Inkbound is an interesting next step from the team behind Monster Train

Inkbound Shiny Shoe preview

The never-ending story

Shiny Shoe, the studio behind deckbuilding locomotive defense game Monster Train, has already made its mark with one roguelite. Now it looks to make another in Inkbound, an isometric turn-based battler with some pretty interesting ideas.

We had a chance to get a hands-off look at the current state of Inkbound. It’s going to look pretty Diablo at first. The camera takes an isometric angle on the action, following our two presenters creative director Andrew Krausnick and community manager Cami Baumann-Jaeger as they venture into the world of stories.

Right away, there are notable differences from Monster Train. While there is the allure of better runs and rewards on the horizon, there’s also a quest system, where NPCs can give players tasks to complete. They’re built into the entire structure, Krausnick says. The team is looking to tie more of the unlocks and rewards that happen into the quests and narrative.

“The reward you get from completing a quest might be an item that starts showing up in the run itself,” said Krausnick. “And then our goals over time, or when we evolve the world, we want to have some story behind it.”

Hitting the books

After standing around a bit in a social area, they set off for the Sea of Ink. The whole setup of Inkbound surrounds stories, as players fight through various fables come to life. Certain parts of it will feel familiar; the ability draft, for instance, allows the player to make selections that can add new abilities to their hotbar or augment existing ones.

In ours, Krausnick picks an option to add more damage to an ability. But there are other changes too, like applying status effects. Some higher-tier ones might be even greater evolutions. It’s the same pick-one-of-three system that many, many roguelites use nowadays.

Where the familiarity falls away is the combat. Despite looking like Diablo, Inkbound is not a real-time action RPG. It is, rather, much closer to a turn-based RPG, as we see when they get into some battles in the Garden’s Edge.

Krausnick and Baumann-Jaeger go about setting up their turn, using a metered amount of mana. Moving a certain distance will start to eat up mana, as will deploying abilities. Each one can change the world state too, and they can adjust in real-time.

Say a player moves one “length” (there’s no grid, just distances) and knocks an enemy forward. That happens in real-time. Someone might be able to lay a trap for that knock-forward to affect, or have aggro drawn off them because of it. It feels a bit like the careful maneuvering and prodding of Transistor, or what we’ve seen thus far of the upcoming Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope.

Once the turn’s over, the enemy gets to move. And they can really hurt. Health is, as always, one part of your resource pool in Inkbound. Sometimes taking calculated hits is important.

Despite the careful planning, it seems like the battle system is something the player can take at their own pace. Much like how a high-level Monster Train or Slay the Spire player can blitz through a single hand, the system seems open to quick resolution if you know what you want to do.

A real page-turner

It’s an interesting twist on the formula, made even more interesting by co-op. While playable solo, Inkbound can also be played co-op with friends. From the start, Krausnick says, Shiny Shoe wanted to do turn-based and co-op.

“The simultaneous turn thing came on pretty early,” said Krausnick. “We just felt like it was the best way to make it feel like you weren’t waiting too long for your friends to do other things, to keep gameplay moving smoothly.”

They went through several prototypes, even a hex-based build at one point. But the team went for this asynchronous turn-based scheme for Inkbound. What we saw that day is what Shiny Shoe felt was the best way to move forward.

And to the team’s credit, it seems pretty interesting. The folks behind Monster Train have shown they’ve got some roguelite chops already, but Inkbound seems like a neat way to incorporate careful planning, tense action, deckbuilding, and co-op all into one package. Hopefully it continues to blend together well.

Inkbound is targeting an Early Access launch on Steam in 2023.

Eric Van Allen