturbingly unhinged about this man who's constantly leering at you from a cloud of darkness, but no sooner have you picked up your first hand of cards than things start getting even weirder.
Your stoat starts talking to you. And what he has to say isn't good news.
Your cards are themed around animals in Inscryption, and the aim is to deal enough damage so the creepy set of teeth-laden scales sitting off to your left falls all the way down your opponent's side rather than yours. To deal said damage, you'll either need to attack a free space in front of one of your four cards, or biff the animal opposite you to clear the way.
Most cards require some kind of blood sacrifice in order to play them - although annoyingly this rule doesn't seem to apply to your mad friend opposite. At the start of each turn, for example, you can choose from draw a Squirrel card - your basic source of blood in this game - or a more powerful card from the rest of your deck. You can sacrifice almost any card you please if you happen to run out of Squirrels, but doing so will remove them from play for the rest of that game. As such, it's often best to beast your Squirrels if you possibly can, as they don't have any attack power by default. It's literally their only role in life.
The good news is that you can play as many cards as you like in a single turn, offering up plenty of strategic avenues to take to counter what's being thrown at you. While most of the odds seem stacked against you in this crazed mind game, you do get one small concession in that you can see what your opponent's going to play one turn in advance. This can help with a bit of forward planning, but even in demo form, Inscryption doesn't pull its punches. I fell victim to the main boss several times before I managed to best him, although 'dying' is actually part of the fun here. On a second go, the game revealed even more of what's going on underneath, introducing new dialogue from my talkative stoat, and further hints about other talking animal cards to find.
Indeed, it quickly became apparent that I wasn't just locked into playing a deranged card game. At the end of each map event, I was actually free to get up and walk around this shady cabin, which revealed the existence of several additional puzzles. Straight away, I felt like I'd been cast back into a Zero Escape game, which is always a good thing in my book as they're some of my favourite games ever made. In Inscryption, this involved finding obscure clues hidden around the rest of the environment to try and solve them. Some were simply a matter of poking and prodding the slots and wooden dials of the object in question, trying to work out what made them tick, but others involved diving into the rule book to find a hidden code, for example.
Eventually, I found a Stinkbug card who also had the power of speech, and once I drew him and my stoat in the same hand, they had a mini, if slightly despairing reunion. Additional rules got added on my second playthrough as well. In addition to blood, some cards now required bones, which you accrue simply by dealing damage, either to your opponent or by sacrificing other cards on the table. It's another fun layer to take into account during play, especially when combined with all the other buffs I saw. These include the Stinkbug's 'stinky' trait, which lowers the attack power of the card opposite, the 'flying' trait of birds, which allows cards like your Raven to attack your opponent directly even if there's a card in front of them (unless they're placed in front of a tree card, that is), and the particularly delightful 'waterborne' trait, which I got from my Otter card, which lets cards protect themselves underwater during your opponent's turn (although it does mean you also receive direct damage at the same time).
But then the unspeakable happened. I drew my own death card - the card I created right at the end of my first playthrough using random traits, health and attack power from other cards I once had in my deck. A dazed black silhouette stared back at me with my name written across the top, and then it hit me. As it turned out, I'd given myself some pretty generous stats - a zero cost draw, decent attack and a good wodge of health - and I realised I'd be able to use these cards against old man crazy over there in a sweet, sweet blow of vengeful justice. As it also turned out, I'd have to die a second time before I'd be able to defeat his mad Prospector boss and get to the end of the demo, but the thought of using the knowledge and abilities of your past playthroughs like this is a powerfully tantalising one. It hooked me real good, and I was left wondering just what else there was to discover on maybe a fourth or fifth playthrough as well.
Indeed, if the trailer that plays right at the end of the demo is anything to go by (the same one shown right up at the top there), there will be plenty more strange meta weirdness lying in wait for us. And hot damn, my fingers are itching just thinking about it. Luckily, we won't have to wait too long to find out, either, as Inscryption launches in full on October 19th - just two short weeks away.
I'm sure plenty of you will probably want to wait for the full game given how close we are to the release date, but I do still highly recommend checking out the demo on Steam if you're at all on the fence. And don't forget we've got loads of other Steam Next Fest demo recommendations for you to try as well before they disappear on October 7th.