For many decades games were a simple land of fantasy, made up of tiny blocks of pixels that crudely replicated the real world. As the medium improved so did the stories that came with it, exploring greater and more mature themes. Then with the democratisation of development tools the stories started becoming incredibly personal, often directly reflecting the life experiences of their creators. Indeed I’ve played many games which I felt were something of a catharsis for their creators, a part of their coping process for dealing with tragedy (That Dragon, Cancer and The First Tree come to mind). On the surface Inked would seem to be one of those titles however I don’t feel it is, the story of tragedy instead born out of a want to develop a tortured artist character. This, coupled with a few missteps from a game design perspective, means that Inked falls short of some its aspirations whilst still managing a few interesting firsts, at least from this writer’s perspective.
You’re put in control of the Nameless Hero, a samurai warrior who’s on a quest to save his one true love. Upon rescuing her however she is immediately taken away from you by your creator, an artist named Adam. It’s clear that there’s no love lost between you and Adam, he seemingly delighting in torturing you at every opportunity. However you are able to turn his weapons against him, gaining control of the ink that forms your world and bending it to your will. With your love taken away there’s only one thing left driving you: revenge. The journey to the temple where your creator resides won’t be easy and there’s no telling what twisted things Adam’s mind will create next.
Whilst I’m sure that Inked isn’t the first game to use a pen drawn aesthetic I’m struggling to remember any that had a similar art style. It’s not all hand drawn like Forgotton Anne or Chuchel, instead it’s a full 3D game (with physics and all) that utilises pen styled textures to give it that sketchbook aesthetic. Honestly it’s done so well that the parts which aren’t done in this way are incredibly jarring, lacking the same love and care lavished on the pen and paper style. The monotone colour schemes also make it a lot easier to identify puzzle elements which could otherwise have easily blended into the background. I hope this becomes Somnium Games’ trademark style for future titles as it’s quite distinctive and could be easily extended to bigger, more ambitious titles.
From a game play point of view Inked is a simple platform/puzzler game with a few key mechanics. You’re able to create and destroy a number of different objects, some of which will also perform actions like blowing things over or setting them on fire. Most of the puzzles are physics based and, as you’d somewhat expect, can often be solved in emergent ways by using things in ways they weren’t intended to be. This is limited somewhat by the fact you don’t get all your powers right away but after about halfway through the game you have enough tools at your disposal to get away with some really whacky things. The levels also change the puzzle dynamic as well, like one where gravity is about 1/0th of normal or another where the floor is ice. It certainly falls in the category of “easy to understand, hard to master” although for all the wrong reasons in my opinion.
Probably the most glaring fault is the fact that the game is done in an isometric view but your movement doesn’t align to it. Instead for all directions the game will require you to move in you’ll need to hold down two movement keys which makes some of the precision platforming in this game extremely frustrating. Not only that it’s also not entirely clear at times where solid ground ends and a bottomless pit begins, making some of the most simple puzzles a rather frustrating experience. This only gets worse when you’ve got puzzles that have a timer on them, forcing you to execute awkwardly imprecise jumps and simply hope that you make it through this time. The hitboxes are also quite a big bigger than you’d think, especially on things that instantly kill you.
The last few items are things that I think can be easily addressed, giving some elements a little visual flair and making the timer on some puzzles a little more generous, but the movement system really is Ink’s achilles heel. Sure you could probably remap the controls but then you’ve got the problem of the movement on screen not aligning to what you’d expect it to be. Bar reworking all the levels completely I’m not sure how Somnium Games can address this. It’s a right shame as had the developers spent a little more time thinking about how they should tackle the problem of cardinal movement in an isometric system I may be signing a different tune. Alas, at least for this title, it was not to be.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
This is not to say that the story is the game’s saving grace, far from it. Part of it is likely due to the so-so voice acting which feels stilted and flat, lacking any real emotional depth until the game’s final scenes. The story itself also feels kind of trite. I mean sure I understand what they were trying to present, an artist driven to madness by grief, but that’s a character that you’d likely want to be sympathetic to. I think the main issue here is we’re not given enough time away from Adam and his perspective to build that empathy as we’re simply his tortured play thing for the entire time. The reason I mention other titles like this is that since those games come directly from real grief it was much easier to be sympathetic to the main characters. Inked feels much like Dream Daddy in that sense, a story created from the outside of someone else’s experiences rather than from it.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Inked might be far from a perfect game but you’d struggle to find any first time indie dev that was. The artwork is absolutely phenomenal as it manages to translate that pen and paper, hand drawn aesthetic to a fully realised 3D world. This is no small feat and I’m sure others will attempt to recreate and pay homage to it in the not too distant future. However that’s where the good ends as the base game makes a few odd choices which drastically hamper the game’s playability. Couple that with a so-so story delivered by seemingly uninterested voice actors and you’ve got a game that struggles to meet the goals it set out for itself. Still I hope it finds enough success so that Somnium Game’s can continue onto the next big thing, taking the lessons learned here along with them.
Inked is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was 6.1 hours with 77% of the achievements unlocked.