Once upon a time, game developer Daniel Mullins put together a short, rough game prototype called Sacrifices Must Be Made for a game jam. Its combination of charmingly rough graphics, a creative card game, and a deeply disturbing psychological horror story that was slowly revealed over the course of the game won hearts around the world. Now, Mullins is ready to unleash Inscryption, a massively expanded version of Sacrifices Must Be Made with enhanced graphics, revamped mechanics, and what may be an even darker storyline than the original. But can this new version step out of the shadow of its predecessor? As it turns out, yeah, it really can. Sacrifices Must Be Made has a special place in my cold, dead heart, but Inscryption is something truly special. Also, absolutely terrifying.
Trust No One
You are in a cabin. You don’t know how you got here or who the shadowy figure seated across the table is. All you know is that if you want to survive, you must defeat them, no matter what victory costs you. That’s how the game begins, but as things continue, events rapidly spiral out of control. What follows is a genre-crossing meta adventure the likes of which I’ve never seen before. Inscryption blends genres, and eventually mediums after deciding to throw some found-footage horror videos into the mix. This game is a testament to the storytelling potential of video games as an art form. It is also one of the creepiest games I’ve ever played, period, and that’s saying something.
The first few hours of Inscryption are dedicated to a tense struggle for survival, but after a certain point, it appeared that I had beaten the game. Then the ‘New Game’ button unlocked on the menu and I was confronted with a totally new retro-style game to play, one that added even more options to the fast-paced and brutal card mechanics I’d gotten used to while tasking me with something more ambitious than just staying alive. While this was going on, I was also gradually unlocking tantalizing live-action videos dedicated to exploring the game Inscryption from the perspective of a card game vlogger discovers a digital copy of the game buried in the woods. He struggles to figure out where it came from in found-footage style cutscenes, all while things around him begin to spiral out of control—both in the game and in his real life. Basically no one in this game is trustworthy, which really adds to the feelings of ambiguity and dread.
When it’s not eerily polished and metallic or imitating the pixel art graphics of a very old-school RPG, this game has an antique and grimy feel to it that reminds me of both old VHS recordings and yellowing linoleum. Nothing about it feels clean or new. It’s definitely drawing on a retro aesthetic, but it uses its retro graphics and sound to evoke the uncanny instead of an old-fashioned charm. The game’s soundscape is generally quite subdued, which adds to the general air of unease. On an unrelated note, the noise used to mark your opponent’s speech reminded me a lot of the monsters’ voices in Undertale, but this didn’t make Inscryption any less creepy.
Part Retro Horror Game(s), Part Horror Webseries
Playing Inscryption feels a lot like immersing yourself in a horror webseries, alternate reality game, or unfiction project–projects like the Slender Man mythos, Everyman HYBRID, Ben Drowned, or Catastrophe Crow, to name a few. The main differences are that everything is all in one place, so you don’t have to scour the internet for the next part of the game–and you probably won’t have to decode anything written in base64. Inscryption captures pretty much everything else: the tension, the secret messages, the urgent and creative puzzle-solving, and the uncanny realism of watching someone’s low-budget, down-to-earth YouTube channel slowly transform into a horror movie.
Inscryption takes the card battle mechanics from Sacrifices Must Be Made and expands massively on them with new creatures, new environmental effects, and entirely new games tossed in for flavor. The good news is that you can see your opponent’s moves ahead of time. The bad news is that this may not be enough to save you, because every lawyer of the game-within-a-game is brutally punishing. Some sections of the game will allow you to trial-and-error your way through, but others are as uncompromising as any roguelite. These roguelite sections will allow you to gather new cards, encounter new threats, and try new strategies in each run, all while carrying over the occasional item from your previous attempts. Dying may unlock new opportunities and new story threads, or it might not. Either way, if you want to live, you have to get good.
The card game grows increasingly complex with each passing match, as individual exchanges allow for item use, unique rulesets, and intricate strategies involving differing card costs and abilities. You can also stand up and explore the dreary, darkened cabin you’re being imprisoned in, which may be the key to getting out of here alive. A variety of puzzles are hidden around the cabin. Some of them can be quite complicated, but if you’re as bad at escape rooms as I am, never fear–if you stick with it, you can brute force most of them. The card game is another story. Just keep in mind that taking or dealing five more points of damage than your opponent will end the round instantly, for better or for worse. Each boss has its own unique mechanics, which range from turning your cards into inanimate objects to straight-up stealing your creatures for their own. Also, in the second part, you can add more than 20 cards to your deck. This information will save you a lot of grief.
All in all, Inscryption is a great–and spooky–game that is constantly expanding and re-inventing itself, and I recommend it to anyone who loves horror. As long as you approach it with an open mind, a strong stomach, and the willingness to keep trying, you should have a great time with this title. Just remember: if you think the game is over in the first few hours, it’s time to hit the New Game button and see what you’ve unlocked.
***PC game code provided by the publisher***
- Incredibly creepy art
- Layer upon layer of story
- Very creative
- Slick revamped mechanics
- A full horror webseries in one game
- Basically a roguelite
- Very difficult
- Puzzles can be brute forced
- Hard to tell when it’s over