Indie games continue to make waves in the gaming industry, crafting novel narratives and combining genres to create brand-new ideas that are unique but, more importantly, fun to play. This is where Shiny Shoe steps in with its new title Inkbound. Like its previous title, Monster Train, Shiny Shoe has taken tried and true formulae from favourite gaming genres and mashed them together to create a new adventure that is dripping in personality and depth.
Inkbound seeps the player into a library hub world referred to as the Atheneum, which contains every story ever written. Each story explored has new characters to meet and new abilities to wield against the inky hordes. Each creation you face in the stories was written by the NPCs of the hub library, which are referred to as Binders (another excellent book-based pun). The Binders need Kwills to create, and all of the Kwills in the world have vanished except for yours, the unnamed Needless’.
As a Needless, you are a servant created by the binders destined to dive into the inkwell in order to rewrite history. Each Binder is fully voice-acted, breathing more life into the pages of Inkbound.
After each dive into the hostile Inkwell, an NPC known as the Gatekeeper gives the player more context on the state of the world, as well as each Binder that shows up in the Atheneum. This is reminiscent of Hades, another roguelike title that rewards the player with more lore after each run through the gauntlet. Also, like Hades, completing an encounter allows the player/players to choose their next path. Whether to stock up on goods, to accept a challenge, or to view more story, Inkbound implores the player to write their OWN story.
“Inkbound implores the player to write their OWN story.”
Returning to the Atheneum after being whited out by adversaries rewards the player with necessary story fragments and quests, pushing you into the addictive rhythm of ‘just one more dive,’ and a dive well worth taking.
One… More… Dive
Inkbound features solid gameplay to compliment its deep lore. A Needless can become one of three classes to start off, with two more hiding behind unlock requirements. The player can become a Magma Miner, a hammer-wielding warrior class; a Mosscloak, a shuriken-toting rogue class; a Weaver, a unique class that utilizes spool thread as its primary weapon; and the two unlockable classes (so far, more classes are promised in future updates), the Clairvoyant, a ranged magic class; and the Obelisk, a dual-wielding shield enemy that functions like a traditional RPG tank class.
Inkbound uses a unique turn-based, tactical combat system that is easy to start but VERY hard to become adept at. While playing as the Mosscloak — my second favourite to the Weaver — bouncing between doing damage and knowing when to run away is key to success. I was able to play Mosscloak in co-op while my brother used the Obelisk Needless class. Utilizing a hit-and-run style while hiding behind the impenetrable walls of dual shields made short work of enemies while receiving very little damage. The classes worked SO well together. It was a sinch to get a good tandem going and extremely satisfying to see the game mechanics work seamlessly. Erasing ink enemies never felt so complete.
Juggling status effects is also a premier component of Inkbound. A Needless can bestow massive punishments on adversaries in stacks, and after soaking an enemy in the ‘frostbite’ status condition, using an attack that slams the enemy with burning causes extra damage when wielding the proper item in your inventory—a song of fire and ice without delays.
I was unable to recruit a third-party member to further experiment with the classes offered in a three-person party, but a strategic approach to each encounter was rewarded immensely when you came out victorious. It’s worth noting that loot rewards were greatly improved when playing in co-op as opposed to playing alone. Diving through the Inkwell with friends is not only encouraged, but it is definitely the optimal way to adventure. Kwills are more potent in numbers, indeed.
Variety is the Spice
Enemies are varied and behave much differently from each other. There are melee, ranged, and even Diablo Loot Goblin-like enemies that drop currency to keep a dive alive. At the end of each story on an Inkwell dive, there is a massive boss fight that threatens the world. These encounters are tough and require masterful ink manipulation to come out victorious but they also feel very rewarding when completed. Inkbound may seem plain enough with its simple yet stunning watercolour design, but there is true depth to the sheer amount of variety available to the player.
“Inkbound is dripping in potential…”
There are a few shortcomings to the pages of Inkbound, however, and it starts with needing a constant internet connection. I didn’t realize a stable connection was required while on a dive, so I lost notable run progress when putting the Steam Deck on sleep mode to travel (the game boots the player completely when stepping away for 3-5 minutes without using a button input, or by even activating the Steam Deck sleep mode). Speaking of which, without active travel Wi-Fi, Inkbound is unplayable on the go, which just feels bad for a game better played with a party.
There is a paid season pass here. While the developers at Shiny Shoe promise none of the game’s content will be hidden behind a pay wall, the presence of a paid season pass makes it feel almost necessary to get more out of the experience. Customization options for the player Needless are robust, and there are items to earn for players who don’t buy the season pass, but without shelling out, everyone could look the same, which is a real bummer.
The menu system feels cumbersome and hard to navigate. Not being able to see your season level without a reliable way to check season progress on the same menu isn’t great, and I found myself entering the wrong menu screen on more than one occasion. Having to back all the way out of one menu to enter a different menu is just frustrating and hurts the game’s momentum.
Inkbound is dripping in potential, from its excellently designed characters to the world design choices that make its lore worth learning about. Combat is addictive and rewarding. With a class system that would make sense to all gamers, these solid choices are tethered to a well-designed hub world that is fun to explore. But, not-fun to explore menus and questionable reliance on internet connectivity hold Inkbound back from taking another step towards literary excellence. Despite its shortcomings, Inkbound is a good recommendation for those looking for something novel and exciting to try out.