Inkulinati review

How can you tell something is the result of passion and care, rather than cold, hard economics? For me, it is the little touches. The things that developers add in when there’s absolutely no need whatsoever. In Inkulinati, a game where you draw beasts onto a battlefield, your hand is represented by a human hand. Draw a beast, and an animation triggers where your large hand, holding a quill, scribbles the little monster to life. When your opponent does this, their hand might be represented by that of a monkey or webbed lizard, depending on who that opponent is. I wouldn’t have noticed if the developers used the same hand picture for everyone. But I noticed the changes. I noticed the monkey’s hand. It made me laugh. Inkulinati is made with love.

Let’s go back to the basics. This is a tactical strategy game played over a map resembling a medieval manuscript. You play as an Inkulinati, drawing beasts onto the battlefield that fight on your behalf. There’s lots to draw, all with different characteristics: snails that devour enemies, foxes that steal, and rabbits that make rivals miss a turn. It’s your job to jot them on a page and then instruct them to move and attack until the opposition is wiped out. It’s rather simple.

Except it’s not, as there’s surprising tactical depth. Before each battle, you need to choose which beasts you want to be available. Only five types can be taken into battle, so you must select carefully. Some maps are useful for enemies who can fire ranged attacks. Some levels don’t have much space, so slow units that deal high damage are more important. There’s also the placement of your beasts to think about. Pushing characters off the edge of the map instantly kills them, so you ideally need to think about your positioning. Especially as a character will get pushed to the next available free space. If there are beasts or scenery behind you and no free space to land on, then you need to start worrying.

This is all explained in the wonderful tutorial levels. Each one introduces a concept and then lets you play with it. It’s beautiful pedagogy. I never got overwhelmed with new mechanics and ideas, and it takes its time to ensure that you’re not missing important aspects, all with the confidence that even the tutorial levels are fun and engaging.

The fact that Inkulinati is funny also really, really, helps. The humour isn’t the most sophisticated in the world – some beasts can fart at their opponents to give them a headache, or moon at them to cause them to miss a turn – but the charming animations, olde-timey language and setting help sell the jokes. It’s Python-esque in the best possible way.

Once you’ve learnt to play, it’s off to The Journey – the main campaign mode, and one I had a lot of fun with. What’s great about The Journey is the variety of the games you play within. There are several different battle types present, including duels (you vs one other opponent), beast battles (your beasts vs some other beasts with no chance to draw more help for yourself) and lair battles (wherein you have both kill the beasts in the level and also destroy the lair), all of which mix up the format of the game enough to keep things interesting.

Each battle give you prestige, money, and new abilities to equip during battle. Unfortunately, your character does not go back to full health after a fight, so you must manage how much damage you take. Boredom must be managed likewise. Drawing the same beasts over and over again increases it and makes them more expensive to draw. I didn’t have to manage my boredom, though, because that is a quite frankly wonderful way to make sure players don’t go with the same tactics constantly, trying new tactics and beast combos. It’s the kind of mechanic that makes you realise how well thought out this is.

And that’s what I kept coming back to – the thoughtful design touches and just how well thought out everything is. This is Yaza Games’ first effort, and it’s pulled off with such confidence that it blew me away. Not only does everything feel coherent, from the writing to the sound design to the graphics, but it’s also really polished.

The controls on Switch are excellent. It feels like the team sat down and tried to work out exactly how to play a strategy game with a controller, which isn’t always the case. It’s pretty intuitive about button placement and how to select options. That feels like faint praise, but in the current Switch software landscape, it’s not always a given.

I really liked Inkulinati. No, it isn’t perfect – the randomly appearing scenery and buffs sometimes feel like they overtake the strategy element, leading to difficulty spikes. But I can’t point to much else I found to dislike. It’s tactical, whimsical, and a joy to play. Debut titles from new studios don’t get much stronger than this.

Yaza Games’ Inkulinati is out now on all formats. Published by Daedalic Entertainment.