Invisible, Inc. Review (PC)
As genre mashups go, stealth and turn based strategy don’t seem like the most obvious candidates to be smooshed together. Stealth is defined by the tense, breathless moments when a guard walks by while you skulk in the shadows and hope you’re out of sight. Turn based strategy meanwhile is at it’s best when you are orchestrating broad, bold strategies that fall into place at the last moment, with your heroic underdog unit delivering an unlikely critical hit and vanquishing an enemy general/knight/alien queen. So how do you reconcile the two? Well I’m not entirely sure how Klei Entertainment have managed to do so (I’ll try and figure it out in the process of writing this review), but they’ve created a whole new genre. Turn based stealth is here, and it works, for the most part, really well.
If you need to know only one thing about Invisible, Inc., it’s that this is a demanding game. It want’s you to excel. To learn and adapt to it’s unconventional design. In a traditional turn based strategy game, moving into an enemies line of fire is something you might try to avoid as you use terrain to your advantage, but at some point your enemies are going to see you. In Invisible, Inc., you’ll only achieve success if you manage to remain hidden almost all the time. Moving around the view cones of the guards is an essential skill, and no matter what equipment you unlock or whether you’re playing the first levels of the game or the last, you will predominantly be moving past enemies (not through them) in a desperate effort to find your objective, then quickly thereafter find the exit and escape.
Invisible, Inc. is set in cyberpunk future. Visually as well as thematically, it feels a lot like Shadowrun Returns. This similarity extends into the hacking, where you switch to a different “digital” view of the stage and use the abilities of an additional character you control to hack cameras, door controls, drones and more. It’s not an unenviable comparison, and anyone who pines for the days of Syndicate, the first Shadowrun, and other late 90’s interpretations of dystopian futures will feel well served here.
An even more telling reference point than Shadowrun is XCOM, and it’s a comparison Klei themselves make. Any fan of the classic turn based strategy is likely to feel at home, as Invisible, Inc.’s main gameplay loop is very familiar. A world map shows nearby available missions, while a prominent countdown tells you exactly how long you have to save your embattled spy agency. As such, you’ll be making high stakes decisions even outwith the missions. Do you spend two precious days traveling to Australia for an easier mission, or go for a harder one in nearby Africa at the risk of losing your agents? With only 72 days left, you’d better choose wisely.
And the stakes are raised higher still by Invisible, Inc.’s uncompromising difficulty. In most of the available difficulty levels, failure means game over. Sometimes it’s best to completely wipe your team when things go wrong too, as escaping a mission with casualties can make future progress almost impossible. “No one left behind” is a good strategy as you’re not likely to succeed in the later missions if you lose team members in earlier ones. Additionally, if your agency is completely destroyed, you might still unlock new items or equipment which makes subsequent attempts to survive those 72 days more feasible. As such, I found myself starting the game over each time I made too many mistakes, with each failure teaching me a bit more about the game and encouraging me to be more careful next time round.
While Invisible, Inc.’s difficulty is integral to the games appeal, it’s also the most contentious area for me. My problem isn’t with the difficulty of the campaign, but with the amount of choice given to the player at the start of the game to define their own difficulty level. There’s a whole range of difficulties available, many of which have additional toggles and options that you won’t understand until you play the game a bit more. While playing on the lowest difficulty will allow multiple “rewinds” and level reloads, it’s ultimately an unsatisfying way of playing. The training wheels detract from the tension you should feel while playing. On the higher difficulty levels meanwhile the game is brutal, and unless you have a real grasp of how to play, you’re absolutely fucked.
Ultimately, the amount of choice offered to the player is daunting and isolating. I started the game over and over again, not sure if the difficulty I chose was wrong, if I just wasn’t good enough or if I was missing some crucial understanding of how the game was supposed to work. Was it bad if I left a mission without completing my main objective? Should I restart if I lost an agent? Should I scour the early levels for credits to help with the later levels? Should I keep playing the first level and restart each time I failed, slowly unlocking equipment for subsequent attempts? Or should I use my rewinds to go back and brute force my way through? Or should I restart the level when I die, but avoid using rewinds so I learn how to be more careful?
This was a massive problem for me. By relinquishing responsibility for the games difficulty and putting the onus onto the player to tailor the game to their level of ability, Klei Interactive make a huge mistake. They know the game better than a new player does, and therefore it’s their responsibility to provide a reasonable number of difficulty settings with clear labels. I don’t mind a difficult game if it’s difficult by design, but when I feel like I’m failing because of some obscure setting I myself chose, I get frustrated and my experience suffers. Allowing the player to choose a broad range of options for difficulty is fine, but failing to communicate which one the developers think offers the best experience is an abnegation I found it hard to get past.
Once I did settle into a difficult level I felt suited me (although one I am still not too sure about), I found myself really enjoying Invisible, Inc.’s gameplay. I’ve read that the game was playtested extensively as a board game, and that play testing shows through. It’s a remarkably tight design, giving the player lots of rules that favour them but constraints that challenge them too. For example, even when seen by an enemy, you have one move to get to safety before they shoot. Additionally, you can predict guards routes and set traps for them which will automatically KO them when they move past one of your agents. On the other hand, your stun attack takes three turns to recharge, and enemies wake up after three turns too. This second constraint might feel mean spirited – as it means you can’t permanently eliminate guards – but it keeps you moving and heightens the tension. This is not a game about taking out guards, it’s a game about using the tools you have to get past them, and as such it wouldn’t really suit the tone if you could simply wipe out your enemies. Still, on the rare occasion that you get a gun and some ammo, it’s very satisfying to eliminate one for good.
I guess the real litmus test of Invisible, Inc. is if the difficulty puts you off playing it. For me, it never did. Each time I saw my team wiped out, I felt strangely good about it. In my quest for a perfect run, each imperfect one was an essential step. Next time none of the guards would see me. Next time I’d be in and out like a ghost. Silent. Smooth. My stealth perfectly tactical, my tactics perfectly stealthy.
4 genre’s marvelously mashed up out of 5