Imagine XCOM with a one hour campaign and a solid stealth system.
Klei Entertainment has been making solid games for a long time: Mark of the Ninja, Don’t Starve, and Shank are all well-executed examples of their respective genres. I’ve just never liked any of them. Something about the way they feel or the way they animate or…something has always built a wall between me and Klei’s games. I’m happy to say that, with Invisible, Inc., I think they have finally broken down that wall.
Invisible, Inc. puts you in charge of a cyborged out secret agent taskforce whose mother base just got wiped out by a coalition of shadowy corporations. Your mission is to exact revenge by plugging Incognita (your agency’s AI brain) into that shadowy coalition’s mainframe. You’ve got 72 hours to hop around the globe gearing up your team for that task before Incognita’s battery backup dies.
That setup, boilerplate as it is, works fine because Invisible, Inc. is a roguelike: it’s designed to be played over and over again. You pick two starter agents and two hacking powers and give it your best shot. It usually takes less than an hour (and occasionally less than five minutes) for your whole team to get unceremoniously gunned down by corporate security. The game is very hard: it will take both determination and a little bit of luck to win. When you fail, you brush yourself off, reassess your strategy, pick a new starting lineup and try again.
That repetition would suck if you were playing through the same five or six facilities all the time. Thankfully, Klei Entertainment built an impressively robust level generator to keep you on your toes. While these levels obviously lack real-world sense in their design, I never ran into a broken one and only a few patently ridiculous or unfair ones. The facilities do all look the same, though that’s a mostly quirk of how strong the art style is.
Invisible, Inc. pulls a whole lot of inspiration from XCOM and FTL, but with greater constraints on time both tactically and strategically. In XCOM, you have until the world stops funding you to build your anti-ET dream team. In Invisible Inc., you get a dozen missions, tops, to prep your squad and then you are forced into the final fight. There is no guarantee you will have exactly what you want going into that fight: you have to roll with what you pick up along the way. The missions themselves also have a running clock in the form of alarm stages that ratchet up the security in the building every 5 ticks. The alert level rises automatically every turn, and though the alarms are never an outright fail-state it is nearly certain death to stick around for too long.
This time crunch at the low and high end of play works to make sure things keep moving without too much artifice but, more importantly, it shortens the game to make repeated play more palatable. Once XCOM patched out its technical quirks, my biggest problem became the inconveniently high stakes of risking everything on a gambit 20 hours into a game. XCOM’s balance was good enough to pull this off (usually) but as someone who does not have time to start a non-creative task over after a full day’s commitment anymore, I prefer Invisible Inc.’s model. Whether FTL’s model is better than both is an open question. The rebellion wave sweeping up behind you in FTL is more organic, but there is an appeal to the drop dead 72-hour deadline in Invisible, Inc. that I can appreciate.
Klei took a page out of its own book for the combat. You spend most of your time slinking around in the shadows rather than confronting foes, and the floor maps showing routes and sight lines are very much a top-down version of Mark of the Ninja. This design allowed them to keep the mechanics elegant. Everyone has one hit point and never misses. If a guard sees you, you get one action point to duck into cover or counterattack before they take you down. That dynamic is tense but fair, which is a great combination. Assessing and overcoming a situation gracefully is the bread-and-butter of tactical turn-based combat, and Invisible, Inc. lets you do that with ease. Provided you have the right tools for the job, of course.
Incognita plays an uncommon role during combat as a remote hacking tool. She can spend power to capture cameras and drones, break down firewalls on consoles, and so on. You outfit her just as you outfit any of your crew with upgrades you find or buy out in the field. She doesn’t feel quite as integrated with the troops on the ground as she could be, largely because she isn’t bound by anything but power usage. If your team spots something hackable anywhere, she can hack it. There’s rarely an advantage to be gained by using her abilities more intelligently or judiciously; it’s just basic math. There are “daemons” attached to certain objects that will trigger effects when hacked, but those tend to just increase difficulty rather than add depth. This system is a disappointment more than a shortcoming--the ground game is plenty complex by itself to hold up higher-level play and Incognita’s presence doesn’t hurt that at all--but as the most novel element I do wish they had flirted with making your eyes in the sky a bit more colorful.
I wrote this review right after beating Invisible, Inc. the first time (on the middle “Experienced” difficulty setting). I will definitely go back and test my chops on Expert soon enough. Despite seeing almost every individual item the game has to offer already in the first 10 hours, the combinations of agents and weapons and powerups are legion and I want to try quite a few more of them before I put it down. I will cop to being a huge fan of roguelikes (XCOM and FTL were two of my favorite games in the last five years), so it’s hard for me judge its merits for those who are not wired that way, but I would advocate Invisible, Inc. as required reading for this genre. In a year loaded with great games, it’s still one of the best.