Inkulinati Review – 8.5/10

Contributed by DJMMT

Inkulinati is a turn-based roguelite that functions a bit like a card battler mixed with Pokémon. No, the irony is not lost on me that I’ve described it that way even though Pokémon is already a card battle game. What I find most impressive about this game is that it’s built in such a way that even people who don’t really like roguelites can probably enjoy it. Now, I personally do like roguelites, or at least I tell myself that often enough that I keep playing them, so take that statement with a grain of salt.

The thing that originally drew me to Inkulinati was absolutely the art style. The idea behind the game, which is expressed in the writing, is that the characters are actually medieval scribes working on manuscripts. In their boredom, they play a battle game in the margins of these manuscripts. Your character is not the character you see on screen. That’s actually the avatar of your character for the purposes of playing these little pastime ink battles. Your character is the guy drawing the monsters taking part in the battle. As such, you can actually see your character’s hand as part of the game. But even without that, the art style is beautiful hand drawn animals and objects done to emulate the style of medieval manuscripts. The creatures wear medieval clothing and wield medieval weapons. It’s cute and also historically grounded in its own way.

There are also little details that bring the world to life even more. For instance, while battling, you can see text appearing in the background of the game. If you take the time to read it, you’ll discover that it’s a play-by-play of the events that take place in the battle. Again, the idea is that these characters are actually scribes working on transcribing passages. There’s even a live action cutscene that shows a knight challenge a nun to an ink battle.

I really appreciate how readable everything is, even while maintaining the medieval aesthetic. The maps, menus, and HUD are all very legible while still using italicized fonts. The color schemes are vibrant, but still have the appearance of being dated in their own way. Though simple, the animals used in the battles are all very clear and distinct from each other. And there are so many different types of animals available. Early on, you mostly see rabbits and dogs. But if you progress further, there are donkeys, monkeys, odd monsters, and of course dragons. Even though it’s a turn-based game that’s supposed to be taking place in a book, there’s real life to the game’s appearance. I find it extremely pleasant to look at.

As for the sound, since it’s a turn-based game, you can very easily play it with the sound off. But you’ll be missing much of the game’s character by doing this. The music is pretty much what you’d expect from a medieval themed game. They’re not treading new ground on that front. However, the sound effects are a delight. There’s a lot going on with this game, with so many different monsters, attacks, and occurrences. And everything has a specific sound to go with it. The donkey, as an easy example, makes donkey noises. The dog barks and growls. The bees buzz. The explosions pop. I’m not going to say this is Balder’s Gate III levels of variety, but Yaza Games has definitely put the work in to make a diverse and dynamic audio experience.

There’s an irony in saying that a game about scribes drawing isn’t about the writing, but the writing is definitely secondary to the gameplay and art style. That said, Inkulinati is very funny for what it is. As far as tutorial writing, there is a lot of it, and it’s very clear. I spent literally four hours playing through all the optional tutorial content before actually starting the adventure, known as Journey Mode. The explanations are detailed but broken into smaller segments to make sure that you understand each specific aspect of the game. At first, it might feel daunting, but if you take the time to complete the tutorial in its entirety, the gameplay becomes very manageable.

When it comes to storytelling, the game’s writing is simple but effective. Much of the game is actually told through dialog. At the end of each battle, the characters from opposing sides of the battle throw shade at each other. It’s light, comedic, and mostly inconsequential. But it does add to the atmosphere of the game. The real plot is experienced through the map in Journey Mode. As you progress forward, you will encounter various landmarks. Each landmark that is not a random battle has a bit of dialog, as well as dialog options for the player to choose from. The dialog does affect aspects of the roguelite gameplay, but not the general narrative of the game’s story.

I really like the overall plot of the game. Basically, you’re a scribe in training studying to become a master inkulinati. Your master, who looks like Yoda, is drinking buddies with Death, the greatest ink battler of all time. One day, during a bender, Death accidentally kills your master. He then tells you that he can resurrect your master, but only if you defeat him in an ink battle. As you’re still a novice, he sends you on a journey to train and improve your ink battle skills so you can become strong enough to defeat him and save your master. It’s easy to understand, funny, in line with the themes of stories from the time period, and doesn’t really affect the gameplay that much. You could skip most of the game’s dialog, but it’s pretty short overall and funny enough to not feel burdensome for people who don’t play games for the story.

As for the gameplay, Inkulinati is a turn-based tactical game that forces you to take strategic thinking seriously. There is definitely a bit of luck involved, as numerous random events can occur, but this is essentially a game of chess with a large number of pieces and additional moves. If you do not enjoy analytical gameplay and tactical decision making, this is not the game for you. That said, it’s a pretty accessible turn-based tactical game, all things considered. I have played easier ones, but this one is far from the most daunting I’ve encountered. As this is a fully turn-based game, you can play the entire thing with just a mouse.

The name of the game is resource management, but not in the way that usually means. Your goal is always to defeat the target. There are different types of battles, so the target can vary from stage to stage, but there is always something to kill. Normally, it’s either going to be kill all the opposing monsters on the board or destroy the rival inkulinati avatar. Your inkulinati has hp, measured in numbers. As this is a roguelite, HP carries over from battle to battle, but there are numerous ways to refill your HP, both in and out of battle. Fighting is done through summoning beasts to fight on your behalf. You summon beasts via a finite resource called living ink. I’ll go into more detail about that in a minute. Each beast has its own hp, strengths, weaknesses, techniques, and cost to summon. You move these beasts around the map and use their techniques in turns. Your adversary does the same.

Battles are broken into chapters. Each chapter consists of each side taking turns until all currently living beasts and the inkulinatis themselves have taken a turn. The number of turns per chapter is contingent on the number of living things on the field. So if you only have one beast summoned and the enemy inkulinati has four, then you will only get to move twice in that chapter (once for you and once for your one beast), while the enemy will get to move five times in that chapter (once for the enemy and once for each of the four beasts they have on the field). Each side can only have a maximum of five summoned beasts on the field at any one time. Once all turns have been taken, the chapter ends. At the start of each new chapter, the enemy always moves first, which is really annoying, but consistent.

Taking turns consists of using one team member (beast or inkulinati) per turn. In the case of beasts, that team member can move and then take one action. The action can be any of the actions/techniques it has in its arsenal, but you can only use one per turn. Movement is limited and beast type specific. As it’s a tactical game, you have to account for things like movement and attack range at all times. You can also choose to move the character a little farther if you give up your action for that turn. It’s important to note that inkulinati cannot move in the traditional sense. These characters can only do hand actions, or be acted upon by beasts. Hand actions are actions taken by the larger inkulinati represented by the avatar. During their turns, they use their hands to act upon the page. Like with beasts, there are limits to how you manage and wield them. You can only take five into battle and carry a total of nine in a given run. Any additional ones must be swapped into your collection at the sacrifice of another. There are a large number of hand actions in the game. They can be used to move characters, such as your avatar, attack enemies, heal yourself or allied beasts, and much more. Mastering the movement mechanics, like pushing, is crucial to succeeding at this game. When you take a turn with your inkulinati, you can exhaust as many available hand actions and summon as many beasts as you want, and can afford, before you end the turn. Note that certain hand actions have multiple chapter cooldowns.

Living ink is sort of like magic, but it only has one specific use. It’s the resource required to summon new beasts. You can get buffs, called talents, that will affect the gameplay based on the amount of ink you have at the end of a chapter, but ultimately it comes down to the fact that the more ink you have in a turn the more beasts you can summon. Or conversely, the more powerful beasts you can summon, as each type of beast has its own specific ink cost. Once a beast is summoned, it exists until it dies, incurring no additional ink costs in the process. At the beginning of each new chapter, you get additional ink, based on the events that took place during that chapter. For example, killing enemies can get you additional ink in certain circumstances. Standing on ink drops at the end of a chapter will net you additional ink. The amount depends on the size of the drop the character is standing on. Note that this applies to both inkulinati and beasts. Either can be used to collect more ink. As ink is a finite resource, you also can choose not to spend it in a given chapter.

There are various other things to consider both in and outside of battles. For example, you always start a run with four available beasts. There are limits to the specific set of beasts you can choose to start with. They must all be the same type, for instance. Meaning that you can’t start a game with a demon, a skeleton, a rabbit, and a monkey. Though you can unlock all those types of beasts as you progress through the game, you are always forced to start with four of the same species. However, the different types of beasts among that species are at your discretion. When you first start the game for the first time, you’ll start with a set of rabbits. One archer, one swordsman, one spearman, and your choice between a mace wielder and a bishop. Though for some reason they decided to make the bishop a cat. As you move forward in that specific run, you can recruit other beasts of whatever species you happen to find. These can be purchased in shops with gold, earned in game by winning battles, or by completing certain challenging battles. At any given time, you can have no more than 12 different types of beasts in your arsenal. If you find a thirteenth beast, you will have to release one of the twelve you have to recruit it.

While you can have up to 12 beasts in your arsenal during a run, you can only take a maximum of five types of beasts into battle. Meaning you have to choose five from among your 12. However, it’s more complicated than simply picking the five you like most. There is a mechanic called boredom that prevents you from spamming the same beasts every battle. Each time you reuse a beast in back-to-back battles, it gains boredom. Boredom increases the ink cost to summon a beast based on the amount of boredom the monster has. A 5-cost beast with 1 boredom will cost six drops of ink to summon. Boredom increases with each consecutive battle use. So, it’s in your best interest not to spam the same beasts every time. Meaning that you need to recruit different species of the same type of warrior to maintain a well-rounded army without incurring too much boredom. For instance, you might want two to three different types of archers. In my first run, I had a rabbit archer, a fox archer, and a dog archer. This made it so that I could go into every battle with an archer without ever incurring boredom. That said, not all archers are created equal. Dog and fox archers are superior to rabbit archers in that they have an extra technique that can be quite useful in certain situations. Boredom is reduced by not using a beast that has boredom in battle. Additionally, there are locations on the map that can reduce boredom.

Outside of battle, you must also manage navigation of the map. This is where the roguelite elements of the gameplay really take shape. You have to clear five areas to beat a run of the Journey Mode. Each area has multiple forks in the road for you to choose from. These forks can mean choosing between different types of battles, different battle difficulty levels for increased rewards, and various landmarks such as shops, healing locations, and different types of permanent buffs. Every time you win a battle, you get gold. Gold can be used to buy new beasts, heal HP, purchase additional continues, and a few other things. You also have to decide between things like healing your current HP and increasing your total HP. As you play more, you’ll get a feel for what the best paths to take in a given situation are.

One thing that I really liked about this game is that the normal difficulty of Journey Mode is extremely well balanced. While it’s challenging, I was able to beat the game on my first attempt. This is not because the game is too easy. It’s because I took the time to truly understand and master the mechanics by spending four hours doing the tutorials. I didn’t win every match. I lost at least two of them during my first run. Note that normal mode gives you five continues to start and allows you to purchase more in shops with earned gold. Even with the RNG components of the gameplay, practicing solid fundamentals and playing strategically allowed me to complete the game without spending hours banging my head against the roguelite wall. Had I not completed the tutorial, I do not believe I could have pulled this off. Possibly on the easy difficulty, but not in normal. This is a skill-based game. Meaning that if you learn the mechanics, you will be fine without having to grind.

You definitely can grind in Inkulinati. There’s a ton of replay value. Beating the game once on normal unlocks several new beasts, hand actions, and talents that you can immediately start using. However, there are still many more to unlock, many of which have much higher costs to obtain. As you progress through the game the first time, you will be stuck using rabbits, foxes, and dogs. Meanwhile, you’ll encounter a large number of beasts you haven’t yet unlocked. They are stronger, more interesting, and wildly different in style and scope of abilities. You can eventually unlock all these beasts, if you’re willing to put in the time to collect the experience, called prestige, required to do so. There are also four different difficulty levels; and the game implies that the ending can change if you beat it multiple times. Plus, there are so many different combinations of beasts and talents to choose from. It took me 10 hours from first loading up the game to beating it once. I could easily see a diehard fan spending 50+ hours on this one, if they care to unlock and use everything. Not to mention the 24 achievements currently available in the Steam version of the game. And remember that this game is still in early access. Meaning they could add additional beasts, talents, hand actions, and entire campaigns. In fact, as I was playing the game to write this review, the developers released a new update that added an additional avatar, a new class of monsters, several additional talents, and new hand actions.

Ultimately, I’m very glad that I decided to retry Inkulinati. It has improved quite a deal since I tried the original demo. Originally, I would never have given it a second thought. Now, I’m excited to keep playing it and unlock additional beasts and plot details. As I write this, the game is currently on sale for $14 from the usual $25. You’ll definitely get your money’s worth at $15. If you like tactical turn-based games, I highly recommend this one. For a final score, I rate it an 8.5/10.

XPG Terrence

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