End of Year Favourites

My Favourite Video Game of 2021 – Inscryption

I’ve warmed to card games as a genre recently. For a long time it felt like there wasn’t much middle ground between the exploitative whirlpool of games like Hearthstone or the absurd depth that leads to total inaccessibility that I found in things like The Lord of the Rings: Adventure Card Game. Then I discovered Slay the Spire and fell in love with the possibilities of the genre. Much as I like its open ended and endless nature though, it means that there isn’t really room in my life for another endless card battler. Which is why Inscryption is so great.

Before I say another word about Inscryption, it’s worth knowing that this is one of those games that is best experienced when you don’t know anything about it. I’m going to try not to give away any of its secrets, but I played it fairly blind and would recommend you try the same too. For those who want to know more though, it is a card battling game based in the lodge of a being whose identity is mysterious. He narrates your journey and asks you to play his game so that he may do something nefarious with you. Between matches, you are allowed to explore his cabin and find what he is hiding, which may aid you in your future battles. But something here is wrong. When you started the game, why did it only let you click continue? What are all these greyed out buttons on the pause menu? Is this card talking to me?

(Spoiler alert, he probably is)

All of this fun meta storytelling would be totally worthless if the game itself wasn’t actually fun to play. Fortunately, the card battling in Inscryption is built on rock solid foundations and feels strangely fresh. There’s a central mechanic which requires you to sacrifice cards you already have on the table in order to place strong cards, a mechanic I’ve never seen before. It took a little while for me to work it out, as well as work out the further mechanics the game later adds on top, but once it clicks it feels properly satisfying. Sometimes I found the learning curve a little steep, like a section in the third act that I had to grind away at for over an hour to make any progress on, but it was otherwise a take on a tired genre that plays in fresh ways as well as subverting the old ways narratively.

Inscryption is the break from formula you need.

I’m also totally in love with the audio and visual design of the game. The tone feels a bit like it’s in the horror genre, almost entirely because of the weird noises of the world. It is the kind of game that is best suited to playing late at night, in the dark, with your headphones turned loud. The cabin creaks, the wind howls, the knives sound like they really hurt. Pair that with minimal but chilling visuals, it works immaculately. There’s a clear understanding from Daniel Mullins (the creator of the game) of what this genre needs to be satisfying at a fundamental level, which allows for playful visual subversion throughout. Again, I won’t say more to avoid spoilers, but as the game changes, the visuals also change and set the tone for what’s to come. It never feels like an attempt to be weird just to be unpredictable, but always a natural continuation of the previous events.

So if you, like me, also remain tired of games that takes weeks to finish through hours of unrewarding grinding, Inscryption is the break from formula you need. It’s got a cool story to explore, feels great to be spending time with and has damn good gameplay to boot. Quite honestly, if you’re not already interested it’s not for you. It certainly is for me though.

Honourable Mentions

Overboard! – A video game adaptation of the “good for her” film genre, Overboard! (yes, the exclamation mark is in the title) asks you to help a new widow get away with the murder of her husband while on board a boat. How you do it is up to you, whether it involves seduction, sabotage or further acts of murder. Whatever you choose, great writing keeps each new attempt fresh.

Genesis Noir – A jazzy noir thriller about the life of the universe as imagined through the metaphor of a breakup. Explaining the plot of Genesis Noir gets us nowhere, but it looks great, sounds awesome and has an ending to drool over.

Maquette – It’s the requisite Annapurna game! Some of the puzzles in Maquette felt frustratingly oblique to me, but it is all based on this genuinely great hook of transferring items between spaces in which size is all relative.

Before Your Eyes – For the second year in a row, a video game made me cry. It feels a little like cheating that Before Your Eyes did it, because it relies on the player resisting blinking for as long as possible, but this gimmick is used in a way that never actually feels like a gimmick and is festooned with a narrative that would still probably have made me cry even if my eyes were experiencing normal function.

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