Inkulinati forces us to confront one of humanity's great universal concerns, demanding an answer to a question that's tormented civilisations for millennia: are farts funny? Polish developer Yaza Games certainly thinks so, packing its turn-based strategy roguelite with flatulent units that reveal their posteriors to opponents with a devilish cackle, then rasp out clouds of noxious gas.
If you think that sounds terribly puerile, however, it has to be said that Inkulinati's fart gags are at least appropriate to its setting. The soldiers you command here, you see, are faithful reproductions of medieval marginalia—the bizarre and raucous sketches sometimes penned around the sides of fine calligraphy in ageing manuscripts. And such marginalia often intentionally indulged base humour that thumbed its nose at tradition and hierarchy, depicting the lowly snail as a deadly predator, for instance, and brave knights as anthropomorphised rabbits.
With all this in mind, a fart in Inkulinati may be a cheap joke, but it's also a champion of low-brow hijinks aimed at reducing prince and pauper alike to the same level. So even if you furrow your brow at the sight of a donkey bending double to parp through a set of bagpipes, it's hard not to side with the game's winsome silliness.
It definitely helps that once the fumes have cleared, Inkulinati is a cunning little strategy game, in which farting is just one of many valuable tactics. The twist here is that battles play out on the double-page surface of an open book, with your beastly units drawn into existence by giant, quill-wielding hands. The characters attached to these hands—the titular Inkulinati—are themselves represented on the battlefield by an avatar, through which you call on the hand either to produce new units using a limited supply of ink, or to directly intervene in other ways, such as shifting units around, giving healing massages to damaged allies, or thumping enemies. It's a little like God reaching into a game of XCOM and flicking a troublesome alien back to their home planet.
That said, it's your inky infantry that do most of the work. In each run of the roguelike story mode, you work through branching maps towards boss encounters with fellow Inkulinati masters. Beginning with three unit types, you recruit more exotic creatures as you progress, eventually selecting up to five from your menagerie to take into each skirmish. Battles are divided into chapters in which all units on the page get to act once, with player and opponent taking turns to call on a single unit of their choice. Basic unit types—sword, spear, bow—can attack from different ranges, and also have species-dependent supplementary skills, many of which inflict debuffs and status effects.
Trying to focus on direct damage only gets you so far in these exchanges, however, mainly because the two-dimensional squeeze of the page puts space at a premium and units tend to get in each other's way. But it soon becomes apparent that the lack of room to manoeuvre is precisely what makes the best Inkulinati scraps densely tactical. Simply moving one of your troops to attack a foe can have major repercussions, since your rival may be able to exploit the gap you leave behind on their turn. Indeed, it can be fatal, thanks to an ability shared by all units to push adjacent units away. A push forces the victim into a slide across the page that only stops when they reach an empty space, and if there are no empty spaces, they keep sliding and plummet to their doom off the edge of the play area. Even your Inkulinati avatar is susceptible to such a slippery demise, and given that you lose the battle if they die, you have to be very careful how you arrange your pieces.
Various scenery elements add further headaches and opportunities to the mix, from rocks that provide cover, to plague clouds that infect units if they pass through. These can produce a significant shift in your fortunes, as can ink blots that refill your supplies if you end the chapter standing on top of them. You also need to make sure you don't rely too heavily on favoured unit types, since drawing the same ones again and again increases your character's 'boredom' metre, which in turn increases the ink cost of summoning those units in later battles. Tactical variation and squad rotation are a must.
With all this to consider, Inkulinati feels quite bountiful even as an early access release, and it's a robust experience to boot, with no glitches of note. It is, however, less sure-footed when it comes to balancing its elements and its interface, with plenty of creases in its skid-marked breaches that need ironing out. Most egregiously, the randomised level layouts can lead to wild difficulty swings, with oddly trivial maps one minute followed by absolute killers the next. The compact arenas, meanwhile, may appear very readable with their charmingly neat illustrations, but can get very cluttered, and it's a little too easy to make an erroneous click with dire consequences. The screen only gets more crowded when you want to display information about level furniture and enemy abilities, which has to be toggled on and off using an icon at the top of the screen—an inelegant solution.
It will also be interesting to see what happens with Inkulinati's attempts to live-narrate its boss encounters by scripting the course of events on the page as they unfold. As things stand, the text quickly mulches down into AI gibberish, as if constructed by a drunken ChatGBT asked to work wonders with a string of faux-medievalisms. It's hard to imagine this feature will make it to the game's full release unless it undergoes some dramatic improvement.
Still, despite this initial wonkiness, there's already plenty to like about Inkulinati, regardless of whether you warm to its methane-infused humour. With some rebalancing and a little more bulk added over the coming months, there's no reason why Yaza's debut shouldn't come up trumps.