Inscryption, out now on PC, is unlike anything else released this year—and easily one of the best video games of 2021. But I cannot … no, I MUST not spoil what makes it so good. Instead, I insist that you stop everything, go buy the game, and not return until you’ve played and finished it on your own Do not—I repeat, DO NOT—keep reading this review.
Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic. Please don’t leave me! I want you to read this review! I worked so hard on it. You should keep this page open in the background while you play. Or, fine, if that doesn’t suit you—I know that time is of the essence, and I can’t tell you how to spend your money—here’s what I’ll offer: I’ll tell you everything you need to know about why Inscryption is so amazing and unforgettable. You just might regret it afterward, when you realize you should have discovered what makes this one of 2021’s greatest releases for yourself.
Inscryption starts straightforwardly enough: Your character is locked in a slasher movie-esque cabin and forced to play a creepy card game by your ominous captor, of whom little is visible, save for their eyes. You must play against them, sacrificing weaker cards from your gradually created deck in order to use your stronger ones.You learn that one of these cards, the stoat, can speak to you, begging you to protect it from damage or death. As you uncover more secrets and solve puzzles in the cabin you find other talking cards, which quickly draw you into a quest to help them kill the bad guy keeping you all in here and, hopefully, escape.
To add to the dramatic stakes, each time you lose a round of the card game, you are turned into a card yourself by your captor. On subsequent tries, you’ll be able to draw your former “selves” and play with them like you would any other cards. This is quite challenging and engrossing, inviting comparisons to the fairly new subgenre of deckbuilding roguelikes, such as Slay the Spire. For fans of this subgenre, nothing feels particularly out of place, which leads you to expect new playable characters, different or expanded decks to use, and harder bosses to come after a first victory. This gut feeling turns out to be delightfully wrong, however, because everything changes when you beat Leshy, the evil beastmaster who’s been holding you captive, and who you have been led to believe will be the game’s final boss.
If, by now, you feel like you might want to start playing this for yourself, I urge you: Get outta here! Go play the game! Because I am about to spoil everything else and, in turn, rob you of the most fun aspect of the game—which turns out to not be a deckbuilding roguelike at all. I will not be held responsible for your fool-hardy and reckless reading habits if you have the faintest desire to try out Inscryption on your own but choose to read all of this instead. (That said, I thank you for your page-viewing time. It really helps. Maybe subscribe to Slate Plus while you’re here? Just a thought!)
Alright. Here come the serious spoilers.
So, the boss fight: It’s an epic battle, where the moon is drawn down from the sky and onto the playing field as a gigantic card on Leshy’s side. Once you defeat Leshy (and the moon), you unlock some found footage-style scenes , and the ability to start a “new game,” when previously your only option was to continue playing. But the new game that starts up is completely different from what you were playing before.
First, you uncover a mess of video files containing live-action, found-footage scenes featuring a man named Luke Carder, a YouTuber that discovers the mysterious game of Inscryption on a floppy disk under ominous circumstances. (The interface is reminiscent of the game Her Story, in a way—an odd little adventure game from 2015 that was fully dependent on picking through haunting video clips.) Once you’ve learned a little about Luke, you find that the 3D card game Inscryption has now become … a 2D role-playing game! While it still revolves around card-collecting and deck building, this game plays entirely differently, featuring an overworld with secrets, shops, and new characters to learn about. Leshy is back, as are the other mini-bosses you played against on the way to that seemingly final round. Your talking card allies have also been transformed into three powerful bosses, who give you tasks to complete before you’re offered the privilege of a card duel with them.
There are still several more twists and turns to come. This one is especially wacky, so—well, you know what I’m going to say. But, well, you’re still here, so we’ll carry on. When you think you are about to beat the game once more, the formerly friendly robot PO3 (the stout that you befriended in your first go-round) defeats and betrays you, seizing control of Inscryption and sending you into yet a third iteration of it. This time, PO3 has bolted you into your chair and forces you to play a robot- and technology-themed game resembling what you initially faced in Leshy’s cabin in the woods. PO3 claims that your new goal is to bring about something called “The Great Transcendence,” which can only be done by … winning this card game.
One sequence that occurs in this part of the game and genuinely feels a little terrifying involves playing against a boss that accesses your computer’s actual hard drive. It then uses the names, dates, and sizes of your real files as part of the game, even threatening to delete one of your files permanently. (If you’ve played the similarly brilliant, similarly strange games Undertale or Doki Doki Literature Club, this eerie gimmick may sound familiar.) Another boss accesses the internet and turns the names on your Steam friend list into cards to play against you. All the while, there are more scenes about Luke Carder’s story, as unknown forces come after him for having the only known copy of Inscryption. (The very last scene you see, after the credits, shows the death of Luke Carder after accessing a secret file in the game called OLD_DATA, which the player, naturally, doesn’t actually get to see the contents of for themselves.)
When you finally defeat PO3, one of your former card allies deletes the game; this launches a really cool endgame sequence, where you briefly play as the two remaining animated cards on their way to deletion). The story also implies that you may not have dismissed PO3 quickly enough, allowing the evil game within Inscryption to survive—and become the very game you yourself are playing! The very game that Luke Carder was killed for playing, maybe!
It’s weird, it’s horrifying, it’s a little funny, and it’s fascinatingly unique. There’s lore that some fans are still piecing together, and those who have played it (unlike you, perhaps!) continue trying to make sense of everything that happened in this unexpectedly strange story. But what makes it all so worth playing is seeing it unfold yourself—so for your sake I genuinely hope you went ahead and experienced Inscryption instead of reading this first. And if you didn’t, I hope you now regret your choice.