In a world with increasingly realistic, but often very similar-looking, AAA titles it’s always a breath of fresh air when you see something visually unique. Lately, it seems only Indie developers have the freedom to really try something different. And while we love them for it – even when they present something graphically special, the number that then goes on to provide equally engaging gameplay is minimal. It’s a tough combination to get right, especially when you are only a small team. However, after some trial and error, that’s exactly what the tiny Croatian team Somnium Games has given us with Inked: A Tale of Love; A short but enchanting, story-based puzzle game that shines with a unique pen-drawn art style, interesting lite-adventure infused gameplay and beautiful music.
I pretty much loved every minute of my time with Inked: A Tale Of Love.
The pen is mightier than the sword
Undoubtedly, what first gets your attention is Inked’s pen-drawn world. Inspired by Japanese folk tales, ten mythological levels (chapters) are brought to life in beautiful ballpoint pen and marker-coloured drawings. Every inch of the screen is meticulously sketched and a pleasure to explore. And because the game is a short experience (2-4 hours) it never overstays its welcome. The unique geography over the different areas and the simple blue, red, green and black palette swops are more than enough to keep it visually interesting throughout. And to tie the art style together – I found the music to be the perfect accompaniment to the quick story that was more poignant than I expected it to be.
To tie the fantastic art style together – I found the music to be the perfect accompaniment to the quick story that was more poignant than I expected it to be.
You take on the role of the Nameless Hero. A warrior who at the start of the tale, has laid down his sword to settle into a peaceful life with his nature-loving wife Aiko. Soon though, trouble appears – as birds (one of Aiko’s passions) begin to suffer. Pushed forward by Aiko’s fervent desire for justice – a journey to find the cause for the disaster begins. As the narrator (expertly voiced by Bryan Olson), who also happens to be the artist and creator of the pen-drawn world, reveals more of the story – it becomes clear that sad memories have invaded the world, and the pain the artist feels because of his own heart-breaking loss is being purposely thrust upon its inhabitants and significantly on the Hero himself. As the Hero then, you are tasked with driving through this pain – working through aching memories and difficult decisions in a series of environmental puzzles. And instead of battling with a glistening sword in hand – a brush that gives your the ability to manipulate certain drawn objects is your only weapon. A mechanic that while feeling a little clunky at times – ultimately syncs up well with the engaging love story.
Pen puzzles and progress
Inked originally launched in 2018 on Steam and while the art style was generally praised, it also received a lot of criticism around clunky and unforgiving controls, and some incongruent additions to the gameplay. It was recently completely revamped for mobile platforms and it is this new version that you can now find on consoles. Going in, I actually knew none of that. For me, this was a brand new game. And that’s probably a great thing because as far as I can tell (knowing now what I do) it seems a lot of the issues the original game had – have been (almost) completely removed. As mentioned above I found the story quite touching and more emotionally charged than I suspected it would be. And while that’s already a plus – many of the actual frustrating mechanics have been refreshed or in some cases completely redone.
The vast majority of the puzzles are just the right amount of challenging.
You often see the original game filed under the puzzle-platformer genre. However, this time around the game is much less of a platformer (in fact you don’t even have a jump button) and definitely a kind of lite action-adventure puzzler. You never have to attack enemies or anything like that, but you do explore the linear world – alternating between controlling the Hero and various drawn objects he can manipulate using his magical brush. This means that whatever issues existed around player-control – are simply not there. And even me as a big platforming guy – was quite happy with the general movement.
I also found the vast majority of the puzzles to be just the right amount of challenging. That perfect balance where you can’t always instantly figure out the solution, but you’re also not stuck for hours growing increasingly irritated. Sure, there were a few solutions that seemed a little less obvious than others – but I managed to solve every puzzle with a bit of trial and error. Levels are divided into separate sections and in order to move on – you have to solve these puzzles by moving objects to create bridges, activate switches and the like. As you progress, new areas bring in new objects to get used to – from simple cubes at the start, to ramps and ice-ray machines later on. Each layer also brings fresh twists to each item – and I found it does a good job of teaching you something and then building on that mechanic as your move forward.
It does a good job of teaching you something and then building on that mechanic as your move forward.
That being said, the few frustrations I did have with the game were basically related to two things: occasionally placing the movable objects is a pain and the button arrangement seemed counterintuitive to me. Especially at the start of the game, I couldn’t quite get the hang of placing an object exactly in the spot I needed it to be. There is an automatic clip-on function but the very delicate sensitivity on the analogue stick made this difficult to do accurately. I later realised that there is an on-screen cursor that indicates location and actually rather cleaver grid-based line-markings when you place things – however, as everything on the screen is a similar colour these are not immediately visible. Your eyes soon get used to the subtle differences – but I still think those specific controls could use a tweak.
Button wise on the PS4, scrolling through your ‘inventory’ of movable objects is done using the X button. Selecting, placing or alternatively de-selecting a chosen object is the Square button. And my mind just could not get the hang of that combo. I continually selected an object when I meant to scroll – and once I had carefully rotated an object and was ready to place it a specific spot I would often through ingrained muscle memory want to do so by pressing X – and suddenty have the piece I was working on reset to its original position. This again got better as the more I played – but I do wonder if even just swapping Square and X inputs would make a difference.
Occasionally placing the movable objects is a pain and the button arrangement seems counterintuitive.
The wonderfully inky full stop
Of course, mentioning these issues also tends to over-emphasize them. And while I would’ve preferred a final choice in the last moments of the game (but cannot go into more detail as it very much is in spoiler country), and was not the biggest fan of the artist’s CG hands, the truth is I pretty much loved every minute of my time with Inked: A Tale Of Love. I was very much enthralled by the art style. I liked the addition of collecting portraits to add a small but significant reason to replay the game. But more than that – I found the music to fit the world perfectly. It added to the mood and tone so well – and to have that combo on top of an affecting short story that I wasn’t really expecting going in would’ve already made me a fan. However, Inked (possibly thanks to three years of critique and subsequent development work) is now also a really polished puzzle game mechanically. And thanks to this version being the first time I was exposed to it – I didn’t have any baggage coming in. And ultimately Inked is, in my opinion, a striking illustration of the very best the Indie scene can offer and a clear example of why I love indies as much as I do.