Jess Elizabeth Reed
Wage war by drawing in the margins of medieval manuscripts. Have your inked creations carry out your battle commands, march across page, and take down… whatever the hell that strange cat-fish hybrid is. Doodle like an illuminator, scribble like a scribe; they say ‘the devil makes work for idle hands’. Now prove them right.
If you’re thinking that you already know about the medieval manuscript-inspired game on Xbox Game Pass, you’re probably picturing Pentiment, developed by Obsidian Entertainment and released to rave reviews in November 2022. Inkulinati is different. It’s a turn-based strategy title from Yaza Games that will be released in early access on Xbox Game Pass on January 31. Inkulinati and Pentiment have a lot in common, especially when it comes to their art style, but the two games’ similarities are only skin-deep.
In case you missed out on one of 2022’s best games, Pentiment is a narrative adventure game where you play as Andreas Maler, a journeyman artist in the 16th Century. While the game, at first, seems to be about completing your apprenticeship at an abbey in a small Bavarian town, the plot quickly thickens into a knotty murder mystery. From there Pentiment is all about investigation, character-defining choices, and a race against the clock to find the truth – or at least a version of the truth that best suits your goals.
Inkulinati is more tactical and strategy-based than Pentiment. In order to understand and overcome the trials of a living manuscript, you will have to duke it out with various opponents – including Death itself – in the single-player campaign. Living Ink is what makes all the magic happen. It brings beasts to life under your command, and is the reward for smart tactical plays and crushing victories. Your bestiary will grow over time, giving you access to more strategies and play styles, and letting your hand dance across the page with even more fervour than before.
Inkulinati really leans into its turn-based combat system. Each turn, you can direct one of your beasts – each of which have different abilities, strengths, and vulnerabilities – to move, attack, heal, or take some other kind of action. Afterwards, your opponent can do the same with one of their units. Turns are organized into chapters, and each chapter ends when every beast on the field has made their move. Players can also intervene in other ways, besides using their army of beasts. You are, after all, much bigger than the pages under your control. You can use your fists to smash or disrupt the opposing team, pick up units with your fingers, or draw other elements on the playing field – like barriers and obstacles. The battle ends when one player’s Tiny Inkulinati, or avatar, is destroyed.
So, it’s true that both Pentiment and Inkulinati make use of medieval marginalia, the bizarre little illustrations that can be found in many medieval manuscripts. But Pentiment also uses early print and woodcut styles as the game’s timeline progresses across a total of 25 years. Inkulinati’s gameplay will take place more strictly within the pages of a manuscript and will be more faithful to one time period’s art style. No Gutenberg printing press or type-setting here, then.
Inkulinati’s release date following so soon after Pentiment’s may prompt corrections of “no, the other medieval manuscript game” for years to come, but I’d like to think that there’s room enough for both in the hearts and minds of history nerds everywhere. For Pentiment fans looking for some more medieval vibes, they can play Inkulinati at the end of the month. And if you just can’t wait until Inkulniati releases to get your medieval marginalia fix, well, Pentiment is right there waiting for you.
Perhaps the best thing that these two games have in common is that they are both on Xbox Game Pass, which is proving to be a great home for experimental indies and games in early access. Being on Game Pass provides visibility for games from smaller teams (Pentiment wouldn’t exist without the service, for example). Game Pass holders might come for the latest high-profile triple-A title – when they arrive – but stay for the delightful selection of indie games. After all, once your monthly subscription is paid, playing anything on Game Pass feels free.
But, more relevant for Inkulinati, Game Pass is especially forgiving for games in early access. Every gamer has probably felt burned by a game they purchased in early access at least once. And yes, while it can be frustrating to pay for something that ends up being totally different than what you were expecting, early access is an incredibly important tool for a lot of developers in bringing their ideas to life – just look at what it did for Hades.
Game Pass allows games in early access to be played by a large audience that can give feedback to developers without that audience feeling disappointed or cheated. It’s less likely that you’ll feel that you didn’t get what you paid for when you didn’t actually pay for something. And if a game in early access just isn’t feeling like a deep enough experience for where it’s at in its development cycle when you get around to playing it, then there’s a slew of other Game Pass titles at the ready to soothe the pain. With this setup, everyone wins.
Yaza Games plans to keep Inkulinati in early access for up to a year, collecting feedback from players that are tempted enough to jump in early. The testers braving the uncertain waters early on Xbox will be shoring up the final product for Nintendo Switch users, who will get the game after early access has concluded. Throughout the early access period, the team will add in additional beasts, masters, and battlefields. Online multiplayer won’t be a part of the early access version of Inkulinati, but may be added down the line.
Inkulinati looks like an exciting newcomer to the tactical strategy genre, flush with fresh ideas and all realised in that incredible art style. Who knows? Maybe Inkulinati and Pentiment are just the beginning of a long line of medieval manuscript games to come. The niche subgenre seems to be off to an illuminating start.
Inkulinati is coming to Xbox Game Pass on January 31, 2023, and will be available on console and PC in early access.