Developer Yaza Games has really created something special with their new Inkulinati game, which is currently in Early Access on the Steam platform for PC players. It’s completely playable right now, which is why we are giving it a full review, although the developers say that more content and features will be added over time.
The world of Inkulinati is a strange one, although it’s also very charming. Inkulinati strikes a really good balance in all things, and the setting is one of them. You have the prominence of medieval manuscripts, which act as the battleground for the game, and yet, the characters that will fight over them are fairly comical, like a snail that devours whatever it encounters with a burp or a donkey bard who toots his horn out his backside. Part of the charm of the world is the tongue in cheek humor set against the backdrop of a serious scriptorium, as if Andreas Maler from Pentiment suddenly went crazy and started inking Monty Python-like drawings on his masterworks.
Players in Inkulinati get to be of one of the several ink masters whose job is to draw different creatures onto medieval manuscripts. There is an entire quest line where the main character goes on a long journey with many stops along the way to fight in battles. There are also some light RPG elements as players choose how to level up their master drawer, giving them access to new creatures, more powers and the ability to improve their character with higher hit points and more starting ink – which is the resource used to draw your armies.
At its heart, Inkulinati is a turn-based battle game played on a small but often multi-tiered 2D arena – basically a flat piece of paper. In many ways, Inkulinati plays like a traditional arena battle game like DOTA 2, League of Legends or even something like Company of Heroes. You will be capturing “flags” which are actually ink spots on the arena floor, the control of which grants you more ink for drawing more creatures and also even more powerful ones which cost more ink to create. You will also often be moving your beasts towards the other side of the map, with the goal of defeating the enemy Inkulinati who is drawing all the rival creatures and trying to do the same thing to you.
There is even a time limit, really a turn limit, to each battle, just like in most arena combat games where the map gets smaller and smaller until everyone left alive is confined to a very small space where they have to fight one another. After so many turns in Inkulinati, apocalyptic fire will begin to blaze at the far ends of the map – fire being a really bad thing for creatures made of paper. Creatures, and your main Inkulinati, will need to move towards the center of the map to avoid getting burned up, with your opponents doing the same thing. In this way, no battle in Inkulinati lasts very long and will eventually end with someone winning the day.
The creatures that you draw in Inkulinati are really the stars of the show. They are both adorable and deadly, consisting of things like dogs wielding swords, foxes with longbows, and rabbits lugging around spears that are almost too big for them. Many creatures have special abilities in addition to their normal attack, like the aforementioned rabbit who can turn and shake his cottontail at an enemy, mesmerizing them and putting them to sleep for a turn. There are also demons and other frightful monsters, although they are mostly in your enemy’s armies until you are able to progress far enough to start unlocking more powerful beasts for yourself.
When creatures attack one another, the amount of damage they do can vary. You will see a long list of numbers line up beside the creature being attacked with a little counter moving up and down the list. Clicking on the mouse button stops the pointer and the attack does whatever damage it was pointing at when that happens. The pointer spins faster or slower depending on the attacking and defending creature’s stats, so for example, a creature with a high dexterity making a bow attack against a slow knight type opponent might have the pointer going pretty slow, allowing players to more easily hit for maximum damage, but if that same attack is made against a fellow fast creature, the pointer moves so fast that stopping it in the right place involves a lot of luck.
Your main Inkulinati character can also make direct attacks against enemy creatures. On your Inkulinati master’s turn, they can do things like smudging an enemy creature for direct damage, pushing either an enemy or a friendly creature across the map or even healing up damage to themselves or other creatures. You earn the ability to take more direct actions as you play and all of them seem helpful, or at least could be helpful in the right circumstances, without unbalancing the game. But be careful, because the enemy Inkulinati can also take direct actions, and often do so very effectively.
The AI for Inkulinati is very impressive. For a 2D game with somewhat limited available moves, it’s surprisingly difficult to master. That is because the enemy creatures as well as the enemy Inkulinati are very good at using the rules to their advantage.
For example, instead of always doing a standard attack, they might move a set piece into place with their first move to close out a gap and then push one of your creatures past it (pushed creatures go to the nearest open space). If that action pushes your creature off the edge of the paper, it will result in an instant kill. The AI is very good at exploiting the rules to their maximum advantage, which makes the game much more challenging to win. Enemy AI surprised me more than once with clever actions when I thought I had them cornered. Players will have to master the game rules themselves if they want to achieve consistent victories.
Graphically, Inkulinati pushes its own amazing style, which is a modern take on medieval manuscripts. The sounds are also top notch, with appropriate, themed music playing throughout gameplay. And also, hearing the creatures react when making attacks or getting hit is pretty funny. For example, it’s sad when one of them gets pushed off a map to their doom, but hearing them scream in a puzzling way as they fall will make you chuckle for sure. Everything about Inkulinati is high quality, and you can tell that the developers have put a lot of time and effort into making sure that all the elements of Inkulinati follow the theme of the game.
Inkulinati is a breath of fresh air for gamers looking for something a bit different in the turn-based strategy genre. It offers a surprisingly challenging battle system, fun creatures to deploy and fight, a decent plot, a nice mix of seriousness and irreverent humor, and more charm than you can shake a quill pen at.