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The Mosscloak, Weaver, and Magma Miner stand alongside one another in colorful key art for Inkbound

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Inkbound lays the groundwork for a great co-op roguelike

Hades, Diablo, and Into the Breach collide

Image: Shiny Shoe

You have to respect a game that calls its villains Villains. It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

Inkbound, which will be released in early access on May 22, is the latest title from Shiny Shoe, developer of Monster Train. Described as a turn-based, co-op roguelike, Inkbound is a game that invites one to overuse the verb “meets.” Alas, I am compelled: Inkbound is Hades meets Diablo meets Into the Breach, with the tiniest splash of Fortnite thrown in for good measure.

Let’s start with Hades, as, structurally, it’s the most obvious point of inspiration. Inkbound is a narrative-driven, action roguelike from a top-down perspective, strewn with characters who give you tasks to accomplish on your many runs through its storybook locales. There’s the Silent Promenade, which isn’t as serene as its name suggests, as well as the Proving Grounds, which, yeah, no, definitely made me prove my ability. After every run, you return to the Atheneum, a hub-area-slash-library that, for a book nerd like me, seems super cozy, despite the apocalyptic trappings. The story goes: Every book ever written is kept in the Atheneum, but — but — they’re at risk of being destroyed forever, as the aforementioned Villains sap them of their ink, causing them to fade.

The Weaver and the Obelisk combine their Thread and Tank abilities during a colorful battle in Inkbound Image: Shiny Shoe via Polygon

Yes, yes, but gameplay. You play initially as one of three classes: the Magma Miner, the Mosscloak, or the Weaver. The Magma Miner is a tank that can stack ability power and shields. The Mosscloak is a kind of rogue, with a focus on comboing dashes and shuriken throws. The Weaver is a take on the traditional mage that connects enemies with threads, setting them up to take more damage with each new enemy threaded. In the pre-release build I played, two additional classes unlock after progressing through a few early quests: the Clairvoyant, a combo support and damage dealer, and my personal favorite, the Obelisk, an aggressive frontliner with two giant stone shields for weapons.

Of course, like any good roguelike, each class can be heavily modified in terms of playstyle with abilities picked up along the way. Some of my more successful runs involved imbuing the Mosscloak with as much poison damage on each of their abilities as possible, and one run that turned my Obelisk into a godlike, teleporting Juggernaut. (Needless to say, I won that one.) Like Hades, or any great roguelike, by the time you reach the end of any run, your abilities are nigh unrecognizable from the character you started with.

The player interacts with the Stigmatist NPC in a dialogue scene in Inkbound Image: Shiny Shoe via Polygon

Battles take place from a top-down perspective in the vein of Diablo, with a hotbar of abilities inherent to each class, but are also turn-based, with upcoming enemy actions and total damage clearly laid out à la Into the Breach. If that sentence confused you, then your initial hour with the game will be similar to my own. It takes a second to get used to how the action flows. But once you do, combat becomes tactical and thoughtful. Both movement and abilities use Will, a limited resource akin to mana that replenishes each turn, which forces the need to balance mobility with damage: Do I use my Will to slam the hell out of these little exploding mole dudes, or do I expend some of it to get outside of this big AoE circle on the ground that’s promising to halve my HP?

Complicating the matter is a shrinking circle of play that gets smaller as fights progress, encouraging action over inaction, a mechanic that should sound familiar to anyone who’s ever played Fortnite or its ilk. By my fourth or fifth run, each Inkbound battle felt like a brain teaser, something to be overcome with a deliberate series of moves and attacks.

Unless you are playing multiplayer, at which point Inkbound almost feels like a completely different game.

The Obelisk uses an are-of-effect abilities to take out several enemies at once in Inkbound Image: Shiny Shoe via Polygon

Okay, maybe “completely different” is overstating things, but not by much. Everything I’ve already said about gameplay remains true when you add another player (or more — up to four). Battles are still turn-based and enemy damage is still clearly laid out. Except, when it comes to the players’ turn, all actions by your party are taken simultaneously. Whereas while playing solo, each move can be carefully considered, in multiplayer, chaos tends to reign. You might be lining up a dash as the Obelisk, when suddenly your Mosscloak friend does their own dash-and-shuriken combo, clearing out the enemies you intended to spend your turn eliminating. If you happen to left-click at the same time, too bad, because there’s no undo button if you dash through open air. You’ll just have to wait until the next turn.

This is a game that demands voice chat to coordinate attacks, but even then, once you add another player to the mix, Inkbound suddenly feels more like a desperate brawl than a careful game of chess. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s been a long time since I’ve played a game whose co-op experience felt this different from its solo version.

The player selects between three modifiers, represented as card abilities, during a run in Inkbound Image: Shiny Shoe via Polygon

Inkbound, like all early access games, is bound to change as updates are pushed out — but what I’ve played thus far is a strong foundation. Presently, my main gripe is that NPCs feel less distinct than I’d like, which makes it hard to invest myself in the story. I do, however, appreciate the nod to creative writing dictums in the form of naming the player character “Needless,” with commentary from the supporting cast saying that you’re not a real character if you don’t have needs. Still, the whole “all the books ever” angle feels undercooked, if only because, probably for legal reasons, we’re not battling through any copyrighted material, but rather generic takes on storytelling in general. (Now that it’s in the public domain, maybe they should do a Great Gatsby update?)

In the end, though, the truest measure of roguelikes is whether they instill that “one more run” feeling, and Inkbound has that in spades. If the game’s early access is its prologue, I’m ready to read chapter one.

Inkbound will be released into early access on May 22 on Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Shiny Shoe. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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