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[News] Inkulinati video game review - mischief with monsters in the margins


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Battle royale ensues as you draw fantastical creatures to defeat the AI-powered enemy


How merry the medieval illustrator must have been. Even in some of the most strait-laced works of liturgy, margins are beset with monkeys playing bagpipes and admiring themselves in mirrors, cats defending castles besieged by mice and knights fighting giant snails (with baffling regularity, actually). Or take the rather more terrifying amphivena, depicted in a breviary as a two-headed, two-legged beast so violent that its extremities resort to attacking each other.

With its charmingly drawn sword-wielding dogs and bardic donkeys, video game Inkulinati follows in this lively tradition. But unlike the beasts depicted in medieval manuscripts, the ones brought to life in this turn-based strategy game form the ranks of your personal army as you embark on a quest to save the life of the master who taught you everything you know about pugnacious pigments.

Curiously, this isn’t the first medieval manuscript-based game to be released this winter Pentiment had you leafing through the vellum in a plot-driven murder mystery in 16th-century Bavaria but Yaza Games’ Inkulinati embraces the illustrations’ more chaotic side. Here the pages are your battlefield, the quill and ink your weapons, as you summon creatures to defeat those of your AI-controlled opponent by drawing them into the margins.

For some encounters, your character (I named mine Isabella, after the breviary containing the musical monkeys) will sit amid the fray, hurriedly sketching to bolster your ranks each round; in others, you’ve simply got to work with the troops you’re given. Combat is turn-based, with one beast per player attacking at a time, so forget erasing all the enemies from the page before they get a go, à la XCOM. Likewise, confined to pages of the parchment, you’ll find few spots to hide. Add in obstacles, impending infernos and insta-death edges, and the result is a frantic and claustrophobic albeit gleefully silly fight to the bitter end where every move matters.

Regretting your moves as soon as they’re made is often a good indication of the depth of a turn-based strategy game. But Inkulinati inflicts, for all its charm, a tough learning curve on players or so I told myself as a giant snail consumed yet another of my archers in one gulp. Early encounters can prove infuriatingly difficult, with the AI seemingly immune to mistakes even on the lowest difficulty settings.

There are more overarching dilemmas to distract you along the way: unlocking and upgrading your beasts, between-battle pit stops to invest in different aspects of your army choosing between more health or more ink, say though it’s all tightly railroaded. Dexterity plays a minor role: on certain attacks, a slider will cycle through different damage values and it’s up to you to stop it at its highest value. These will fall in different places for different enemies, so if you’re attacking multiple at once you’ll need to work out who to prioritise.

But the joy is really to be found in the game’s escapist aesthetic. As the battle rages, columns above the margins are gradually filled with text narrating loosely the actions of you and your foes. “God-fearing Hildebert weakly socked the unworthy wretch and he felt as empty as a bakery in the evening” described a duel which I went on to lose rather badly. It’s also visually authentic: Eleanor Jackson, curator of illuminated manuscripts at the British Library, draws parallels with the Breviary of Renaud de Bar, a prayer book from the beginning of the 14th century.

The game’s early-access status emerges at times: signposting can feel a little sparse in the menus, the tutorials could use a replay button, there’s no keyboard support to enter character names on PC. Online multiplayer is planned for the full release, but for now you’ll have to gather around a single keyboard. But what the title lacks in polish, it more than makes up for in the originality of its setting and the charm of its animations. Centuries after their predecessors first set foot in the margins of literature, these zany creatures have finally found the spotlight.

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