Skip to main content

Inkbound is already changing the way I think about roguelikes

A character battles monsters in Inkbound.
Shiny Shoe

I don’t envy anyone who sets out to make a roguelike. The genre presents a wide range of challenges that can make or break a game. How long should a run take? What’s the right amount of challenge? How do you keep people coming back for one more run? The answer to one of those questions could be the wrong solution for the others. It’s the most delicate of digital balancing acts that only a handful of studios have down to a science.

Judging by Inkbound, developer Shiny Shoe might be close to joining that list. The studio already cracked the roguelike genre in 2020 with its excellent Monster Train, a deckbuilding riff on Slay the Spire with a tower defense twist. With Inkbound, which hits its 1.0 launch on April 9, takes several great ideas from that title and infuses them into something totally different. It’s a totally unique turn-based tactics game using some visual cues you’d usually see in MMORPGs.

Though Inkbound has some balance issues that may hold it back from being one of the genre’s greats, Shiny Shoe gets one important aspect right here. It has found a great way to give players a difficult mountain to climb but puts enough footholds along the way to make each failed run feel worthwhile.

The roguelike quest

Inkbound takes place in a fantasy setting where books are portals to other worlds. Players set out on a quest to hunt down some nefarious villains that are sapping those books of their ink. That narrative isn’t just a loose setup to motivate its roguelike structure. Inkbound is loaded with lore, taking notes from Hades as its story unfolds over time through chats with NPCs. It’s perhaps a little too wrapped up in its mess of proper nouns to make much sense, but it’s a respectable commitment to penning a proper universe, and the 1.0 update takes that even further.

What interests me more is Inkbound’s unique approach to combat. Rather than dealing out hack-and-slash action, each battle is a turn-based tactics encounter set in a round arena. The basic idea is that players get a certain amount of action points to spend each turn, which can be used on a bar full of abilities. The Magma Miner smashes its foes with a hammer and can leap onto enemies. My favorite class, the Weaver, attaches threads to enemies and can yank them to deal damage to everyone they’re connected to at once. Abilities sit at the bottom of the screen on a bar and operate on a cooldown.

Characters fight off a boss in Inkbound.
Shiny Shoe

The execution isn’t too far off from what you’d see in an MMORPG. Each attack has a specific damage radius, but my enemies’ incoming moves do too. As I navigate my turns, I need to try and get out of the position of incoming damage or at least focus on taking out enemies that will hit me if left alive when my turn ends. It’s a totally different approach for the roguelike genre, even if it comes with some frustrations. In some battles, it feels like some sources of damage are entirely unavoidable, removing some of the puzzle-like damage mitigation that makes peers like Into the Breach so rewarding.

It can be a lot to learn, too. Like Monster Train, the “character build” aspect of each run revolves around compounding buffs and bonuses. I can equip relics and apply upgrades to my attacks that give me stacks of burn damage, poison, shield, and more. There’s a massive list of terms to learn, and some are still hard to parse, even with pop-up explainers when mousing over abilities. It’s the kind of game players really need to invest in — and its long-tailed seasonal structure supports players who are in for that ride.

While I have some gripes about the learning curve, Inkbound nails down its structure. Rather than throwing players into loose run after run, it plays out much more like a traditional RPG. There’s an XP system that unlocks new upgrades and cosmetics over time, adding some great overarching progression. But more important to its success is its quest system. As I play and explore the biomes in each run, I pick up a list of story-driven quests to complete as I play. Some task me with beating bosses in specific biomes or seeking out NPCs. There’s always something to chase other than a successful run.

A crew of fighters battles a boss in Inkbound.
Shiny Shoe

Those quests change the entire roguelike flow in a way that’s clicking for me. I have more specific, achievable goals whenever I set out on a run. As long as I manage to complete one by the time I die, it feels like I’ve accomplished something. It’s similar to how I engage with Hades, focusing less on escaping Hell each time and more on gathering resources or advancing the story. Inkbound takes that idea to its next level with more tangible task checklists that make runs feel like they’re part of an interconnected adventure.

Though Inkbound’s 1.0 release brings several key updates to the game, including a true end boss and controller support (it actually works quite well on Steam Deck now), it still feels like a start more than an end for Shiny Shoe. I’m still intrigued to see where it might go next with additional community feedback, something that’s already shaped it for the better. It may not connect with me as much as Monster Train in the long run, but it feels like Shiny Shoe is inching its way toward its genre-defining contribution to the roguelike canon. I can’t wait to see where it goes next, but I’ve got a lot of ink to collect until then.

Inkbound is available now on PC. It leaves early access on April 9.

Editors' Recommendations

Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
Video game adaptations are about to change the game in 2024
Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal as Ellie and Joel looking at the camera in HBO's "The Last of Us."

I wouldn't have believed it if someone told me 10 years ago that the best TV and movies I would see in 2023 would be adaptations of video games. And yet, here we are. It's been a slow, grueling road filled with more downs than ups, and yet the code seems to have been cracked. Video game adaptations aren't just good now; they're often spectacular.

While we got a few hits here and there in years prior, such as the animated Castlevania series and Witcher show, it was in 2023 that shows like The Last of Us on HBO really made a statement to the world that, when understood and handled correctly, these adaptations could stand alongside any other prestige production. While it is satisfying in its own right for fans to get more quality content from our favorite franchises, the success of these shows and films will only be leveraged more by the industry in 2024 and beyond.
Adapt and survive
Repackaging games for film and TV is the equivalent of 1980s and '90s cartoons made exclusively to sell toys. Not to sound too cynical, but from a corporate perspective, they are funded with the intention of converting a new audience into gamers. And we have seen compelling proof that, when it works, it is very effective. Even a game that was dragged through the mud as much as Cyberpunk 2077 saw a huge surge in sales following the Cyberpunk: Edgerunners anime, even before the full 2.0 version and Phantom Liberty DLC launched. The same applies to older titles like The Last of Us, Mario, and The Witcher.

Read more
If you love Dead Cells, you need to try this sci-fi roguelike next
A character dashes towards a robotic creature in Trinity Fusion.

I'm probably not alone when I say that I can't get enough Dead Cells. The excellent roguelike has been a mainstay on my PC and Switch since it released. I even have an arcade cabinet in my apartment that runs it. Whether I'm jumping in for a random run or checking out its excellent Return to Castlevania DLC, I'm always down for more of its 2D action formula. Of course, there's only so much of it I can play, especially as developer Motion Twin gets to work on its next game, Windblown.

Luckily, there's an easy way to fill that gap, even if its a temporary fix. Trinity Fusion is a new roguelike by Angry Mob Games that exits early access today and sticks very close to the Dead Cells playbook. It has players hacking their way through 2D environments, building a character with temporary boosts each run, and nabbing some permanent abilities with acquired currencies. Though its not as rich with secrets and certainly doesn't look as striking, its worth digging into for anyone itching for another game that'll have them saying "one more run" for hours.
Building on Dead Cells
Trinity Fusion replaces the crunchy pixel art fantasy of Dead Cells with something smoother and more futuristic -- it's as if Angry Mob Games dipped its inspiration in chrome. Players are dropped into a sci-fi story that vaguely involves the multiverse. It's a whole lot of mumbo jumbo (the 1.0 update adds even more story for those who love lore logs). Rather than going with a pixel art style like some of its peers, Trinity Fusion uses smoother three-dimensional visuals. It winds up looking like a less polished version of Metroid Dread with flat world and character designs. Though that's a bit dull, it does at least bake in some excellent, atmospheric tunes that sound like they could have been pulled out of a 2D Metroid game.

Read more
This psychedelic PlayStation platformer is already 2024’s most surprising game
A character faces down a massive insect in Ultros.

With a mercilessly busy 2023 winding down, you’d think that I’d be ready for a break from video games. And trust me, I am, but I still can’t help but look forward to what’s on the horizon in 2024. I already know that games like Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth and Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth are bound to consume me, but there’s one indie game that I especially have my eye on: Ultros. The ultrastylish Metroidvania left a strong impression on me at this May’s PlayStation Showcase. That was largely thanks to its eye-popping visual style that’s unlike anything I’ve seen in a video game before.

While Ultros has the look, I was less certain about how it would actually play. I’d finally get a sense of that during a sweeping 90-minute demo. The segment I played would give me a feel for its deceptively deep combat, oddball farming component, and surprising roguelike structure. It was a complicated gameplay snippet that I couldn’t fully get my head around by the end, but that just leaves me even more curious about the final product.
The cycle goes on
At first glance, Ultros appears to be a straightforward game. It seems like your typical 2D Metroidvania where players dash through a maze-like map collecting power-ups. Within minutes, I figured I understood the entire gameplay loop. That was fine by me, because it gave me more time to soak in its wild art style, which really makes it unique. Every room is a psychedelic wash of colors that looks like a Grateful Dead poster. All the painterly details can make it a little hard to navigate, but I loved making my way through all of its gooey alien locales, which are rich with vibrant flora.

Read more