Invisible Inc is a turn-based, grid-based, cyberpunkish stealth strategy game from Klei, creators of Don’t Starve and Mark of the Ninja. It’s about secret agents breaking into sinister corporations to steal cash and data. It’s about risking everything and losing everything, but then trying it all again because you’re damn sure you can do better. It’s out now on Steam Early Access, and I’ve spent the last couple of days sheltered within its billowing trenchcoat.
New favourite thing! New favourite thing! You know I love XCOM dearly (as long as you don’t get me started on the satellite rush bobbins) but it’s not exactly convenient to have the thing take over my whole damn life for a couple of weeks when all I wanted was a quick hit of tactical action. Invisible Inc looks at the whole affair from a distinctly different angle – pure stealth, combat as a supremely tense last resort – but most of all it does it quickly, and fat-free. And it has trilby hats, trenchcoats, hiding in cupboards and people called ‘Deckard.’
No more than two agents, and if they both bite it then it’s game over, a time limit, almost no mucking around in the base beyond some basic character upgrades, and the use of cover not to affect hit chances, but as vital concealment. This is a supremely tense game of movement squares: as the mission timer wears on, the amount of enemies and cameras, and the cost of hacks, rises.
Have you spent too long mucking around, trying to grab all the loot you get your black gloved hands on? Good for you, but you’ve made getting out of here alive so much tougher. Risk/reward underpins it all, but too much risk – too much time – is genuinely suicidal.
You have to be comfortable with cutting your losses, with exiting the building knowing full well there’s a still-locked safe full of who knows what over in that side room, or an encrpyted vending machine that might hold live-saving goodies if only you could get over there and hack it.
It’s as tough as Lee Marvin’s most sun-baked boots, and for that reason there’s immense satisfaction to be had. The final moments of a mission, as guards and their sinister Elite variants slowly close on your location while you try and peg it to the elevator, elicit pounding adrenaline. The great uncertainty of survival, and the terrible knowledge that if you fail, it’s all over.
There are no new recruits to turn to if your best agents fall: this is it. Let them get spotted once and they’re almost certainly dead. Don’t get spotted, get both characters (sometimes with a rescued prisoner in tow, much like XCOM’s escort missions) through the lift doors, and you’ll feel like the king of thieves.
Invisible Inc falls squarely into the ‘early access done right’ camp, as its core concept and major mechanics are all in place. There’ll be many features, characters and variations upon mission settings and types to come, but unlike the initial releases of games such as Clockwork Empires and Space Base, the current build makes it perfectly clear what kind of game we’re going to have by end of all this. ‘A rather good one’, say I.
The rules are clear. The number of possible actions are few, and even though each mission map is procedurally-generated, I’ve yet to encounter any situation that I could describe as unfair. If I failed – and I failed repeatedly – it was without doubt a result of my own error or recklessness. A possible exception to that is the use of a timer system for the default taser weapon each Agent carries.
You can either sneak up on an unware guard or lie in wait behind cover (i.e. Overwatch) for one you believe is heading your way, at which point your fragile thief will zap ’em and pin ’em to the ground – but it’ll be three turns before you can do that again. If another guard is hot on the heels of the downed guy, you are most probably screwed – but flashes of last-second ingenuity can rescue the day.
At times, this recharge timer did seem overly cruel, but I quickly realised my mistake was to have gotten myself into that situation in the first place. I shouldn’t have risked that stun if I didn’t have a surefire means of taking out or avoiding immediate reinforcements. For instance, I could have used Deckard’s stealth vest to turn invisible for a single turn, or Shalem 11’s short-range silenced rifle to pick off the second pursuer. In that case, however, I’d used the stealth vest the turn before and had already fired both rounds of ammo for the gun.
That latter aspect did bother me more, as the game doesn’t replenish ammo between missions, so you’ll spend half of the next one scouring the map for a vending machine before you can use the gun. But: you shouldn’t really use the gun unless there’s no other option, as the level’s security increases if it detects a stopped heartbeat. Avoid; stun; kill: those are your prime directives, and the further down that short list you go, the more you’re putting your own neck in harm’s way.
Underneath the Bond-does-cyberpunk skin – visually it’s a meeting of Shadowrun Returns and Evil Genius – it’s primarily a resource management game. How to best spend your movement points and your precious and slow-to-recharge attacks, or how to obtain more PWR, the hacking resource. While you can pick up a little more of this during missions, really once it’s gone it’s gone, so there’s an ongoing dilemma over whether to spend it on hacking cash-filled safes or deactivating security cameras and turrets.
Every decision has consequences, because you’re locking off other opportunities and invariably attracting the attention of the guards. Time too is a resource: ‘spend’ too much of it and you’re faced with a base in lockdown. High stakes, high stress, big old butterfly effect. It all coalesces into a fiercely compelling juggling act, but crucially one where you always feel there’s at least a possibility of recovering before the balls all tumble to the floor.
This is wonderful stuff: tactical, tense, characterful, confident enough to never depart from the realm of stealth, and so far with a random map generator that’s kept me on my toes rather than see me turn away from over-familiarity. Even going on just this alpha/beta/whatever you want to call it build, I’m certain that I’ll be revisiting Invisible Inc often as the year wears on.
Invisible Inc is available via Steam Early Access now.