Inkulinati review - Draw your sword for some wacky warfare

Key art in Inkulinati, featuring a hand drawing a rabbit.

Key art in Inkulinati, featuring a hand drawing a rabbit.

The fate of a dynasty lies on a little devil named Bub. Yes, Bub, not Bob. Sitting several levels above this funky little being, casually sipping on a goblet, is Death himself, seemingly still confident of victory despite his low health. Bub, merrily dancing away due to a ‘danse macabre’ effect that’ll probably kill him once it wears off, has one chance to weave his name into the tapestry of history. He raises his throwing axe and aims it towards the gurning reaper. A few spots behind him, Lord Sniff the tenth, a strange blue creature whose nine predecessors have all fallen in battle during previous conquests, holds his breath.

Bub throws.

The axe slams into Death, knocking the skeletal figure off of his stool. The battle is over. It’s one in the morning and, despite their commander’s clear incompetence, the forces of Sniff have finally achieved their destiny. The long journey is over.

A battle featuring a snail in Inkulinati.
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Welcome to shell

Inkulinati is a game that expects you to do a lot of thinking. This might not be obvious from its charming and zany art style, which renders everything from small-scale scuffles to titanic tussles via the medium of amusingly-named beasts and their masters fighting it out in the margins of medieval manuscripts, but you’ll quickly become aware of it. Odds are the realisation will come midway through the academy, where the game teaches you the ropes of its turn-based gameplay.

Combat revolves around head-to-head duels between forces usually lorded over by tiny Inkulinati, who can either manipulate the action using giant versions of their own hands or draw up armies of creatures with different characteristics and abilities using their supply of living ink. Said ink is earned by positioning your troops over blots that will pop up randomly on the page as things progress. Each Inkulinati and unit on both sides receive one turn per chapter by default, with fights rumbling on until either everybody on one side, or just their Inkulinati, has run out of health and bitten the dust.

What your side draws, how they move and when the attack is all up to you. Different units have particular strengths and weaknesses, leading to a range of strategies that might help you negotiate the ever-shifting array of enemies, hazards and random objects that populate each stage. For example, drawing a rabbit archer will allow you to deal damage from range, sketching an armoured dog with a giant mace might help you devastate at close range and penning a funky little dragon with a bishop’s head will give you a chance to bless your other soldiers with halos, increasing their damage and ensuring those who attack them will be afflicted with heresy.

If you’re anything like me, your strategic brain will cope just fine until your first encounter with a snail. Having breezed through all of the previous encounters, you’ll underestimate the rather chill-looking gastropod. Then, you’ll start to panic as it begins to swallow each of your troops whole, killing them instantly. Sure, the game had warned me in advance, but I didn’t think an entity called Mr Nutmeg would go that hard.

A party in Inkulinati.
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It’s party time

Once you’ve graduated from training school and possibly gained further experience against AI or friends via custom duels, you’ll head off on a journey. This takes place across maps consisting of branching pathways, which feature a bunch of different types of battles and encounters that’ll dole out a range of rewards or punishments. All of these steps are designed to prepare you for the boss battles which lie at the end of each map and pit you against another Inkulinati with a unique speciality or strategy, with some fresh talents and hand abilities for your Inkulinati on the line.

The first of these is against the master you studied under during your training, who looks a lot like Yoda and fights using a corps of beasts that can hold in their farts in order to explode on command. Sadly, once you beat this fine fellow, he’s accidentally killed by Death during a party to celebrate your victory, sending you off on a pilgrimage to beat three other Inkulinati masters and then take on the bony one in an effort to make him bring your tutor back to life.

In order to get that good, you’ll have to spend a lot of time considering the best path through each map and gather enough strength to mould your army into a formidable force. For example, taking on a beast-only fight might give you a chance to add a new type of unit to your pool, giving you something fresh to plug into the editable lineup of five you can take into each battle and draw into action. On the other hand, popping by an alehouse or scriptorium might give you a chance to increase your Inkulinati’s health or living ink and visiting a hermit might see you offered a resource trade that’ll set you up to buy something from a store further down the line.

However you end up choosing to negotiate your journey, it’s vital that you keep improving your squad at every opportunity, with the list of Mr Nutmeg-esque foes, hazards and challenges growing longer and longer as you progress towards your final battle against Death. If you come up short in a battle, be prepared to have one of your quills, which serve as a limited supply of lives and allow you to carry on your journey from whatever point you’d reached when you were defeated, break. How many of these you’re given at the start of each run will depend upon the difficulty setting you’ve opted for, but once you’ve exhausted them, prepare to be unceremoniously flung back to the start and begin again from scratch with a fresh character and army.

The end of a battle in Inkulinati.
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Charming character amid the conflict

Despite being sent trudging back to the introduction with metronomic regularity during my crusade to the game’s climax, something which I have notoriously little patience for in other titles, I never felt that Inkulinati was wearing my patience truly thin. Sure, I got pretty frustrated at myself for losing all of my progress thanks to an ill-timed brain fart or two, but I rarely felt that agitation transferring onto the game itself.

I think this was because of the innate charm that’s baked into every character and scenario it offers up, all of which are imbued with a witty sense of humour that treads the line between zaniness and subtlety incredibly well. Whether it’s the funky and often pun-centric names given to each little soldier that give them each a bit of personality, the gentle screams they emit when being pushed off of the side of the manuscript lines to their doom or the fact you can draw in a donkey bard and have it fart through a musical instrument in order to give foes headaches, battles never stop feeling fun and quirky, no matter how intense they get.

Every one of the random encounters and brief conversations with fellow Inkulinati I mentioned before is teeming with amusing dialogue options, allowing you to truly embrace the tongue-in-cheek tone of the whole thing. You can also do this via the little bit of character customisation the game offers, which gave me the means to dub my first Inkulinati ‘Lord Sniff’ and double down on the fact the game kept encouraging and forcing me to start fresh runs by assigning a new number to the end of that moniker.

As you might imagine based on the fact that I made it all the way to Lord Sniff number ten, replayability is a key aspect of the game’s journey mode, with the arrangement of each map being switched up for each new run and some character dialogue changing too. This gives you some motivation to keep going after you’ve made it all the way through a couple of times and try out new ways of building up your army and cultivating fresh playstyles by acquiring different creatures and talents.

My one real knock on the game is that it doesn’t quite feel as proficient and expansive in terms of its offerings in this particular area as games like Hades quite yet. Though, Inkulinati is still in early access with plans for expansion via everything from additional creatures to extra game modes, so in time, the game may grow into something truly worthy of rivalling Supergiant Games’ massive hit.

A final blow being struck in Inkulinati.
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Striking the final blow

Lord Sniff the tenth still can’t believe his luck. After all of that hard work, coupled with the tension of regularly overcoming obstacles which proved the undoing of his nine ancestors, he’s finally succeeded where they failed. A weight has been lifted off of his little blue head. He’s no longer sweating through his fashionable pink robes. He might have finally found inner peace.

He’s going to be really unhappy when I tell him that I’m planning to send him on another journey whenever Inkulinati’s early access updates start to arrive. However, thanks to the game’s commitment to being a bit zany, he’ll have plenty of chances to express his frustrations to the other Inkulinati he’ll be fighting.

Inkulinati is a wonderfully quirky strategy game with a great sense of humour and plenty of room to grow. Yaza Games have certainly done something interesting with medieval manuscripts.
8 out of 10

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