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Monster Train dev's new game Inkbound reinterprets Hades, and it works

Write on.

A colourful piece of concept art showing a trio of fantasy heroes leaping towards a horde of shadowy beasts.
Image credit: Shiny Shoe / Inkbound

Inkbound totally gets it. It understands what makes a Roguelike really compelling and exciting. This is the new game from Monster Train developer Shiny Shoe, so perhaps that's no surprise - because if any game can claim to have taken the Slay the Spire formula and made something memorable out of it, something of its own, it's Monster Train. Still, it's not an easy thing to do.

The magic revolves around, I think, an equation of powerfulness. It's in allowing the player to break the game in their favour if they gather the right abilities and upgrades and power-ups, just as you can in Slay the Spire, and just as you can in Hades. It conjures that beautiful moment where you suddenly make light of all the heavy work that's come before, and for a glorious moment, nothing seems to be able to touch you. And Inkbound absolutely understands that. I've made myself coo with delight.

I mentioned Hades there - Inkbound is much more like Hades than Slay the Spire. There are no cards but hotbar abilities, and as in Hades, your abilities can be transformed and modified. Also, you're in a 3D world and you run around it in real-time. And there are NPCs to talk to with illustrated character portraits. And when you progress from a chamber, you choose which kind of chamber comes next. It's very familiar; it's almost as if, having 'done' Slay the Spire, Shiny Shoe looked at the newest popular Roguelike when working out what to do next.

Cover image for YouTube videoDev Stream #28: First Stream of 2023!
This is a recent dev stream of Inkbound, showing some co-op gameplay and giving a good sense of the flow of the game, and the choices you make in it.

There's one huge difference though, and it's combat. Combat is turn-based, though it feels real-time in how you move around, which is maybe why it feels a bit strange. It's governed, though, by turn-based principles. You have an amount of energy you use to move and attack, and abilities have varying costs. And when you're happy with what you've done, you end the turn and the enemies take theirs.

Where it gets interesting is movement and enemy intention. They telegraph what they're about to do with drawn shapes on the ground - hover over an enemy and you'll see a large ring around them, or a cone, that kind of thing. This denotes where an enemy will attack. If you're in that area, you'll be hit. The idea, then, is to get yourself to a safe, clear patch of ground - but it's easier said than done.

The safe playing area shrinks each round, as in a battle royale, and as it does, the areas enemies will attack take up most of the available space. Also, you have to remember to attack rather than run away or you'll find yourself trying to fight a battle on a pin's head of safe space. And enemies mix things up with their behaviour too. It's a balancing act that requires concentration and forethought - and it's a lot of fun.

This is a particularly busy example! A boss battle. Those pink rings, they denote areas that will cause damage when the turn ends - not a great deal of damage, but if they're overlapping, you could be in trouble. That blue circle is an extra energy point I could collect. You see my energy below on the blue bar, and health on the red bar. On the left of the hotbar are my abilities and their costs and cooldowns; and on the right, my relics.
Another example of combat. These enemies turn to face you each time you attack them, and some of them attack when you use abilities - it all gives you more to think about.
A choice of transformations for a power - that fireball-like one you see on the hotbar below.

That's the recipe in its most basic form, but of course, all kinds of ingredients are thrown in to spice it up. Enemies' abilities, your abilities, bosses, collectable energy points on the ground (tempting you into dangerous areas).

And all of that, I'm sold on. Once you get used to that core loop and learn how to read it, it works very well. Maybe it's a little too easy to achieve those golden builds and then smash everything before you, but Inkbound can be challenging, and this is only a demo.

I'm less keen on the overall look - Inkbound seems to have aimed at something like Hades but missed the kind of delicacy and flourishes that made that game work so well. It's a bit crude by comparison, and lacking detail, particulary in characters.

I'm also unsure about the decision to make this an online game. You log into it and other players appear in a hub area, and then you can branch out on runs from there. I'm assuming a large part of the thinking has to do with grouping, although I haven't grouped with anyone yet, and no one else I've seen has seemed keen on it either. Maybe there's great potential here, then, I don't know, though I haven't seen many indicators of it - I haven't seen bosses that require friends' help to defeat.

The store, and also a close-up look at my character. It's not an art style that does much for me.

Being an online game also means there's a store, which suggests this will probably be free-to-play, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. It's not the free aspect but the store part of it, and the cosmetics, and the season pass - all of which are out of bounds in the demo but you can see the menus pointing to them.

I don't play these kinds of games over and over again to unlock new hats, and the hats that are on offer here aren't particularly pretty either. We'll see, I suppose.

So I have concerns, but I'm also pleasantly surprised by what I've played. After a slightly uncertain start, Inkbound has sucked me in and reminded me why Shiny Shoe made such a mark with Monster Train. Because like Monster Train before it, Inkbound has found a way to spin something new out of something known, and make it memorable.