Klei Entertainment knows stealth. The developer’s 2012 hit, Mark of the Ninja, took games like Metal Gear Solid, Thief, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, distilled them to their base components, and rebuilt them from the ground up as a stylish 2D platformer. Mark of the Ninja was a stealth game for people who don’t like stealth: all the fun of sneaking through levels, planning ambushe,s and wreaking unseen havoc, without some of the genre’s more off-putting features.
Klei’s latest effort, Invisible, Inc. might also be a stealth game, but the two games couldn’t be more different. Mark of the Ninja functions like a stealth-playground. Every encounter is a kind of puzzle, and players are encouraged to experiment until they find the most effective – or most fun – path to the end of the level. On the other hand, Invisible Inc. requires caution and careful planning, and a single wrong move can tank an entire campaign. It’s frustrating, tense, and tons of fun.
Invisible, Inc. opens with a raid on the titular espionage agency, devastating the company’s resources and scattering its agents around the globe. By guiding the two remaining operatives (chosen before the campaign starts), players must infiltrate evil corporations and steal the resources they need to rebuild Invisible, Inc. Oh, and the everything needs to be done in 72 hours: after that, Invisible’s secret weapon, an artificial intelligence named Incognita, runs out of power and dooms the company.
As a “tactical espionage” title, Invisible Inc. asks a lot of its players. At its core are the missions themselves, which task players with guiding a team of two to four agents through an enemy stronghold via an isometric, 3D perspective. Each agent has his or her own pool of ability points, which refill every turn. Primarily, ability points are used for moving agents through levels – actions like opening doors, attacking, or using machines are “free” – although players can spend an extra point to peek around corners and look for incoming obstacles.
Every level has one or more goals, which players must complete before escaping the facility. That’s all easier said than done: players can only see what’s in their characters’ direct line of sight (or visible from hacked security cameras). The game highlights areas that are under enemy surveillance, which helps, but the source of the threat isn’t always visible. Is it a camera, a drone, or a patrolling soldier? Often, players won’t know until it’s too late.
Thankfully, enemies suffer from the same restrictions, and Invisible, Inc. plays out like a game of deadly cat and mouse. Players need to explore enemy facilities, while making sure their agents stay hidden. While agents can attack enemies (either directly, or through a planned ambush), there are penalties. Stun weapons take a set number of turns to recharge, and only incapacitate foes temporarily. Meanwhile, firearms strike from a distance and kill opponents, but they’re noisy and ammo is hard to come by. When possible, it’s better to avoid bad guys than get in a fight. You’ll usually lose.
If an agent is discovered by the enemy, it’s bad news. Attacking enemies never miss, and they shoot to kill. Downed agents can be revived with medkits, and dragging them to the extraction point will save their lives, but once an agent is gone, they’re gone. Invisible, Inc. trades in permadeath: if an agent gets left behind (either because they’re dead, or because they didn’t make it to the exit before extraction), they’re gone forever. Lose all your agents, and that’s it. Game over.
Players get some help from Incognita, who can hack enemy machines, but that comes with its own set of challenges. Incognita has her own pool of “power” points, which players increase by hacking consoles. Players spend Incognita’s power points to take over security cameras, open safes, or unlock enemy machines. Usually, players won’t have enough points to unlock everything in a level, and objectives are often locked away in safes or computers, so power should be used judiciously. Hacking everything is a quick and easy way to get in trouble.
That’s already a lot to pay attention to, and it gets worse. Every turn, the facility’s security level increases, and when the alarm level hits certain thresholds, bad things happen. Each level is procedurally generated, too, so players never know where to find the objectives and the exits. Sometimes, the randomness works out in the player’s favor – occasionally, the entrance, the exit, and the objective will be right next to each other – and sometimes, everything is spread out, with a half dozen guards patrolling in-between.
Invisible, Inc. comes with a strong metagame, too. Every mission takes a chunk off of the 72-hour countdown clock, and yet the only way to upgrade equipment and agents – something that’s necessary near the end of the campaign – is by gathering tech, money, and additional agents during levels. Upgrades and new weapons cost money. Players can steal money from vaults, but for the best payoffs, they’ll need a vault key. Vault keys can be stolen from enemy bosses, but that’s easier to do with upgraded weapons and agents – and so on. Without careful planning, it’s easy to end up underpowered during the endgame; Invisible Inc. doesn’t support multiple saves or take-backs, and if you get stuck, you’re doomed.
Does this sound hard yet? Because Invisible, Inc. is really, really hard. A single campaign only takes a few hours, but at the default “Expert” difficulty, players probably won’t finish the game on their first try. Or their second. Or their fifth.
Players gain experience with each run-through, successful or not, which unlocks better starting characters and some Incognita upgrades. That helps, but it’ll still take a lot of patience, strategy, and a little bit of luck to reach the end of the game. If that’s still not enough, Invisible, Inc. also comes with custom difficulty settings, as well as an “endless” gameplay mode; if players want even more of a challenge, Invisible, Inc. is happy to oblige.
Adding this all up should make Invisible, Inc. a miserable experience, but somehow it’s not. Because everything’s permanent, every move the player makes feels important, so the game never lags. Meanwhile, thanks to the short campaign, players don’t lose too much progress when they die, making it easy to restart and try again. The procedurally generated levels sometimes make Invisible, Inc. feel unfair, but for the most part, they keep things interesting. Players never know what’s going to be around the next corner, and exploration is both thrilling and terrifying. It’s in that sense of tension that Invisible, Inc. thrives; players may not be real-life spies, but they’ll sure feel like they are.
Honestly, there’s only one problem with Invisible, Inc., although it’s a big one: the isometric viewpoint can, occasionally, make it difficult to tell where a character is moving. Levels are detailed and cluttered with objects, and sometimes walls get in the way. That can be a problem, since moving to the wrong space can derail the entire campaign. There’s a “tactical mode” that makes walls invisible, but that’s no good either, given how important it is for characters to stay out of sight.
The user interface can get awfully busy, too, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which character a player is controlling. Most of the time, that’s not a problem, but occasionally players will move the wrong character. Again, Invisible, Inc. hinges on every decision, and it’s frustrating when something goes wrong simply because the game isn’t being clear.
Those are rare occurrences, however. For the most part, Invisible, Inc. functions perfectly, and when all the pieces are working together, there’s no feeling quite like it. Carrying a wounded agent who possesses some vital info to the extraction point, enemy guards hot on your heels, is exhilarating; successfully pulling the escape off is even more so. Invisible, Inc. is a game that plays by clearly defined rules, and forces players to do so, too. It’s not perfect and it’s fairly complicated, but once it all clicks, it’s also really fun. What more can you really ask?
Invisible, Inc. comes out May 12, 2015 for PC, Linux, and Mac. A PlayStation 4 release date has yet to be announced. Game Rant was given a Steam code for this review.