Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Publisher: Klei Entertainment
Corporate espionage, death-defying escapes, close shaves about once every 30-seconds and perfectly executed infiltrations are all just par for the course in Invisible Inc., another game from Klei who seem to be getting better and better with every new release. Invisible Inc. stands apart as their best title to date, a fantastic turn-based stealth/strategy game that evokes all the intensity of XCOM: Enemy Within but with a whole different set of fantastically designed mechanics to play around with. Cue the James Bond music.
You take on the role of an operator charged with controlling guiding field agents for a secretive organization called Invisible Inc., a private agency that offers it’s highly specialized services to the mega corporations that now essentially rule the entirety of Earth. At the beginning of the game Invisible Inc. is attacked and left in ruins with only the agency’s leader and two agents managing to escape the wreckage. Luckily they save the most valuable asset Invisible Inc. has; Incognita, a powerful computer capable of hacking anything without even being connected to the system, although in the rush to escape Incognita loses much of its more powerful programs and will quickly collapse unless it’s plugged into a new mainframe. The goal is simple; in the 72-hours that you have before Incognita believes the enemy will pinpoint your location you must embark on a series of missions to gather as many resources as possible before launching a counter attack on whomever attacked the agency. It’s a good setup, but once you get going it fades into the background, the story trundling along between missions and never really managing to get some momentum going. The ending, though, is a neat twist that manages to set up for a future game if wanted. Narrative really isn’t the focus of Invisible Inc.
Tension is the name of the game here, a constant companion that builds and builds and builds until you find yourself at 3am with twitchy eyes, a strange glazed look and an unhealthy tick that developed some time around that one mission where you performed a near impossible escape while biting your nails off. This continuous pressure is achieved through every single decision being important to your success, creating a sensation of mild panic that makes playing Invisible Inc one of those most nerve-wracking experiences I’ve had since XCOM: Enemy Within, a game which was always glad to smack you upside the head when a mistake was made. As a gamer I’ve blown up towns, commanded entire robot armies, fought numerous wars against various humans and plenty of monsters and driven a lot of fast cars, but only very few of those experiences match the intensity of games like this. It begins with a ticking clock. You’ve got exactly 72 in-game hours to gather as many resources as possible, time which equates to just a few hours in the real world. Even on the mission selection screen the clock sits at the very top of the screen, slowly ticking away. It’s a neat detail that helps keep that sense of limited time firmly in your mind. The farther away the mission is the more time you spend getting to it, and so you have to decide how best to use your precious collection of minutes. Do you fly over to rescue a potential agent? Or do you chance heave security to grab a powerful item that you may or may not be able to use? Or maybe you should hit up a facility that can grant you some better ordinance? Out in the field the tension continues with a security system that slowly increases with every turn you take, ensuring that no move should ever be wasted. For every rotation of the clock, which takes six turns, new cameras will be activated, guard routines will be changed and new enemies introduced into the level if you take too long, so with every move you’re constantly evaluating what to do, and whether you should attempt to grab some extra loot or consider trying to escape. Greed is the biggest enemy in the game, because you have to combat the ingrained desire to loot absolutely everything in the level, a desire that so many other games have taught us. And that’s not to mention the ever-present threat of guards patrolling the area and permanent death for agents who fall in the field.
Gameplay is a turn-based affair where each agent has a certain amount of action points to spend every turn before the enemy then get to do their thing, too. Moving a single square costs you a point, for example, and other actions cost, too, so every turn is a case of figuring out how to maximise your available action points since wasting time is inevitably going to make your job harder as each turn sees the security time move forward a notch, placing you under constant pressure to get things done. Your agents will always take cover automatically to help them stay out of sight, but you can also do things like peek through doors, attack enemies, settle into ambush mode, hack consoles, steal valuables and much more depending on the sort of gear agents have equipped and the context of the situation. Cloaking devices, for example, pretty much do what you would expect, while a gun is equally obvious in its application.
It all works because it’s simple to learn the game’s systems. Cones of vision and the cover system make it easy to understand when you’re going to be visible and when you won’t be, and even when spotted you’re given a chance to move one square in any direction in order to try to quickly take cover and beat a hasty retreat. From the simple rules stem plenty of things to interrupt your plans, though. Take enemies; lethal weapons are available, but they cost a lot of cash to acquire and are limited in how many times they can be used, whereas non-lethal weapons are easy to get and have unlimited uses. The catch is that knocking out a guard only renders him unconscious for 3-turns, at which point he’ll wake up and immediately increase security. However, you can stop this by “pinning” the guard, which means leaving an agent on the same square as the enemy. Again, do you see how the game is always demanding that you make tough calls? Do you try to sneak past the guard or knock him out? If you knock him out do you risk him waking up after a few turns, or do you pin him with an agent and do the rest of the mission a man down? Or do you opt for lethal tactics, removing the possibility of him waking up behind you but also guaranteeing trouble as most guards have heart rate monitors that automatically increase the security rating when the subject dies. You could choose to carry the unconscious guard around with you but that limits the movement of your agent considerably. But that’s not all; there are enemies that have shields which can be brought down in a couple of different ways, robots that are immune to certain things and even sound sensors to contend with, too. You’ll develop your knowledge alongside these growing threats, learning to predict the AI, lure them into traps by opening a door, how best to position agents and when to call it quits and get the hell out of dodge. A mission that seems simple can quickly spiral out of control, leaving you trying to make it to the exit while being hunted by a small army, desperately trying to avoid guards and sweating enough to fill a small pool with salty horridness. It’s hard to believe that a turn-based game like this can just be so intense, but XCOM fans will be all too used to the feeling. It’s absolutely marvelous.
Here’s how one mission played out for me; after rescuing a courier that I had stumbled upon being tortured I discovered the high security locker I had originally infiltrated the facility to break into. My plans were scuppered, though, because it was behind a door that needed a security card. Making a quick decision I decided to leave two agents behind with the courier, one of which had to unhappily keep a guard pinned lest he wake up and seriously muck up plans. I sent my last agent, a man by the name of Decker, scampering back through the base to get a card off a guard on the other side of the facility, but the amount of time it took meant the security suddenly started becoming tight. To my horror a message flashed up on my screen telling me that security was aware of my presence – worse still, they had pinpointed the location of Decker, the agent I was using to grab the keycard. A decision had to be made; do I send Decker some help and risk moving both my agents and the courier from their position, which was relatively near the exit, or do I simply try to get Decker back safe and sound without risking my other two operatives? I chose to leave Decker on his own, trusting that I could guide him through the guards who were now hunting him down with fervor. Several tense turns later things got even worse as the security forces also managed to pinpoint one of the two agents guarding the courier, which of course meant that they’d hone in on both agents since they were sitting quite close together.. I was in trouble; the exit was near the middle of the map, I had agents on either side of the facility and guards were honing in. Decker was holed up, so I began moving my other two agents into position to ambush any guards entering the room before making a break for it. By this point the security level is maxed out and I’m having a mild panic attack because there are enemies everywhere. I get Decker back to the room containing the other two agents, open the door, grab the contents of the locker and take stock of the shit storm before me. The courier can’t move very fast, so getting to the exit is going to be hard. Decker heads out first as he has the most movement available per turn, letting him recon the area. Guards are everywhere by this point, and I’m constantly one move away from getting stomped on. Things get even worse when the guard next to the secure locker finally wakes up and begins hunting us from behind. A few turns later the another guard we ambushed as he came into the room is going to wake up to. Suffice to say I got everyone out by the skin of my teeth, barely evading guards and robots alike. It was only the third mission. It was 2am. I was mentally exhausted. I was grinning like a fool. What an escape. What a story.
A mission later everything went far worse. While being defeated is typically a sign of failure in a game here’s it’s not just expected but almost required to progress. Inevitably agents will die in the field, often in rather inglorious ways, and death is permanent so you’ll have to soldier on, and equally inevitably your entire agency will be brought low by the corporate factions or you’ll simply fail to beat the final mission. Usually it’s a chain reaction of horrible events; one bad moves gets somebody killed, and their death depletes your already slim roster of people leading to another failed mission and then another, and before you know it you’re cornered in a room, watching as the enemy hone on your last agent’s position. Maybe if you’d gone for those extra safes earlier you’d have had enough cash to grab a cloaking device, or some of those powerful augments. Or maybe if you had just managed to recruit a new agent. But it’s okay, because failure means learning. Every loss is a lesson that needs to be learned, and the next time around you’ll do better. Some bonuses also carry over, such as a chunk of credits and experience, letting you get a better start. New knowledge means you’ll be able to make more informed decisions when selecting what mission to tackle and when, and how to handle yourself in the field. You come back better than before. And anyway, as your last agent is cornered the game gives you the opportunity to have him or her deliver some parting words.
The game isn’t entirely harsh, mind you. A rewind feature let’s you turn back time for just a single turn, allowing you the opportunity to reverse a terrible situation. Still, this is a game of harsh decisions and so rewinds are limited depending on how the campaign is setup, so even these need to be carefully considered or else you risk wasting them. More mercy is shown when you’re spotted and given the chance to react, time slowing to a standstill, a single heartbeat of a moment where it’s going to be death or glorious escape. You can simply move your agent behind cover if it’s close enough, or perhaps you could activate a gadget or move another agent into place to take down the guard. There’s even the option to replay an entire level, although by default this is turned off.
On top of your agents you can also use Incognita to hack into various systems in the level by spending power points. At first it’s almost too easy as points are plentiful, and can be replenished in a few ways but mainly by having an agent hack certain types of console, and so you can hack with reckless abandon, turning off cameras and sensors as needed. But as you progress the points become more limited and you have to start making those hard choices yet again; do you risk spending a couple of points unlocking a safe when there’s an enemy with a shield running around and your points may be better spent bringing said shield down? Another complication comes in the form of Daemons, or viruses, that make you further weigh up the pros and cons of your actions. Some may increase security, hide the existence of other Daemons for several turns or more. Like your field agents between Incognita can be upgraded with new programs at a hefty cost, while agents can have their core stats increased and powerful augments equipped to compliment their equipment.
Being a randomly generated game is why Invisible Inc’s gameplay works so damn well, making each new play through feel different by tossing out new layouts to deal with. But it does come with some inherent flaws, namely that upon starting a new game you can find yourself with a troublesome layout where missions are so far apart that by continuing you’ll be pretty unlikely to win due to there simply not being enough time to gather the resources needed for the final mission, thus it’s a good idea just to quit while you’re ahead and try generating a new game. The random generation of levels also serves to undermine the otherwise beautiful artstyle of Invisible Inc as each building you infiltrate looks pretty much exactly the same as the last one. But at least the agents look brilliant, and have equally good animations to match. This is a vibrant world that also boasts a lovely reactive score.
Indeed it’s the lovely graphics, music and setup for the game that make me wish there was just more to it all in terms of storytelling. What is there gives an enticing glimpse into an intriguing world, and the wonderfully drawn characters really make me want to get to actually know them. But alas it isn’t to be; agents are no more than simple spreadsheets of information with some basic backstory. In XCOM the customisation of characters, including being able to name them, made forming a connection relatively easy during the many narrow escapes, hair-raising victories and tragic defeats. In Invisible Inc the agents are pre-determined, so I never found myself mourning their death in the same way, although I did enjoy the same feeling of creating little stories for them through the gameplay. It just always feels like there’s a much bigger, cooler world sitting just outside your sphere of influence.
Once you’ve managed to beat the campaign for the first time you gain access to a whole suite of customisation options that let you generate a whole new campaign. For a more hardcore game you can turn off rewinds and disable level restarts, which are actually off by default, plus increase the speed that security increases, creating a challenging campaign that forces you to accept every victory and failure. Or you could go the other way, tweaking how much resources you start with, the amount of guards you’ll encounter along the way, the length of the campaign and much more to craft a less tricky series of missions. On top of that there’s also Endless Mode, which does exactly what it says on the tin,
Above everything else Invisible Inc. understands the power of urgency, and I love how every aspect of the game conveys that urgency to the player, from the limited time you have to spend before the final mission to the ever-increasing security to the fact that guards have KO timers this is a game that demands you pay attention and consider each move carefully. Each and every decision feels important, because it is, and the fact that it can and absolutely will go horribly wrong is thrilling. Too many games have accepted the idea that the player needs to be mollycoddled and told that they’re doing brilliantly no matter what. It’s always refreshing to play a game that dismisses this and lets the player fall flat on his or her face before helping them up, dusting them off and telling them to have another go. It’s never unfair; every failure is your own, and it’s never judgemental or malignant about it, either. It doesn’t go out of its way to make you fail, it just pushes you to be better. It’s a unique game that mixes strategy with stealth and light elements of action and there’s always something new to learn and discover.
You’ve probably managed to figure out that I quite like Invisible Inc. given my so subtle compliments. It’s a truly great game that XCOM fans are going to absolutely love. It won’t be to everyone’s taste; the harsh nature of failure, and the fact that you can make a bad decision early in the game which doesn’t ruin you until a bit later, means some people are going to struggle to enjoy themselves. But if you can accept defeat and want a genuine challenge where failure is yet another step toward success then this is the game for you.