Invisible, Inc. Early Acccess Impressions:

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.

37 Comments

  1. lowprices says:

    Unless Dreamfall Chapters turns out to be something truly remarkable than I have my Goatee right here. Even in the early stage, this is basically everything I want in a game (I do wish there was a way to replenish supplies and buy equipment between missions, though).

    Also, never take the guy with the gun. In about 7 hours of play I have never found a situation that was improved by killing. Buy a tranq gun when you can.

    • somnolentsurfer says:

      Not a PC game, obviously, but goatee is Threes! and anyone who says otherwise is wrong. The rest of 2014 is basically just a waiting game to see how many end of the year lists forget it ’cause it came out in February.

      Er… Sorry. On topic, Invisible, Inc. Does look good though.

  2. Gap Gen says:

    It is impressive how much the UI looks like XCOM’s. Which is possibly no bad thing, of course.

  3. Rizlar says:

    Damn you early access. For some reason the idea of playing half finished games doesn’t appeal to me. Figuratively speaking though, I cannot wait till this gets a full release!

    • lordfrikk says:

      Good news is that Klei proved they are able to use EA the way it’s meant to be used and actually release a finished game in the end. I’m still not buying it while it’s not final, but I’ll definitely be there when it is.

      • Hmm-Hmm. says:

        That is a really confusing abbreviation. Although you could just blame EA for that.

      • zentropy says:

        In the same boat here, really trying to resist. As above poster said though, Klei are excellent at dealing with EA. Don’t Starve was really well excecuted IMHO, and I generally try not to play games until v2.1…

        And yes, EA is totes to blame for most evils. :3

    • Premium User Badge

      JiminyJickers says:

      Come over to the dark side, buy this, it is good.

  4. eggy toast says:

    The first update should be happening today, they said it will include an option for a less difficult setting, and some other stuff. I keep checking Steam to see if it’s downloading yet, but still not yet.

  5. derbefrier says:

    this game look awesome but its also one of those games i will only play through once so i will wait for release so i can get the complete package.

    • eggy toast says:

      It’s meant to be a rougelike, not sure if you are aware. The story is cursory and serves to further the gameplay.

      • derbefrier says:

        Its not so much the story I am concerned about but features and balancing and bugs.

        • zentropy says:

          I’m anticipating Don’t Starve levels of replayability/addiction here. :/

  6. Paganator says:

    The core gameplay is great and tense, but the combination of very high difficulty and huge punishment for mistakes made the game extremely frustrating for me and I just stopped playing. The tiniest mistake may mean one of your agents gets spotted, and if one of your agents is spotted he’s probably dead. Because you only have two agents and there are no almost no ways to replace dead agents, and because it’s almost impossible to succeed with a single agent, then as soon as one agent gets killed then you’re screwed. And when you’re screwed, you have to restart your campaign from the beginning because the game doesn’t allow you to save or reload.

    So the tiniest mistake or bad luck forces you to restart your whole campaign. Multiple agents enter the same room at the same time through random bad luck? Restart the campaign. Misclick and send one your agents one tile too far to the left? Restart the campaign. Can’t find the elevator in the time allocated before the place is filled with powerful guards? Restart the campaign.

    After a while, the game felt less like a team of badass agents accomplishing challenging missions, and more like a couple of panicking dudes desperately trying to find an elevator to run away (and screw the mission objectives).

    • Ace Rimmer says:

      That … doesn’t sound too appealing. The basic gameplay seems right up my alley, but if I fail a mission (or if I’m just curious about what else might work), I want to immediately try it again with a different approach, not start the campaign all over. That’s why I don’t really care for roguelikes or Ironman modes or what have you: I want to be able to experiment with different setups and tactics at any point in the game, without being punished.

      • thedosbox says:

        Yeah, the mechanics look great, but having to restart a campaign doesn’t sound like a good idea. Not being restocked between missions is also off-putting.

    • Polifemo says:

      That sounds amazingly right up my alley.
      The original X-COM marketed itself as gun-ho alien shooter and it reflects in the intro and art: link to youtube.com
      When in reality it was a brutal horror meatgrinder were its basically a group of dudes going around huddled together on tiptoes around a map trying to spot aliens before the monstrosities kill them first.

      Ill be sure to play this. It would be neat to have at least one or two replacement agents, either unlocked through rescuing or starting with a default 1.

      • Paganator says:

        There are missions that reward you with additional characters for your team, but more often than not this type of mission isn’t available so you’re out of luck.

    • Ender7 says:

      The same with me. I LOVE the core game, but the instadeath, restart campain, no save options, time limits, increase in difficulty..etc. Just kills it for me. It sucks, because it has something I love, mixed with something I loath, and the loathing won out. I had the same exact problem wtih FTL, I loved the concept, but once you die, you have to start the whole damn thing over again. No, no thanks. It stops being fun, and it just becomes soul sucking punishment.

    • Antares says:

      Same here. The mechanics are excellent. They’re simple, lean and play into eachother very well in a way that reminds me (unsurprisingly) of Mark of the Ninja.
      Nevertheless, I’d advise anyone looking at the early access version people to steer clear for now unless they’re absolutely certain they can stomach the difficulty.

      Players are constantly nudged to take risks thanks to the alarm mechanic (which works great), the way KO’d guards eventually wake up and start roaming in a fashion that’s much harder to predict, encouraging stealthing by them whenever possible (brilliant!), and the fact that you start a mission not knowing where the exit is (not a fan).

      This would work brilliantly if the player was given ways to mitigate mistakes and salvage botched missions, but the game is beyond punitive. Spotted characters die in one shot and stay dead (and you usually only have two, meaning a death will end your campaign) and ironman rules are enforced.
      On top of that, the procedural generation is wildly inconsistent and will create cakewalks one moment and hellish deathtraps the next.

      Still, the difficulty and randomness of it all can be adjusted (and from what I understand, an easier difficulty setting is currently in the works). I remain very hopeful for the game and look forward to seeing what it ends up like.

    • Iainn says:

      I am hoping that they will implement a save anywhere feature, much like the Shadowrun Returns guys did. That changed the game for the better so I imagine it will here too. In it’s current state though, this game is far too punishing and I hate not being able to save the game if I need to suddenly leave the room for any length of time.

  7. ersetzen says:

    The interface needs some work – for instance it is impossible to know which is which when shooting a guard that stands above his unconscious college.

    One note, it is reasonable easy to obtain a third agent from a detainment center. After that the chances of finding a fourth one go down but it is possible to run around with a team of four, although it is harder to stay undetected and get everyone out that way.

    Anyway, after realizing that any interaction with guards will harm you in the long run (hah) the game becomes much easier. It is actually a stealth game – even knocking out will bite you in the ass. Which really should be communicated stronger. But even after screwing up it is incredibly fun and satisfying to stage a stupidly risky rescue operation that somehow succeeds. In that it feels like Monaco.

  8. MasterBoo says:

    Invisible Inc. is probably the best game I’ve played recently. Already vested 20 hours into it (and I have it only 1 week).

  9. Michael Fogg says:

    Looks interesting, I only hope it won’t end up as too much of a slot machine, like FTL. Random generation is fine, but too much randomness of the ‘get a nice bonus or get completely screwed type’ makes you feel barely in control.

  10. Shadow says:

    Definitely keeping an eye on this one.

    It’ll be tough to stay away from it until it’s done, but we’ll see.

  11. Emeraude says:

    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.

    Replace XCOM with Thief, and Invisible Inc with Mark of the Ninja, and I think you just perfectly described why I wasn’t satisfied with the later – though I understand why it is perfect for its intended audience. I wanted a full course meal, and I was offered some Hors d’oeuvre. Which was certainly good, but left me starving* more than anything given my expectations.

    All that said: really liking what I’ve seen of this so far. The game that fist comes to mind when I look at this is Spy vs Spy for some reason I can’t really explain.

    *: pun intended.

  12. padger says:

    So…. worth a punt then? Or leave until complete?

  13. Laurentius says:

    Is it PC game or just “let’s do early access on PC so we get some more developemnt cash and save on testing while we aim for other platforms (consoles, pads)” ?

    • Premium User Badge

      Phasma Felis says:

      Is that a thing that’s actually happened?

      Regardless, every one of Klei’s games so far has come out on Steam, so I can’t really see them deliberately antagonizing Valve like that.

  14. Scelous says:

    Hm. I like Klei’s games, and I love tactical games like XCOM (or Jagged Alliance). However, I’m not a big fan of stealth games that don’t let you kill. I liked Mark of the Ninja because that was an option. I didn’t like the new Thief because you had to use expensive arrows instead of just stabbing people, unlike the previous Thiefs. Non-lethal feels very constrictive to me. Plus, I like killing in games.

    It’s my hope that as Invisible, Inc. is further developed, they’ll allow more lethal options for beating missions. I don’t like the sound of this whole “two bullets in a gun” thing.

    • eggy toast says:

      You can even buy a gun from a vending machine that only has one bullet in, and then you have to find another machine and hope it has ammo in and even then you wind up paying $400 for one reload (so for one more bullet).

  15. trashbarge says:

    small correction: you actually can recruit new agents + have a squad of up to four. in the current build any characters you didn’t start with have a chance of appearing as the prisoners in the detention center missions and they’re recruited if you rescue them. it’s a p neat mechanic i hope they stick with

    • webs1 says:

      It actually makes the game a lot easier if you manage to free one fellow agent on your first mission.

  16. Bernardo says:

    Is there any chance of getting the old jazzy soundtrack back? I liked that much better. The music in the new build just makes me jumpy.

    Besides that: great game. Being able to restart levels instead of the whole campaign would have been nice, though. I like unforgiving games and have no problem with frustration being stuck at a specific point or level, but starting from the beginning just means grinding until you reach the point where you lost. Even if it’s procedurally generated.

  17. UndrState says:

    This game reminds me of Sid Meier’s “A Covert Action” – I always enjoyed the B&E part of that game.