An irregular series in which I revisit Early Access games a few months on from when I first tried them. Have they come along much? Does a finished game seem a realistic prospect? This time - Klei's turn-based cyberpunk stealth title Invisible, Inc [official site], which I last played in September.
I’ve been quietly worrying for a while about how the slew of otherwise inventive roguelikes and XCOMlikes which increasingly characterise the Steam charts are based as much around maintaining hunger for rewards as they are on whatever great ideas are layered over that. In Darkest Dungeon or Hand of Fate, for recent instance, I start a new quest primarily because I want the goodies at the end of it, and I'm often impatient for the 'game' element to end and give me my prize. Go all the way back to FTL or XCOM and it's the same scenario.
I don’t know whether this trend is down to a generation of developers who’ve taken note of what Diablo and Farmville do to get and keep people playing, or if it’s down to relatively limited budgets meaning procedural generation of environments and challenges can’t go far enough to be more than short loops. They just don’t have enough different parts to keep on surprising, so the reason to play again becomes the unlock at the end rather than to see what happens.
Invisible, Inc (say it aloud) contains all the familiar components of a Skinner box – proc gen maps, levelling up characters, laying hands on new weapons and skills, barely any kind of story, only the vaguest hints of personality to its characters. It looks, for all the world, like another system built to obtain a procession of short-term rewards with. Yet the results are completely, beautifully different.
In Invisible, Inc, I'm so relieved to find that my interest is in each level itself. I’m rarely thinking of whatever the rewards may be, which is partly because the game’s not exactly generous with loot and partly because it creates these moment-to-moment dilemmas. I have this overall objective of grabbing whatever it is I was sent into this high security facility for then reaching the exit unscathed, but within that is a slow torrent of tense, exciting encounters and dangers. I’m playing Invisible, Inc for those, not for their outcomes, but it could so easily have gone the other way.
Even in XCOM, which this owes a minor debt to, missions tend to have the same essential flow, and my mind tends to be less on what’s going to happen and more on whatever bits of alien carcass or tech I bring home and whether my soldiers will level up. Here, I'm often reluctant to leave a level once I've ushered my guys to the elevator; little dramas left unfinished, the sense there's more to be done, even a faint sense of anti-climax that I'm leaving alive, and leaving all my enemies alive.
Invisible Inc is rarely about shooting, I suppose, and even when you do fire a gun it’s a liability. Every violent action raises awareness that you’re in this facility somewhere, so staying unseen is the primary goal at all times. My mind is preoccupied with the essential yet fast-changing puzzle of it all, of how to get an agent from A to B when enemies are watching from all angles. Ingenuity flares as new bits of kit enter play – a vest which turns you invisible for four squares, a defibrillator which can bring a downed agent back into play if you can get over to their guarded body, hacking a security drone and having it close the door that otherwise means you’ll be in a guard’s eyeline next turn...
These are one shot items or items on 10-turn timers which you can’t afford to squander. Acquiring something new is a big deal and often unexpected, rather than something routine, and figuring out how to best use it takes some time. It’s a world away from getting a bigger sword or stronger sandals – a new item can change how you can play. Items exist to expand the possibilities of the game, rather than simply to encourage playing again and again.
To play Invisible Inc is to be presented with challenges which look impossible – so many guards, so many cameras – then figure out a way to achieve ‘em any way. Turn-based is a perfect fit for this. Every turn, the landscape changes a little, as guards move to new places or the building’s alarm reaches a new level, activating new cameras or making terminals and safes harder to hack. Every turn you’re faced with a slightly new situation. I rub my hands together with glee and set to the task of working out what the hell I’m going to do.
In a funny sort of way, Invisible Inc hasn’t come on enormously in the seven or so months since I last played, but that’s probably down to how fully-formed it was when it first took to Early Access. There are more gadgets, more enemy types and devices to hack, the structure makes a little more sense, this and that has been balanced, there’s a much-needed ‘rewind’ system which lets you undo a bad turn once per mission, and generally it feels more fleshed out. It's a little easier, which is going to be a relief for some, but for me the main thing is that the the variety’s up, and that makes it feel essentially ready for prime time.
That said, missions all look the same, which is good for maintaining Invisible, Inc’s Rockwell-does-Netrunner aesthetic but does mean one level doesn’t feel distinct from the last. It is there, in the little details that really matter – too many guards in that room, a wealth of safes to hack at the expense of your precious hacking PWR resource in that one, the phalanx of turrets or cameras here – but a little visual remixing would go a long way.
Even so, Invisible Inc seems to me like the game which has picked up the XCOM ball and run furthest with it. It feels like its own game, and a strong statement that turned-based stealth can be as tense and thrilling as real-time stealth. Don’t hesitate, even if you’re an Early Accessphobe: Invisible Inc is a fine game in fine shape, and it has its priorities right.