Review: Invisible, Inc.

Warning: the next sentence of this review might seem condescending, but no writer in good conscience could forgo letting the audience know this very important fact.

Invisible, Inc. should not be played by stupid people. The general masses might be able to enjoy traditional hardcore turn-based tactics titles, but with Invisible, Inc. Klei Entertainment has crafted a procedural title that constantly makes minds spin. Not only does it have one of the highest learning curves of any single-player title released in the last twelve months, but the random nature of its stages creates a world that is constantly trying to make you fail. The result is a backbreaking challenge that forces you to adapt to new situations, figure out what the environment is trying to tell you, and attempt to rebound after inevitable demises. Though its world design is somewhat convoluted and its weak narrative feels oddly out of place compared to its perpetually-shifting gameplay, Invisible, Inc. is a solid combination of turn-based action and stealth.

It seems strange that stealth and turn-based gameplay have never really been blended to this extent. After all, the argument is often made that stealth games are somewhat broken by default, with players simply sitting in corners memorizing enemy movement patterns rather than actively employing strategy. In this sense, Invisible, Inc. is an overwhelming success, as players always have the time to consider the most stealthy, wise path from their spawn point to their objective. Consider this point: if you have more time to think about how to stay hidden, wouldn’t you come up with more creative tactics to do so?

The basic premise surrounding Invisible, Inc. is not unlike that of underrated voice-controlled RTS There Came an Echo. You take the role of an unnamed operator in charge of two player-selected agents tasked with infiltrating various locations across a fictional corporate-controlled globe. The agency you command was infiltrated by one of these corporations, which in turn compromised the integrity of the computer housing Incognita, an advanced hacking AI. With only 72 hours to go before Incognita becomes inoperable, you have to race across the globe, raising alarms as you complete missions in order to locate a powerful security hub computer that can house your trusty AI. It’s an interesting idea for a narrative, sure, but this static story doesn’t necessarily fit within the largely randomized context of Invisible, Inc.

While players might find some intrigue in following this twisting tale during their first playthrough, Invisible, Inc. is designed to be an endlessly replayable procedural title; having to skip through the same cutscenes and bits of dialogue during each new campaign only lessens their impact. Instead of admiring the finer aspects of each character, players will likely wind up dreading that frantic rush to the escape key after every mission. In a title where everything else seems to be shifting, playing through the same story over and over becomes more of a mild annoyance than anything else.

At the end of the day, Invisible, Inc.‘s bread and butter, much like with other recent Klei titles, is its gameplay. Be warned, if you’re not the type of gamer who wants to sift through complex mechanics while you rewire your brain during a journey up a steep learning curve, don’t even consider picking Invisible, Inc. up. In general, the name of the game is to guide one or two characters through a procedurally-generated area until objective points are found before completing an objective and finding an evacuation point. Each of the two-player controlled heroes, which are selected from a ever-increasing pool before the beginning of each campaign, has a certain number of Action Points (AP for short) that enable them to complete actions in this grid-based title. Moving costs AP, peeking into new rooms costs AP, and certain specialized techniques cost AP. This singular player action currency makes for a number of interesting moment-to-moment decisions. Will you spend all of your AP on movement, or will you plan a route that allows you to illuminate as much of the stage as possible through peeking? Is choosing to sprint your best option with a full Action Point level, or will that attract too much attention at whatever point you’re at? Much like with other strategy games, players will only succeed at higher difficulty levels if they’re able to plan a few moves ahead (thankfully Invisible, Inc. gives you the opportunity to observe enemy movement, hack from a distance, and reveal more of a room by peeking through an open door).


Of course, simply managing a precious resource wouldn’t mean anything if there weren’t constant obstacles in your path. Guards, AI drones, cameras, and turrets will make your life exponentially more difficult, and understanding the resource management that comes from having to stay hidden, take out enemies, buy upgrades and items, and hack electronics. The latter mechanic plays a large role in every mission, as Incognita is essentially your third player-character. By pressing the space bar, players will open up a black and blue grid that highlights all of the hackable objects in the immediate area, and the number of firewalls that have to be broken before they’re disabled. In order to hack anything, players have to expend PWR, Incognita’s general ability-activating currency At the start of each campaign, Incognita will have two abilities at her disposal (likely Power Drip, which adds 1 to a player’s PWR count each turn, and Lockpick 1.0, which breaks down one firewall at the cost of 2 PWR), and more can be purchased as you progress. Outside of the Power Drip skill, PWR can only be obtained at consoles, which can only be activated from a directly adjacent space (unless you’re using the extremely handy Internationale’s wireless hacking capabilities). Of course, like everything else in Invisible, Inc. hacking becomes more difficult as a stage progresses, so understanding what to hack and when is absolutely imperative. The last thing you need is to be sitting in front of the objective for six turns waiting for your power level to increase enough to break down the five firewalls it’s sporting.

At the end of every turn, an alarm meter increases, with every fifth increase causing a different negative impact on the player. For instance, players who are still active by the time that the alarm hits Level 5 will find an additional high-powered armored guard seeking their presence out. On one hand, this system is theoretically fascinating, as it increases the permanence and gravity of every turn; however, there is something to be said about the conceptual oddity that results from a stealth game punishing you, regardless of whether or not you actually remain hidden. In practice, this system is very hit or miss due to the dichotomy between the engaging challenge that results from each stage getting perpetually harder and the unmistakable cheapness that results from a mechanic that punishes you for existing. Throughout your time with Invisible, Inc., you’ll likely waver from loving the dynamism that the alarm system provides to loathing its very existence.

If all of this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. It’s worth reiterating: if you’re not into games with a steep learning curve, then you shouldn’t bother with Invisible, Inc. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a game having such a high barrier to entry; after all, Dota 2 is a spectacular title, and you likely don’t know a damn thing about Valve’s MOBA until about hour 200.

Each character comes equipped with certain skill-based gear items that influence how he or she plays. For instance, Shalem 11 carries a firearm that enables him to kill any guard within a 360-degree field of vision, while the aforementioned Internationale has the ability to wirelessly obtain PWR from consoles within a set number of spaces in any direction. Everyone comes equipped with a taser that allows them to knock out enemies for a set number of turns (and for even longer if a character stays pinned on top of the downed foe). Of course, pretty much every skill comes with some sort of caveat; ranged weapons generally only have two-bullet magazines, and new ammunition has to be purchased in the field, which in it of itself is a large risk. Tasers have multiple-turn cooldowns, meaning that players can’t simply run around knocking out every enemy in order to blast through a stage. Like the alarm system, multi-turn weapon cooldowns feel both exciting and flawed. On on hand, this forced players to plan out when they use their knockouts and bullets; on the other, it decreases the amount of improvisation that a player can use to get himself or herself out of a sticky situation, which can be disheartening.

Actually choosing which missions you’ll embark on is a bit simpler, and the process is actually one of the coolest concepts in Invisible, Inc. in a vacuum. Because you only have 72 hours to save Incognita, you’re going to have to manage that time accordingly; since you’re racing around the globe (which naturally involves air travel), you have to take into account the amount of flight time you’ll endure. There’s a real satisfaction that comes from completing as many missions as possible within that 72-hour time-frame, but an equal satisfaction might come from blasting through a campaign as quickly as possible. Is obtaining as many Corporate Credits (Invisible, Inc.‘s financial currency) as possible in order to buy items and upgrades what’s most important, or would you rather try and sneak through each stage as bare as possible? Is it worth spending twelve hours of flight time in order to obtain a free, permanent character augment, or would you rather complete two missions in that timeframe? Though mission selection never alters the overarching narrative, the gameplay implications are fascinating enough to encourage multiple playthroughs.

In order to fuel its concept of endless replay value, Invisible, Inc. has a number of difficulties (including a completely customizable setting) that players can work their way through. The Beginner mode is actually quite challenging, and though it allows you to rewind to the start of a previous turn five times, there is still ample opportunity to fail. As you work your way through each difficulty, rewinds, the ability to restart, enemy field of vision indicators, and general brutality increase. Combine this with the always exciting concept of permanent character death, and you can start to see where the potential for addiction sets in. Invisible, Inc.‘s greatest strength is likely its incredible level of difficulty, but these higher difficulties can often present the most disappointing reality of procedurally generated titles: unbeatable scenarios. Perhaps wiser souls will be able to defeat every challenge set in front of them, but a great deal of people will wind up restarting Expert campaigns over and over in hopes of receiving a stage that feels fair. Again, Invisible, Inc.‘s difficulty is a wonderful thing 95% of the time, but when it crosses into cheap territory, it starts to lose its luster.

Outside of its narrative structure, Invisible, Inc.‘s fatal flaw is its art-style. Because of the way each stage’s lightly colored walls obscure the environment, it’s often difficult to see which areas of the grid are safe to trek to. There are a number of different ways to make the map more visible, as players can rotate the world, lower and raise walls, and switch to an easy-to-understand alternative view much like Incognita’s hacking screen. While all of these solutions make gameplay easier, they all feel like they solve a problem that Invisible, Inc. creates for itself. None of these mechanics would be necessary if stage layouts were a bit easier to visualize. On top of this, animations seem to run at sub-sixty frames-per-second even on powerful rigs, which creates a number of jarring framerate transitions during the course of a given playthrough. This is by no means game-breaking, and these animations never run below thirty frames-per-second, but it’s awkward enough that it warrants mention.

Closing Comments:

Though it’s by no means the perfect tactics title, there’s something strangely fresh about Klei’s combination of turn-based gameplay and stealth. While its artstyle creates a fair amount of clutter and its constant story seems ill-conceived, there’s no denying that this brutally challenging title will entertain hardcore fans for numerous hours. If you’re willing to put in the time to climb its steep learning curve, you’ll likely find yourself deeply satisfied as you escape tense situations over and over. Klei Entertainment has once again proven themselves to be at the forefront of creating endless replay value, all while wrecking backlogs near and far.