Back in the early nineties there was only one game that past me played for the entirety of the summer holidays; Battle Chess. This PC game blew my tiny eleven year old mind to smithereens; never before had I seen anything so astonishing. The typically staunchly inanimate chess pieces were brought to astonishing life right before my very eyes. They moved, they fought, and they lived. Forget trying to win, I’d just like to watch the – for the time – beautiful animation.
Playing the turn-based strategy game Inkulinati gave me the exact same sense of childish wonder. Only this time, rather than watching a chess board brought to life, it’s the illustrated marginalia of a 700 year manuscript that get to live. Now as it starts off a Kickstarter campaign, Inkulinati also happens to be a stonkingly cerebral, multi-faceted, brain tickling and satisfying strategy game in its own right – more than a match for anything Chess can offer.
The Inkulinati, in case you weren’t sure, are an ancient and legendary group who harness the power of the living ink to do battle on the pages of a manuscript. Your chosen avatar can draw to life animalistic medieval marginalia, by which I mean they can command sword-wielding warrior rabbits, carnivorous killer snails and donkeys who only desire to break wind through a trumpet. The developer Yaza Game’s sums up Inkulinati’s style best; this is “Worms meets Monty Python’s The Holy Grail.”
Battles take place on a 2D, often multi-tiered, horizontal map running across the bottom of a manuscript. Each player’s avatar (in the demo we played there was a valiant knight, a wise nun and weird Yoda dude to choose from) sits on opposite ends of the screen like Kings on a chess board. Each turn the player can use their limited but slowly replenishing supplies of living ink to paint their units into existence. There’s a strict cap of five units, so it’s vitally important that each unit’s strengths, weaknesses and special abilities are used in skilful conjunction to achieve maximum tactical advantage.
The units themselves are a delightfully lively bunch, each filled to their inky brim with character and personality. They, as the rules of turn based strategy games dictate, can move a limited distance and perform an attack each turn. Whilst mostly automated, there are some interactive elements to these smackdowns, as a rapidly moving meter must be stopped at the right time to deliver set damage to a foe. It’s a nice additional facet and nailing the timing to achieve an instakill sure is satisfying.
There’s also a genuinely hilarious procedurally generated narrative of the battle being written each turn above the turn-based fray. This commentary is an absolute delight, and I spent far too much time just reading through the wacky literature at the end of each battle.
However, Inkulinati’s strategic elements don’t really focus on the combat; this is a game about controlling space and using it to your advantage. Each level is segmented into many zones, and only one unit or object can occupy each zone at a time. In addition units can freely move through any obstacle in their path, provided their movement range allows them to reach an unoccupied space. Battles then become a tense affair as you seek to manage the vulnerable gaps on your side of the map, whilst attempting to dart units forward into enemy terrain, taking advantage of any missteps in their formation.
Added to this intoxicating tactical mix are the powers of the Inkulinati themselves. Activated at a cost of your precious living ink, these powers further ramp up the sense of dynamism in Inkulinati’s strategy. You effectively summon a giant artist’s hand to do your bidding.
Imagine the big blue National Lottery hand but instead of gifting millions of pounds by declaring ‘It’s You’, it instead pokes you in the head before flicking you from the planet with the swipe of a spectral finger. The Inkulinati hand works in the same way – kind of. You can swipe both friendly and enemy units either left or right, instantly moving them to the next available space, but if there isn’t a space, you’ll sending the poor unsuspecting unit flying off the map entirely, plunging them to their demise as they plummet from the lines of the page.
The swipe can also be applied to an opposing Inkulinati’s avatar, instantly killing their otherwise bullet sponge level of hit points by flicking them off the map. To stop the swipe being too overpowering, it can only be activated within limited range of your own Inkulinati. This leads to a dance of death ensures as you carefully manoeuvre your units, trying to protect your Inkulinati whilst also exposing them to necessary risks so they have the opportunity to strike a killing blow.
Just when you think you’ve got the game all figured out though, there’s an additional twist. Every unit has a ‘push’ attack in which they can shove the unit next to them, achieving the same result as the swipe, just at close range. Then there’s the fact that, just like a strategic Battle Royale, the map begins to shrink and force you closer and closer together.
Most cultures have been obssessed with the ‘end of days’, each successive generation believing that they are the ones who will finally witness the apocalypse. The same is true of the medieval era and this pervasive fear is seen in Inkulinati where, after a set number of turns, armageddon kicks off.
Fire begins to slowly spread from each end of the battlefield, gradually reducing the field of play. Any unit sent hurtling into the flames, or present on the space the flame moves into, is instantly burnt to a crisp. As the battlefield shrinks, the tension escalates, ramping up and up until just one wrong decision can spell disaster. The Inkulinati battlefield can change in a heartbeat, providing any player the opportunity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
This is without doubt one of the most vibrant, energetic and enjoyable turn based strategy games I’ve ever played. No tedious trudge of resource gathering here, nor slow-mo and dull manoeuvring as you spend an age getting your army into position; instead Inkulinati is a game of action, movement, and nail chewing tension.
Whilst the demo was limited to only a few levels, I’ve been left wanting – no, demanding – more. More is certainly what Yaza Game’s are intending to offer, with a full single player campaign and character creation promised. I can’t wait, but I will because time works like that.