Video Games

Inked – Review – Isometric paper puzzler

Interesting, but flawed

This article was originally published in 2018 for Old Grizzled Gamers. However, that website no longer exists so I’m putting it here instead. I also received a free review copy of this game.

As a writer, I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to have an editor. They are that impartial person looking at your work and tell you their honest thoughts. They help you cut back on areas that are too long, refocus on a topic that needs more attention and generally help you produce your best work possible. Luckily for us ours is fantastic. Unfortunately for Inked, the game was in desperate need of an editor.

This is the same criticism that is often thrown towards Hideo Kojima games. While his games tends towards the self-indulgent with an excess of exposition it has become one of his defining characteristics. In Inked, it feels like every section is too long and arbitrarily so. Which is a shame because this is one of the most beautiful games you will likely play and the story is surprisingly touching. It just feels like it needed a good editor.

Inked is an isometric puzzle platformer where players control a hand-drawn samurai as he searches for his lost beloved. The game quickly gets to work sending you through its gorgeous locations and never ceases to amaze. Every aspect of the game is hand-drawn with a notepad aesthetic that is entrancing. As you progress through the game the world changes in colour and design in a way that melds perfectly with the location.

Throughout each area you are solve puzzles. Each puzzle revolves around creating and placing geometric shapes into the environment. You might need to create a box to push a button so you can cross a bridge or roll a sphere down a hill to open a door. They are never complicated to the extent that you feel overwhelmed, but they are taxing enough to be satisfying. It doesn’t take long for you to have a full set of shapes at your disposal and from that point onwards, the game only gets more complex by letting you place more of them. So far so good.

Would it be counter-intuitive to say that a puzzle game has too many puzzles? That’s like saying a book has too many pages? And that brings us right back to the editor thing, doesn’t it? Too many of the puzzles in Inked are either uninspired or take too long to complete. The game ramps up far too slowly and the slow walk of our nameless hero doesn’t help matters.

It is understandable that the developers want you to enjoy the world, but being forced to undertake mediocre puzzles at a snail’s pace is not a method any game should use. This pace makes it harder to get invested in the story going on behind all of this square placing and sphere rolling.

Inked tells two stories that run in parallel. There is the story of the unnamed samurai and his journey to find his beloved Aiko in a geometric world, and then there is the story of Adam, the comic book artist that drew him. Every so often, Adam will move his hands around the world to create new objects, write something, or cause havoc for our hero. Adam’s story is that of an artist and his relationship with those around him and as you progress you learn more about Adam and see his past, and present.

Both of their stories are perfectly linked. First, you have the samurai who has thrown away his sword and found peace only for it to be ripped from under him, and then you have Adam’s journey about dealing with real life and his own fractured past. One does not exist without the other. Adam has created this world to help him deal with his own issues, and this creates the narrative of the unnamed hero. It is a brilliant way to tell a story and think about the relationship between creation and the creator in any form of expression. It is just a shame that the game manages to undermine itself in so many ways.

Right, don’t leave but we need to quickly talk about PowerPoint Presentations. Seriously, please, this is important. There is a simple rule when doing a presentation; you don’t say what is on the slides, you talk about the points. People can read what you wrote, you need to add value on top of those statements. In Inked, the text is part of the world and the narrator just says those things. The voice acting isn’t strong enough that it feels justified. Instead, it feels like the game is just repeating itself. The effect would have been much stronger if talking was confined to Adam’s world and not the samurai’s. The text appearing on the floor and sky would be far more foreboding without being repeated. If they felt the need to add a voice over the the samurai’s world, then it should have been different from the environmental text.

There are segments of the game that are so unbelievably frustrating, it begs the question as to why the game is set in an isometric landscape. If you own a controller, then this will be less of an issue. However, for those that are stuck with a mouse and keyboard, you are left trying to move with only WASD. This means that should you want to walk diagonally, you need to press two keys together or quickly swap between them to make sure you are going in the right direction. This makes walking across platforms a nightmare.

Judging where you are is already a pain unless you are some kind of isometric wizard. When the game then throws compulsory elements where you need to dodge falling objects it becomes a complete joke. There is a segment where spheres roll down a hill as you climb up. If you take a single hit you need to restart. This would be fine if it was clear where the sphere is in relation to our hero but alas it is not. This section very nearly made me walk away from the game forever after trying and failing for ages. There are other sections that are similarly frustrating and each is far longer than they have any right to be.

This brings us back to the core issue of Inked – it needed a good editor. There is a fascinating story under the surface. The samurai is fighting for free will as he defies his creator and is punished by the loss of his beloved. Throughout this story we explore the relationship between creation and creator and see that it is not always a healthy one. To the samurai, Adam is a god, but to Adam this is just fiction. It is his way of dealing with the things that happened in his life.

It is a shame, that the hero’s primary goal is to rescue Aiko who was taken away due to his own disobedience. The game sets up a classic “find the princess” game within a game that could have been about anything. Perhaps this speaks to the limited imagination of Adam and his own failings as a comic book artist. Perhaps it speaks to the lack of a respect and objectification of women as objects to be lost and found. Adam (a man) with limitless power in this world he has created, kidnaps a woman with essentially no power. And then, the samurai (a man) who has been show has power as he can defy Adam is sent to find his beloved. In this, the two men are left in positions of power whereas, the woman is left with none and is simple a thing to be found. This entire element of the story feels shallow and lacks creativity. Which in a game about creating, is terribly ironic.

Without spoiling the story of Inked, Adam is going through a trauma and gradually recovering. The unnamed samurai and his adventures are a part of his dealing with what has happened. Adam will often lash out at his creation, undermine him, and generally disrespect him. However, the only real way that the samurai suffers is through the loss of Aiko. As the story goes on, we are meant to sympathise with Adam and understand what he has been through. However, his coping mechanism is essentially violence against women like it is acceptable. Well it isn’t.

If the roles were reversed it would be better, though. If it was a female samurai searching for a male Aiko, would this be better? In society, men hold more power than women. That is a plain, true fact. This game does is it perpetuates that idea and tells you that it is acceptable. I can’t think of many games with a female protagonist saving a powerless man, can you? No matter the gender of the characters, the story about Adam is one of coping and life after trauma. However, framing the method of Adam’s coping is portrayed as acceptable and it simply isn’t.

Would violence against anyone be an accepted way of coping? Adam might be creating a comic book with a fictional world, but you live those characters when you play as the samurai. Is that reality? Is pain any less real when it is fictional? Any less grotesque, gruesome and horrific? Loss is a terrible thing, but to deal with loss by causing other people, even fictional people, loss doesn’t sound like a healthy person. Perhaps it isn’t and that makes for an interesting story.

Inked was a surprise. The artwork is fantastic, nobody could say otherwise. However, the story is something else. It will make you think, you will think about how to cope with difficult situations, about the ways that you have coped in the past or how you might in the future. Does violence simply beget more violence? I don’t have any answers for you here and neither does Inked, only an idea of how to consider these topics yourself.

While you should fundamentally disagree with the way Inked handles its female character and how it sets up the unnamed hero’s part in the story, the rest is interesting. However, the game is too long. The puzzles are too long, the story beats are too far apart. This makes Inked suffer serious pacing issues. If you stick with it though, you might find it an interesting exercise in self reflection.

Thanks for reading. If you would like some more recent video game reviews why not check out my article on Space Hulk: Tactics. Alternatively, for a physical card game read my review of Machi Koro and it’s various expansions.

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