Invisible, Inc., Released: May 12, 2015, Reviewed on: PC, Genre: Strategy RPG, Developer: Klei Entertainment, Publisher: Klei Entertainment
I really shouldn’t open a review with a bold, declamatory statement, especially one that risks completely spoiling the range of the final score assigned to it. But, against better judgement, I’m going to say my piece. Thus, I will allow you, the reader, to decide whether or not you feel like you should continue visually absorbing the words I have written.
I will ask you three questions:
1.) Do you like Strategy RPGs or Rogue-likes?
2.) Did you like Mark Of The Ninja or Don’t Starve?
3.) Do you have twenty dollars of disposable income?
If you have said yes to any of these questions, buy Invisible, Inc. Do it now. No hesitation. Yes, NOW. If for some reason you still need to be sold on the idea, read on.
For starters, Invisible, Inc. is a game that doesn’t really do anything new, but it does what it does in a way you’ve never experienced before. In fact, the age-old adage: “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” factors very heavily into Klei Entertainment’s newest title. The strategy gameplay is ripped right out of games like the recent reboots of XCOM or Shadowrun, the stealth mechanics feel very inspired by Metal Gear, and the agent augmentations and hacking seem like a homage to Deus Ex, especially how these mechanics are implemented into gameplay. But this game — miraculously enough — finds a definitive way to avoid looking, feeling or even seeming like the games it takes cues from. It is its own beast, whether by design or simply the fact that they chose the absolute best flavors to combine for this package, and they did so in such a way that the final product seemed fresh and completely imaginative.
While it doesn’t really do anything new, the sum of its parts is like nothing I’ve ever played, and it keeps me coming back for more. It’s a masterclass in how to create genuine tension, and it’s something that has taken the “just one more round” feeling to brand new heights. You aren’t ready for Invisible, Inc. You think you are, but you’re not. And that’s why I’m going to tell you to start on Easy Difficulty. See, most all Strategy RPG titles deal with positioning, range, possibly elevation, the standard stuff you’ve come to know from the genre. But Invisible, Inc. does not. This game deals almost solely in in stealth, and whether or not you’ve been detected / your chances of being detected. That’s it. And there’s a lot of ways to get detected, so staying invisible truly is the name of the game. And learning how to do that reliably can be an unforgivingly brutal, almost Dark Souls-ian experience, especially on higher difficulties.
You start off with things gone horribly wrong; it’s the far future, corporations have dissolved and subsequently taken over world governments, the independent spy agency you work for has been compromised and is on the run from multiple corporate entities looking to take your entire crew out. You have two spies, two stun guns, an incredibly powerful AI construct and seventy-two hours of battery life. You have to get her plugged into a major network system or risk losing everything. No pressure.
Right from the outset, tensions are running high. You have to infiltrate a corporate office in order to find a contact list on a specific terminal, and this information will unlock multiple other avenues and targets for you to infiltrate and take advantage of. To do so, you’ll need to sneakily subdue or evade guards and security countermeasures, such as drones, cameras, noise mics, firewalls, defense programs, etc. The guards are a job for your human squad of spies — up to four total, provided you rescue the other two at key moments — but the electronic side of things will be handled by Incognita, your AI. And without her, you’re screwed. Since she’s left on battery power, she only has a limited amout of ability unless you recharge her using excess power from basic terminals. But those terminals only work once, and there’s not many of them in the levels. Procedurally-generated levels, at that. No map is ever the same. Ever.
You have a maximum cap of twenty power points to use in the pursuit of knocking systems offline. And doing this ain’t cheap, either. Press the Space Bar, and the game goes all Matrix-y on you due to entering Incognita mode, where all the hacking takes place. It takes two points to break into a single-firewall camera, so if you see the number “1” above an object while in Incognita mode, that means that it’s two points to turn it to your advantage. This suceeds in giving you sight lines into rooms you haven’t explored and keeping guards unaware of your presence. But cameras aren’t always that cheap. Sometimes, they’re packing a “2” above them, which means four points to turn it to your purposes. But don’t rely on that, because the corporate systems will take things back if alarm phases — which I’ll cover in just a bit — keep rising. Need money for a new offensive program or a new augmentation? Break into one of the many man-sized safes that litter the corporate offices. But get ready to spend six or eight points to do it, which is likely to leave you unable to turn off security measures when you need it.
Everything, and I mean everything is risk and reward. And most of all, it’s about not getting caught. When guards see you, you’re in trouble. You have no health to speak of, and you have no chance of survival that isn’t based in adequate cover. So, you learn very quickly to use cover or your proximity to it to your advantage, because not doing so means one-hit kills. Now, death isn’t permanent, per se. You can have your ally show up with Medi-Gel, which is a one-time use item that revives teammates. But if nobody in your team has that as part of their personal inventory — and the instances in which you have it are quite rare — you will be forced to either have a teammate carry them with or leave them behind. Carrying them effectively neuters your walking distance, so good luck getting out in one piece if you constantly have to lug around someone you didn’t position correctly.
Also, lethal force is certainly an option, but it’s not a smart one. Most guards have heartbeat sensors, so if you kill them, prepare for everyone to know where you are. And even if you get out of there, they know you killed a man, so they’re all going to go into pissed-off-wasp-swarm mode trying to find you. It’s much smarter to knock them out or evade them entirely. Also, the main campaign has a timer of sorts where the alarm raises every five moves, and faster than that if guards or security measures notice you. Every level it raises, the firewalls get harder to break, more guards show up, etc. Later, higher-tier alarm levels will actually out your spies via their current locations, one by one. Like it or not, time is of the essence, and you don’t have the luxury of doing / getting everything in a level. Your best bet is to get in, get what you came for (with whatever you find and can comfortably take along the way, of course), and get the hell out. And of course, the goal is to do it all as clean and quietly as you can. Taking everything means making mistakes, and those mistakes can and will cost you dearly.
Luckily, you can rewind moves on easier difficulties. This makes it much easier to learn from your mistakes, because those mistakes don’t carry the same degree of permanence that they will when playing on higher difficulties. But, that’s not exactly set in stone, because you can tweak just about any option you like. This aspect of Invisible, Inc. is one of its most shining features, because you can set yourself up for an extreme jump-start or put yourself through a mission that is quite literally impossible. You can set your initial funds, your starting amount of AI power per level, modifiers for stun time, firewall difficulty, you name it. They let you play the game the way you want to play it by letting you play with the things that govern its difficulty, and that is priceless in and of itself. The best part is that none of the ease you set yourself up with matters much in the end — you’ll still face that impossible mission, and no matter what, you’ll still have to work. But step up to a higher difficulty level, and you’ll find no such kindness. It’s do or die. And you should be ready to die. A lot.
Endless Mode is also a blast, as it removes the 72-hour storyline and places you into a how-long-can-you-survive Rogue-like experience. Speaking of being Rogue-like, dying and failing is an integral part of this game. What matters is how many missions you clear, and how difficult those missions were were. If you can successfuly survive those missions, you get experience points when the game is over, and it unlocks new skills, agents and AI programs for your starting setup. The more difficult the mission was, the more points you earn for clearing it. And it makes you that much more formidable the next time around.
Invisible, Inc. is a game that nails its atmosphere, as well. The art style is fantastic, the agents all have personality, the story — for as short as it is — is interesting, and the end makes you wish they have a bigger, badder sequel in mind. The music is well done, the graphics fit the tone and genre of the game perfectly, and the animation is downright gorgeous at times. I have not a single unkind word to say about its presentation.
Folks, I am trying my damnedest to find fault with this game. I really am, but it’s very, very hard to do. At this point, any fault will do. But I simply can’t find one. I understand that games like this are not for everyone, some folks won’t like games that are this meticulously-paced and so focused on precise execution of a player’s best-laid plans. But the tension is palpable. The excitement that comes from your success is a very real thing, and I found myself outright cork-pop celebrating heists gone horribly right — the first time you successfully get into a company’s inner vault and manage to get out alive, you’ll know the feeling I’m describing. And while Klei Entertainment hasn’t created the Citizen Kane of video games by slapping all these “been there, done that” elements together, they’ve most certainly succeeded in making the Cowboy Bebop of Strategy RPGs. And that’s the sort of praise I don’t give lightly, because that’s a feat in and of itself. Every developer that’s either making a Strategy RPG or thinking of making one has officially been put on notice; an indie outfit has set the new high bar, and it only costs $20 to dive into what may be the best, most exciting example the genre has today. XCOM 2, the ball is in your court, now. And you have got some ground to (re)cover, let me tell you.
This is a very strange thing for me to do, as I don’t do this every day. Hell, I don’t do this but every couple of years or so. But when I say it, I mean it. And believe me, I’m telling you this because — to me — it’s true, so take heed: Invisible, Inc. is as close to a perfect game as you’re likely to get in the Strategy RPG genre. Go buy it. Now.
Like, right now. Yes, you.
Note: The review copy of this title was a digital code provided by the publisher.