Is there some secret group in the games industry that I don’t know about? Is there an unknown President of Game Developers who struts out on stage like in Iron Chef and asks two competitors to make games based on a secret ingredient? Because within the span of three months, we have both Inkulinati (a portmanteau between "ink" and "illuminati") and Pentiment, two games that are about illuminated texts. That’s exactly two more games about classical hand-written books during the Middle Ages than I thought I would ever exist (which is zero).
That said, Inkulinati by Yaza Games and Pentiment by Bethesda couldn’t be more diametrically opposed on how they approach the theme of illuminated texts. While Pentiment is a sober, serious, narrative-driven contemplation about small town life in 16th-century Bavaria, Inkulinati looks at all the funny animals in the pictures — like donkey bards and bow–wielding dogs — and makes them fight in outlandish duels. If Pentiment is like a documentary, then Inkulinati is like Monty Python. I mean, the game is like something a nerdy medieval scribe might come up with after a long day’s work.
Another important difference between the two is that Inkulinati, despite starting out as a Kickstarter that was meant to release in Q2 2021, is not launching in full but as an Early Access game. And so, as you might suspect, it could spend at least half a year dotting the i's and crossing the t's.
Slinging ink, medieval style
From a bird's eye view, Inkulinati is similar to other turn-based roguelites like Inscryption (well, the first part with Leshy at least). As a fledgling scribbler of Living Ink, your character must adventure across several maps with simple paths where you can challenge a standard set of monsters, gain small amounts of gold and minor stat boosts at various locations, or visit shops where you can purchase talents, beasts, and items. At the end of each map is a challenging Inkulinati master who tends to stack the deck against you with tough creatures and precarious environmental challenges. But if you can build your character carefully over time (with a little luck), your character will gain a wider selection of beasts to draw and be able to defeat every master along the way and, hopefully by the end, even Death itself.
The main strengths of Inkulinati are its combat system and signature art style, highlighting why it won Best Indie Game and Best Original Game at Gamescom 2022. Every battle requires measured thought and consideration, as there are many tactical blunders that you can make. And the opponent AI will not hesitate to exploit every last weakness you expose. The Easy difficulty setting may reduce enemy damage by a bit and give you more room to make a few mistakes, but the AI’s strategies remain just as ruthless as they are on Normal.
Inkulinati’s combat is a lot more complex than just units whittling down each other’s hit points on a field. Surviving is all about being patient, scanning the field for opportunities and being careful about how you position every unit on the board. For most battles, your character called a Tiny Inkulinati is essentially a summoner, spending Living Ink (which functions like mana) to draw beasts on the page and use talents that can heal, buff, and hinder creatures on the field.
At its most basic, the point is to command your units to defeat the opposing Tiny Inkulinati and anything else that’s thrown at you. But after a few battles it becomes clear that you need to pay attention to a lot of details, including unit spacing, environmental effects for every space, the range and speed of your units, how much Living Ink you are gaining each turn, and the sequence of turns and actions you take. The game might look silly, letting you make fart attacks with a donkey bard and having your bishop cat eradicate devils with holy power words, but the combat certainly doesn’t hold back.
Most of your lessons will be learned the hard way. You might think summoning a high-cost greatsword-wielding dog would crush your foes, but then a rabbit pushes the dog over the edge and kills it in just one move. Or you forget about putting units over spaces that regenerate your Living Ink, so then your opponent is able to overwhelm you with units over the next two turns. Or you get too aggressive and send a unit forward without checking the attack ranges for enemy units first. Or you fail to remember that apocalyptic fire will spawn in the next turn, and you find yourself scrambling to protect your Tiny Inkulinati from instant death. Who knew that drawing cute pictures would be so dangerous?
Judging a book by its gameplay
Where Inkulinati can develop the most is in making the difficulty more manageable, since there are some sticky situations that you can do very little about. Most pressing is that there’s no way to determine where your units are placed at the start of combat, which can make or break your opening moves. I also couldn’t find any instructions on what determines who goes first in a chapter. (I think it’s the player with the least number of beasts but I’m not sure what happens in a tie.)
Additionally, there’s a stat called Boredom that makes summoning a beast more costly as your character continues to draw them. This is largely meant to make you collect more beasts as soon as possible so you can rotate between them. But Boredom severely hampers the early game when you only have three beasts to make a team of up to five. I mean, what else are you going to fight with? Perhaps there should be a way to mark a few beasts as your favorites so that they aren’t hit with Boredom too much or a grace period of maybe five battles or so before Boredom begins to set in.
On top of that, your Tiny Inkulinati and your beasts can be too vulnerable, particularly against long-range attacks and instant death. Unless your character learns how to create furniture near the beginning or how to heal, there’s sometimes not much you can do about protecting your Tiny Inkulinati from enemies that use arrows and other attacks from a distance. Then as you progress, your units will need to face enemies and environmental effects that can kill a unit with a single move. Pushing units off the board to their doom is already dangerous enough, let alone the apocalyptic fire, so adding these instant-death moves feels gratuitous. The game does give you a few quills, which act like extra lives, but losing a battle should still feel like it’s your fault.
Other areas of improvement involve the game capitalizing on what it already has. The beasts are drawn and animated well, but they remain static as gameplay units. A system for modifying or upgrading them in some way would give the bestiary a sense of growth beyond simply quantity. A log of every battle is also humorously written out at the top of the page above the battlefield; however, you have to zoom out to see it. A few more options for character creation would be nice too.
It’s unclear if the developers plan on adding online multiplayer or co-op in Inkulinati. Online multiplayer was one of the stretch goals for the game’s Kickstarter, but it wasn’t reached during that time. Either way, the game has local multiplayer as a base, so an online mode wouldn’t be as difficult to add later during the Early Access period. Currently, earning prestige unlocks additional beasts and talents that you can start a run with, but a Free Mode or Endless Mode with multiple options for modifying a run would be good to invest in as well.
I’ll see you in the funny pages
Even alongside other indie games, Inkulinati has a humorous and original kernel of an idea that just needs a bit more time in the editor’s room to flesh out. The core of the tactical turn-based combat is challenging, a tad more than it needs to be at this point, so it only needs some refinement to level it out. But really, there’s nothing like commanding an army of anthropomorphic foxes and rabbits to slice devils on the pages of an illuminated text. It has an absurd sense of carnage that I didn’t know I was looking for. Inkulinati releases on January 31, 2023 on PC and Mac via Steam and GoG via Early Access and on Xbox Game Pass for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S via Xbox Game Preview.
This Inkulinati preview is based on a Steam build provided by Yaza Games.
Nick Tan posted a new article, Inkulinati is like the Monty Python of Pentiment