Invisible, Inc.: Guns or Butter?

Invisible, Inc. LogoKlei Entertainment, responsible for Don’t Starve and Mark of the Ninja, once again impressed me with their ability to produce atmosphere. What boggles me is how effectively they do this in a completely different genre. While sharing some of the thematic elements of Mark of the Ninja, Invisible Inc. feels nothing like a classic ninja story and everything like dystopian corporate espionage. The game has a lot to offer a variety of audiences, even those who would otherwise turn their nose up at a turn-based tactical title.

As a turn-based, squad-tactics game it delivers a gorgeous, compact, and profoundly replayable experience in the tradition of roguelike games (read: replayable, very difficult games). This last bit is a trait it shares with Don’t Starve, but again this game feels nothing like that survival/horror title. If anything, Invisible Inc. delivers a more pure roguelike experience: you can sit down and do an entire playthrough of the game in a single (albeit extended) sitting: roughly four hours of gameplay before the DLC.

Klei did four things, in particular, perfectly right to create the game’s charm.

First, to make a full game that you can play start-to-finish in a few hours, Klei has distilled an otherwise very dense genre to its most basic elements. You’ve got your operatives, (two at first, and possibly through the whole game). They have abilities, they have gear, and they face threats in a mission-to-mission format. That’s the formula, everything else is excess and is discarded. (Even the game’s plot is an ultra-simple, highly derivative one: your agency was baited and compromised and you’ve got 72 hours before your secret weapon – an adaptive A.I. – perishes as a result of it living on a small, portable machine. You need to find your A.I. a new home before the clock runs out or your agency is no more.) The minimalist approach means the puzzles/missions you face are tractable, but also provides a sense of scarcity. Taken together, these elements produce a tremendous tension that only increases as you play.

Second, while most things feel scarce, there is no scarcity of options: there are more pieces of equipment, more powers, and even more agents, than you will ever be able to use in a given playthrough. Perhaps six to ten times as much, in fact. Time is scarce. Resources are scarce. Choices, however, are not – and they persist throughout the full playthrough. The vastness of it all means that no two playthroughs will be the same, unless you work to make them so. The first benefit of the diversity of playthroughs is that the game has essentially unlimited replayability. This, in turn, means the game represents much greater value – and it’s already quite affordable at the $20 price point (less if you get it on Steam Sale).

Third, literally everything you do in Invisible, Inc. is a compromise. You always want to do everything, but usually you only have the cash on hand to do two of ten or so options. Often times you won’t have the ability to fully exploit all of your opportunities in a level, so even the decision to raid a given safe comes at the cost of something else down the road. Even decisions about the use of forceĀ have this guns-or-butter feel to them: Killing a guard means they never wake up, but sharply accelerates the escalation sequence. Knocking them out means you can loot them as if you’d killed them, and they become temporarily harmless, but when they wake up they’re alerted and begin actively hunting for you. Bypassing or avoiding them is harder, and results in neither of these downsides, but you also don’t get to take their money or inventory items. Everything you do in Invisible Inc. is a compromise, and the opportunity costs are frequently quite high.

Fourth, every power, every agent, and all but the most basic gear, feel satisfyingly powerful. Despite individual elements feeling so powerful, you’re always the underdog. As powerful as you and your agents are, you face enemies with effectively limitless resources. Enemy response is also constantly escalating, both with time and as you make mistakes. You will make mistakes. This combination of satisfying gameplay, tension, and challenge is a very difficult balance to achieve. Klei makes it look easy.

As garnish on top of these four elements, the game offers several refreshing breaks from gaming’s business-as-usual. Those who are frustrated with the current gender balance in games will find Invisible Inc.’s 50/50 gendered cast refreshing, if still not fully inclusive. (The cast is awfully white.) Those who, like me, are tired of problems where shooting is the only solution the designers seem to think matters, will find the game’s focus on avoidance/stealth a welcome reprieve.

Though the game’s difficulty curve may frustrate a more casual gaming audience, Invisible Inc. is a must-have for fans of X-COM or other tactics-style games. It also offers appeal to those who enjoy espionage as a genre, but find that genre’s usual twitch-shooter offerings unpleasant. It’s an affordable, swift-paced, gem of a game that holds a place in my Steam library as one of the best.