Earlier this year, I saw a very short presentation of Inkbound, an upcoming turn-based roguelike from Shiny Shoe, the developers behind the shipbuilding game Monster Train. It had potential, I thought, but it’s hard to say how much potential something has when all you have to do is the picks they pre-made, like a homemade pie from the Sunday Brunch oven.
I’m excited to report that I spent over an hour with the game alongside Shiny Shoe CEO Mark Cook and Creative Director Andrew Krausnick, who were not only beautiful, but put up with my incredible ability to sense Dory. However, I was impressed with how the game’s fast-paced combat matches the needs of a roguelike, thrusting us into even the most complex scenarios – unlike other strategy games that can feel like treading through a sea of glue.
I played build that was early in every sense of the word. We’re not just talking about the first part of the game, but also the placeholders and the very real possibility that a lot of the things you’ve taken up can change dramatically. But hey, I did a tryout which worked really well, and gave me the chance to see if Shiny Shoe’s latest take on the roguelike had the potential to woo me.
As with most roguelikes, you start in a central area, this time called the Aetheneum, which will act as a home for NPCs and a place to gather your teammates before each round begins. Once you choose to dive into a non-ranked or ranked round (more on the ranked round later), you’re periodically met with decisions that will direct you towards a building or objective – again, like most other roguelikes. You voted for the starting point that would lead us towards our quest to eat two fish, because eating fish is good for you.
And as you would expect, more decisions will confront you! You have to choose one of three abilities, then select Proving Ground which not only changes the theme of the next stage, from barnacles to magma to the enchanted forest, but adds a mutant to make running more complex (although I’m pretty sure that thing wasn’t working in our builder). Oh, but there’s another decision: do you choose an easy battle or a harder battle – especially if the harder one reaps bigger rewards like keys to unlocking loot chests? We often chose the hardest, mostly because I knew deep down that Cook and Krausnick would carry me on their poor, poor backs.
With the exception of combat, there’s a familiar cadence to Inkbound’s run. You upgrade yourself, maybe heal or spend your gold on rest spots, choose your favorite arena and difficulty, and dive into tougher, tougher battles. While much of the intermediate decision-making was typical fare, it was the combat that helped things stand out.
She played Magma Miner, while Cooke and Krausnick (splitting control of one character) played a rogue armed with two massive shurikens. Combat in Inkbound is a bit like Divinity Original Sin, where your character has a quick bar full of abilities that cost a certain amount of points to use. The circles warn you whether you’ll get hit or vice versa, and if you hover your mouse over an enemy, you’ll be able to see all of its passive enhancers and bonuses in clean text.
But what makes Inkbound’s combat so much faster is its flexibility. Unlike DOS – or many other RPGs – you are not rooted to the site before committing to a move. Instead, there’s a slightly more open movement system. You can roam freely within the limits of your ability points, which are used up whenever you travel. There’s a nice sense of freedom, as you explore some topical possibilities before you set in motion, and what you lose in tension or risk you make up in comfort. What is the perfect place for the slammo wammo area of effect? Or your vulgar idiot who connects lightning to enemies and shocks them for a turn? Well, just walk around quickly and find out. It’s especially great for those of us who struggle to visualize movements before we actually perform them.
Movement is encouraged with glowing orbs dotting every yard. If you collect them during your run, you will recover some ability points. Not only that, but each arena gradually develops a rolling, closing fog between turns as battles drag on, with the “drag” never lasting long at all, really. It in no way obstructs the actions, but acts as a push for achievement, not frustration.
Fast-paced battles don’t mean there aren’t great moments either. I built my Magma Man as someone who inflicted piles of burn on the bad guys I hit, with the intent of hitting them with a pillar of fire that would tap into those piles for a good chunk of the damage. Incredibly, I removed it on some horrible purple worm and it was rad. Even Cooke and Krausnick were impressed! You have implemented a very loose strategy! So yeah, Inkbound allows someone who doesn’t have a lot of strategy to do fun and interesting things.
My only concern with Inkbound is with its progression, which sees you tackle ranked tournaments and try to climb the leaderboard, rather than unlocking permanent upgrades, say, to make running easier or make Aetheneum prettier. Makes sense, considering this is more of a co-op roguelikin project online with your friends. Shiny Shoe says there will be a seasonal progression with a battle pass packed with cosmetic items, new stages, and some tweaks to Aetheneum, but I’m afraid that may not be enough to keep players coming back for more. It’s very early days, so my ideas may be unfounded as development continues. Let’s hope so.
No matter what happened, I had a great time with Inkbound and it’s definitely something to keep an eye on, even if you’re not a head strategist like me.
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