The delight of Daniel Mullins’ games is the way they obliterate expectations. If there’s a problem with having such a distinctive creative voice, though, is that we've been trained by his previous games to expect the unexpected. And that's why Inscryption's arrival on Switch is such a treat: as the first of Mullins' games to hit the console, many Switch owners won’t have had the chance to play his earlier works. If you’re one of them, you’re in for a treat.
The Switch home screen icon for Inscryption is a 3.5-inch floppy disk. The game loads with a flickery CRT filter over the production logos and then frames the whole work as a dusty old computer game that hasn't been played in a long time. That game is a card game, played against a mysterious Dungeon Master-type figure. However, within minutes, it becomes apparent that your eerie foe isn't talking to you, the player of the computer game, but to an in-game avatar who is playing the card game inside the computer game. So before you’ve even sat comfortably, Inscryption has you playing a game within a game within a game.
Indeed, Inscryption is a simmering horror story that seems hell-bent on preventing you from sitting comfortably at any point. Frequently described as a rogue-like deck-builder, we think that someone turned off by that description might well still love it. Inscryption might disappoint someone hoping for a straight-up genre piece. The deck-building game in Inscryption has a place like the rubber-stamping game in Papers, Please: it's a real game – a good one – but that's not really the point. In fact, the cards are ingenious misdirection for the magic that happens beyond the creatures and stats you’re working with.
That’s not to undermine the fun of the challenge to build a deck and battle through encounters and defeat bosses. The illustrations and mechanics quickly drew us in, and some of the cards were so characterful they seemed to take on a life of their own. However, new mechanics – new exceptions to the basic rules – are introduced so frequently that you will barely have a chance to play the game before it changes. Managing your menagerie of mothmen, squirrels, stoats and more is a highly dynamic, imaginative experience that (at least to begin with) simply isn't given chance to get old. Extra behaviours are added to cards, new events are added to the game board unfurled between rounds, and different items are added to the table on which you're playing.
Without spoiling anything, Inscryption also doesn't even confine itself to the table the game is resting on: game within a game within a game is only the starting point. Players of Daniel Mullins Games' earlier titles Pony Express and The Hex will recognise the themes and artistic ambitions from those games. "Genre mash-up" doesn't begin to describe The Hex, for example, which sees characters jumping between entirely different games, using new genres to experience the world and story in different ways, seeing things that couldn't be seen otherwise. Here in Inscryption, Mullins pushes the idea more subtly but further, exploring meta-narratives on higher and higher planes of existence.
Inscryption represents a maturing of the idea. Rather than solve the puzzle of how to make something transcend itself, Mullins has this time left the question as a dangling, frustratingly loose end. Where The Hex seemed to forever chase its tail in a folly of trying to get outside itself, Inscryption turns that absurdity into torment for the player. The inability of the game to escape the bounds of itself becomes your inability to escape its grip.
However, Inscryption does struggle a little in places. It sometimes moves too fast and reveals its wild setup too soon. Act 1 threw ideas at us at such an unnerving rate that we took Act 2 comparatively in our stride, even despite the continuing reframing of the narrative and the game. Taking us more than a dozen hours to play through, there was eventually a lot of actual card playing to be done for a game that best trades on its refusal to really be that game. The wonderfully imaginative premise does bring with it the risk that a player wanting a deck-builder may be frustrated by the interruptions but, equally, a player who prefers the interruptions may be annoyed by all the deck-building. This means that going in with an open mind is critical.
As long as you’re prepared to dive into Inscryption’s world, it’s inspiring how it plays with different kinds of games – and not just genres of video games. Game design courses often develop concepts using things like card games, board games and escape rooms. By stacking them inside one other, it feels like Mullins is trying to break the textbook. The video game elements range from simply embellishing the presentation, with the hauntingly nefarious character of the Dungeon Master and atmospheric props, to implementing elaborate rule sets that would be cumbersome without a computer, to acknowledging the software and hardware itself in its narrative framing.
It’s hard to talk about the specifics of Inscryption without diluting some of its magic. However, its ingenuity is mind-boggling, its mood is devilishly haunting and its presentation is first-rate. As a deck builder, it’s stretched about as far as it can go, and by jumping around between concepts it sometimes asks for a lot from the player. The pay-off, however, is one of the most impressive feats of video game storytelling there is. If you’re new to Daniel Mullins Games then you’re in for even more of a treat, but existing fans, too, shouldn’t think they have the measure of what awaits on Inscryption’s dusty old floppy disk.