Review by · April 8, 2024

Monster Train stands out amongst the crowd of deckbuilders following the outstanding success of Slay the Spire. While imitators abound in this seemingly simple genre to design a game around, Monster Train innovates in a meaningful way not just in terms of combat, but presentation. In a runaway train akin to the movie Snowpiercer, players fight saintly minions in order to maintain their nearly extinct evil empire. Inkbound follows suit not just in terms of gameplay novelty, but once again theming.

I am not entirely sure what Inkbound is about; I don’t think I’ve ever written that statement in a review before, but I am absolutely baffled by what’s going on. In terms of storytelling, Inkbound is vaguely about staving off blight to protect—books? Stories? You play as one of many Needless who are working in an enclave of sorts to delve into a world and fight baddies, surrounded by a naturey aesthetic and bookshelves. Yet, while the story is confusing at best, I adore the world Inkbound is set in, which is, in part, due to the artistic vision beautifully portrayed on the “page” (computer monitor). Although I’m not sure what’s going on, I am happy to be here and explore this world because it’s like no other game world I’ve experienced, with its impressive detail and meandering feeling that instills a sense of wanderlust.

Okay, so the story’s not incredibly well-implemented just yet, but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to enjoy outstanding gameplay, and Inkbound delivers that soundly. Not only that, but it offers outstanding gameplay we can experience with up to four friends online. At its core, Inkbound plays out as a set of rooms where players fight baddies in isolated, turn-based combat using action points and then access the chosen rewards. Do this a few times, fight a miniboss, do it a few more times, fight one more miniboss, then do it one more time and fight the big boy. The formula, while repetitive, never feels repetitive. In fact, because of the crisp, deep game design in Inkbound, I kept coming back for more.

An example of a Vestige, described as a sharp "Emerald Leaf" shuriken in Inkbound.
And by “shuriken,” we mean really, really sharp leaf.

Battles play out in an arena with just enough room to run around without feeling constricted, but not so vast that players feel like they can cheese the game by moving in one direction away from slower-moving enemies; the size of the battlefields is perfect. Get used to seeing circles everywhere, because at turn start, players see enemy attack circles, arrows, or rectangles to demonstrate what enemies will do. Avoid those geometric hazards and you avoid damage. Healing isn’t entirely common. Players also move within a limited circle based on movement points. At default, players can use four will (action) points to execute one of three to five abilities to attack foes or do some utility nonsense. Moving and attacking as one sees fit breathes freedom into a genre that typically requires players to move entirely first or at the end. In Inkbound, players can move a little bit or a lot, use an action, and then continue moving, or use all of their will points at the start and then move—it’s completely up to you.

If you’re engaged in multiplayer, players can act in tandem before enemies act, which is important for strategy. Depending on the group’s abilities and classes, players may want to weave their actions together every other action, but in some cases one player may want to blow their entire load and then let the other player wrap things up. Have an area-of-effect death move to loosen the jar at the start? Probably more efficient to use that before your single-target, high-damage friend starts picking ne’er-do-wells off. Building a tank? May want to use the last attack on a tough enemy to slap him and draw the ire so your glass cannon ally doesn’t get pounded into the ground. The depth of strategy goes far beyond damage juggling, though. Several status effects can enhance damage, manipulate enemy movement, or synergize with the other player in order to maximize damage output. In this way, Inkbound can make players feel smart without making the game feel like a boring cakewalk.

A player about to get smote, as denoted by a shining orange area of effect on the floor in Inkbound.
I know everything on screen looks intimidating, but this dude’s dead anyway, so it doesn’t matter.

At present, monster variety’s a bit lacking, though the wealth of trinkets, abilities, and buffs between eight classes of characters add enough customization to make the same enemies feel different with each run, depending on one’s approach to success. Typically, players can choose three fight options before delving into the fray with a couple promised rewards. Choosing an easier route leads to less attractive bounty, but a harder route might not offer the kinds of treasure one is seeking. For example, a hard route may offer rare trinkets, but if trinket slots are full, a player may want to seek passive buffs for their attack abilities on the easier route, even if these are less rare.

Speaking of trinkets, players can grind those trinkets to dust to retain the icons on those elements and make room for new trinkets. While these trinkets, called Vestiges in-game, can offer powerful abilities to enhance a player’s strategy, the icons on the trinket offer unique benefits if players accrue enough of them, and there’s a bevy of them. This allows for tough tactical decisions not seen in most games that only offer a higher number here or lower number there for a bigger benefit somewhere else. Inkbound also has those options, but enough variety exists elsewhere to make this more than a numbers game. For example, if players can meet a condition on their turn like taking no damage, they can enhance a future turn by giving each ability a guaranteed critical hit.

What keeps Inkbound fresh between runs (since the story isn’t quite there yet) is the sense of progression. Meet some unique NPCs, satisfy a quest condition, and stack up enough wins, and players can unlock new Vestiges, in-game achievements, cosmetics, and characters to play as. For the roguelike snobs out there, don’t worry. This isn’t the kind of game that offers stat upgrades over time in order to beat the game. Players make the game harder with each win (like a classic ascension system seen in many deckbuilders and roguelikes) while only offering new tools along the way that aren’t objectively better than other tools. In this way, player strategy wins the day, not toiling away across dozens of hours of runs just to get higher numbers. Once again, this makes Inkbound a satisfying romp that rewards players for skillful play rather than grinding.

Quest complete with an old curmudgeon. He's asking you to wipe your feet.
And now that I’ve completed this quest, my next one is to get this place a floor mat.

Inkbound isn’t singularly wonderful, though. As suggested earlier, some may find the game repetitive with some areas, such as enemy types, lacking variety. Also, Inkbound is a tad inaccessible at the start, with icons all over the screen, numbers and modifiers that aren’t always clearly explained, and a flow taught through experience rather than exposition. For those who prefer clarity rather than getting messy to learn, this is going to be a touch stressful, but Inkbound’s teaching style works. Over time, I have learned more and more how the systems work, but I wish everything were more explicitly stated; this is a game that could benefit tremendously from an in-game encyclopedia.

While I’ve already lauded Inkbound for its artistry, the music is no slouch, either. Every tune accentuates the action humbly, with final boss encounters stealing the show. Meeting the big baddie is exhilarating enough after a tough climb, but to be met with these weighty battle themes just makes the experience grander. Not all of the dialogue is voice-acted, which can feel odd at times when an NPC is all text and silence. Even then, the voice acting is fine, not stellar. Inkbound controls just fine with mouse and keyboard, though some may stress a bit over finding that “magic pixel” to maximize damage output and minimize input.

Shiny Shoe, the developers, have done it again with innovative game design and atmosphere. While Inkbound is by no means a perfect game, it’s certainly addictive and rewarding. What’s more, it plays phenomenally in solo or multiplayer. I applaud the devs for their unique ability to create an authentic experience unlike what others—AAA or indie—are capable of doing. Hat’s off to you folks, and thank you for pushing entertainment forward with your awesome ideas and execution. Your work will undoubtedly be written into gaming lore to inspire others.


High strategy, multiplayer adds depth, unique world.


Story hard to follow, low monster variety, may get repetitive in time.

Bottom Line

A charming world that boasts deep strategy beyond number crunching.

Overall Score 85
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Jerry Williams

Jerry Williams

Jerry has been reviewing games at RPGFan since 2009. Over that period, he has grown in his understanding that games, their stories and characters, and the people we meet through them can enrich our lives and make us better people. He enjoys keeping up with budding scholarly research surrounding games and their benefits.