The evolution of virtual card games has been really fun to watch, as developers try to find new ways to tell the stories they want to tell through the same medium. A number of them are straightforward, such as those that are already based on the same games from real life like “Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links,” “Pokemon: Trading Card Game Online” and “Gwent,” although the latter is based on the same game from “The Witcher.”
“Hearthstone” entered the scene as the Blizzard version of “Magic: The Gathering” which follows the same structure of using monsters and spells to deplete an opponents’ health before they can do the same to you. However, the 2019 release and rise of “Slay the Spire” brought to life a new imagining of the genre. “Slay the Spire,” alongside later releases such as “Loop Hero,” let players build their decks over the course of a single-player experience and try to optimize it for unreal combos. Suddenly, card games weren’t limited to dueling other players with the exact same goal.
Even with the possibilities out in the open, I’m not sure anybody could have predicted what “Inscryption” would bring to the table when it was released in October 2021. It blends together a single-player deck-building experience with a horror-centric plot. When the player boots up the game, there is no “New Game” option, just “Continue.” And when you continue, you’re placed in an unsettling cabin at a table opposite a shady dealer who invites you to play the game. The card game itself mirrors that creepy atmosphere, as the gameplay centers around sacrificing your creatures to make bigger ones. Life points are instead replaced by a scale that tips based on damage dealt. Once it tips five points towards any player, that player loses.
You build your deck in a similarly unsettling fashion. You use altars to sacrifice your cards to buff another. You merge two cards together to make some chimaera with the combined effect of both of them. You huddle around a fire to buff your creatures next to people who threaten to eat them. Among the items you can obtain are a knife and a pair of pliers that you can use to mangle yourself to tip the scales in desperation. Everything about the gameplay, the enemies, and the adventure provides an experience that borders on terrifying. But inevitably, your run comes to an end, you run out of lives and are killed in a back room. Game over.
Or is it? You emerge as a separate contender and suddenly it becomes clear that this isn’t merely a card game. There’s a story to follow and secrets to be uncovered. Every corner of the cabin seeps out a sinister aura as the player tries to decipher the secrets surrounding the man at the table who almost seems to be enjoying this. The true nature of this horror game is what sets “Inscryption” apart.
Horror games largely have a stigma that follows them around. It probably started around the emergence of “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” whose success led to an era where horror games were defined by jump-scaring the player, an experience that I’m not surprised doesn’t sit well with most people. As a result, it’s become easy to write off horror games as predictable and unoriginal. However, “Inscryption” breaks the mold. It creates an atmosphere that is undeniably off-putting and uses that mood to its advantage, by never letting the player get comfortable. It turns into an experience that is simply unlike any other and is available on Steam to play for $20 today.