It seems that I can’t walk down the street these days without getting blindsided by another turn-based tactical RPG. I wonder if the rebirth of XCOM helped fuel the growing popularity of the genre. Or perhaps it is the result of gamers’ latent desire for RPG-ifying every possible genre. Another possibility is that maybe the market is finally responding to all of our pent-up longings for modern versions of classic turn-based goodness like Syndicate or Fallout or XCOM or Shadowrun. Whatever the cause, it’s a trend that I endorse.
So it is no surprise that I followed Invisible, Inc. (currently the Steam Weekend Deal), a recent entry into the tactical RPG realm, with keen interest and picked it up following its May 2015 release. Invisible, Inc., by developers Klei Entertainment of Don’t Starve renown, has you managing a small squad of sneaky operatives on the run from a cadre of global megacorps after being ferreted out of their not-so-hidden-secret-base. The game follows the XCOM mold of having both a strategic management layer and a tactical mission layer, but the overall design is far more focused around your small 4-person squad of operatives and the infiltration-based missions you conduct with them.
In a nod to roguelikes, the other design trend that seems to be ramrodding its way into all possible genres, the game features procedural generation for each mission level, turn-based tactics, and of course permadeath. While your team is technically on the run, the missions themselves have you infiltrating various megacorp facilities to hijack goods, agents, data, and other gear while staying one step ahead of private security forces and an ever-increasing alarm level (more on that in a moment). Invisible, Inc., is a fast-paced and aesthetically attractive game (I’m a total sucker for The Incredibles-style cartoon-art), and as I will explain, deliciously thinky in mostly all the right ways.
The Strategic Management Layer
In Invisible, Inc., you will manage up to four operatives along with Incognita, the ever-charming AI persona that is the heart and soul of the Invisible organization. The overarching goal of the game is to find a suitable mainframe to host Incognita, who was damaged in the attack on your HQ and is now on virtual life support. There are a number of different game modes and difficulty settings to fiddle with during setup, which benefits the game in terms of challenge and replayability. Unless you are playing on endless mode (which effectively disables the story), the objective is to survive for a set period of days depending on the game settings (e.g. 72 hours for the basic game) and make it to the final mission. The final mission gives you an opportunity to upload Incognita and save the day.
You will start a game session (or “run”) with two agents selected from a pool of up to 10, and unlock more agents as you play earn experience. Each agent has a unique augmentation and/or starting gear that will define much of your approach and strategy during the tactical missions. You also have options for configuring Incognita’s starting programs, which likewise establishes a strategic direction for your team. More on the implications of this in a bit.
The strategic gameplay focuses on two fairly simple elements: outfitting your agents and choosing missions; there isn’t much more to it. However, the decisions you make here, while limited in breadth, are rarely straightforward and easy. Agents have a few basic stats that can be upgraded, but doing so is expensive and it can be agonizing trying to decide which skills to prioritize. Likewise, agents have a very limited number of equipment slots for holding gear, especially early on, so deciding what to give each agent and how to synergize their equipment, skills, and augmentations is vitally important. What’s more, the jet your team is using for a home base can only hold four extra pieces of gear, so effectively there is no “stash” like you have in XCOM. While thematically a little incongruent, it does force more choices in what you keep or discard.
The other strategic element is choosing which mission to pursue. As a point of comparison, I found XCOM’s tactical missions woefully repetitive, and thankfully Invisible, Inc.’s missions provide a far greater variety. The basic missions have you sneaking in to steal a powerful piece of equipment or access an advanced nano-forge. More complex missions have you accessing cyberlabs to get additional augmentations or hacking, literally, into the mind of a megacorp CEO to steal their access codes, which enables you to infiltrate a secure vault on a subsequent mission. There are also rescue missions where you have an opportunity to rescue an agent, allowing them to join your team, or ”rescue” a VIP that you can ransom off for a nice chunk of money.
In addition to the mission types, each of the megacorps has its own flavor. Some rely heavily on using robots and drones, others on mainframe augmentation (such as firewall-like “digital armor”), heavily armored units, or static defensive turrets. Although you are doing similar things across all the missions, the pacing and flavor can be quite different depending on which megacorp you’re targeting and which mission type you’re conducting. Furthermore, for each day that passes the strength of the security forces increases across the globe, ramping up the difficulty overtime. So while the strategic management layer appears relatively simple, the further you advance into the game, the more the stakes rise and decisions about outfitting your squad and selecting missions matter to your survival.
Before diving into the tactical aspect of the gameplay, I want to mention the biggest failing (or missed opportunity) of the game in my view, which concerns the overall narrative structure. If you play the basic game first, as recommended, beating the final mission is not very challenging. This is bad because you see the conclusion to the game’s story (which has some predictable and also unexpected twists) early on and there is nothing left to see story-wise.
For me, this saps some of the enjoyment out of the game. I would’ve greatly preferred seeing either different endings depending on your choices or revealing more of the story by beating it on harder difficulty levels. That would give players a stronger reason to replay with the story mode enabled. Even better, connecting the story directly with the missions could add more strategy to the gameplay. For example, if you had to steal an access card from each of the megacorps to unlock the final mission and it were up to the player to choose how to do that, then the narrative would connect better to the strategic gameplay.
A Guidebook for Megacorp Infiltration
It is a testament to Invisible, Inc.’s excellent tactical gameplay that I’m happy to look past the weak narrative and simple strategic gameplay and proclaim that the tactical execution is the best I can remember in a long time. Maybe ever. Fundamentally, this is because the missions are “multi-layered” in a way that pulls together different gameplay systems and requires players to juggle their decisions meticulously across all of them. The net experience is challenging and tense, and it got my blood pumping on a regular basis as I agonizes over how I’m going to get my agents to the mission objective and back out alive. Let’s break it down.
First of all, timing is central to everything in Invisible, Inc., and this focus creates a wonderful connection to the stealth and infiltration theme. Metaphorically speaking, planning and executing a mission is like building a giant sequence of dominos and waiting for the right moment to set them tumbling. If your timing is off (e.g. a domino is out of place), the entire sequence can fall apart, putting you in a serious bind. This dynamic perfectly captures the feeling of sneaking into a facility, crossing your fingers that nothing slipped your notice and comes knocking on the door while you are fiddling with the proverbial safe. It’s just great.
In the big picture, there is a mission “alarm level” that proceeds from 0 to 6. Each time the alarm level goes up, something bad happens: cameras turn back on, firewall levels increase, hostile daemon programs are activated, additional guards show up, etc. When the alarm gets to level 6, your agents’ locations are detected each turn and very nasty guards flood the level, so you really don’t want to stick around. Each game turn, the alarm ticks one point towards increasing in level. And of course being spotted or detected during the mission further increases the alarm level.
The alarm level is in effect a currency for time, and it is always running out. Over the course of a mission, the alarm mechanic forces you make tradeoffs about time. How long can you spend cracking corporate safes to steal more credits? Can you afford the “lost time” to be seen by a camera in one instance in order to accomplish something else? Can you risk dividing up your team to cover different parts of the facility more quickly? These are all high-level questions to address at the tactical level, and this global alarm level mechanic is just one of the layers in play!
The second layer of tactical gameplay relates to Incognita’s hacking and power management. Most objects in the level, like safes, nano-fabs, cameras, drones, and sound sensors are protected by one or more levels of firewall. Early in a run firewalls are weak at level 1 or 2. But ten days later firewalls can regularly get up to 8 or 9 levels of strength, and hacking through them requires a planned and coordinated effort. You need to hack through these firewalls to turn off cameras, take control of robots or turrets, access mission objectives, and so on. Which is where Incognita comes in.
Incognita can have up to 5 programs installed, and most of these provide different tools for breaking down firewalls. Many of these tools operate over time (e.g. removes one firewall per turn from a device) or have cooldown timers on how frequently they can be used. Coordinating the movement of your agents to access a device at the exact moment the firewall comes down (and the guard’s back is turned!) is a major part of the gameplay. Furthermore, the mix of programs you have available really drives your overall approach to the mission.
The hacking layer is further complicated by the need to manage Incognita’s power reserves, since running a program consumes power. You can acquire additional power by having your agents tap into access terminals, as well as from certain passive programs or pieces of equipment. This need for power strengthens the interplay between Incognita, hacking, and your agents; agents provide power to Incognita, which runs hacking programs that let the agents progress through the mission. Again, all of it is based on careful timing and sequencing.
Oh, and did I mention that during harder missions, devices might be protected by daemons? These defensive programs place some negative effect on your team every time a firewall is taken down. Most of the time, daemons are masked so you won’t know what is about to affect you. Daemon effects can range from stealing credits (not too bad), to increasing power costs for programs (not good at all), to auto-detecting your agents each turn (really bad!) Good luck with that!
As for the agents themselves, their movements and interactions with the guards is the final layer in the tactical trifecta. Guards are either stationary or on a patrol route. If you spot a patrolling guard while remaining undetected you can observe its patrol route and thus plan your movement around them accordingly. Obviously hiding behind things and generally being out of sight goes without saying. But inevitably, and especially on the higher difficulty missions, contact with the enemy is unavoidable: they are going to be blocking an objective or guarding a safe that holds the exit keycard.
Invisible, Inc. is not a game about blasting your way through the facility. While you do have lethal options at your disposal, nearly every guard is equipped with a heartbeat monitor which dramatically raises the alarm level if they die. Instead, you rely on various non-lethal attacks to knock out (KO) the guards, by setting up ambushes with your trusty neural disruptor around a corner or sneak attacking with a tranq dart. What makes this more difficult, however, is that guards have different levels of armor protection, requiring your operatives to be kitted out with armor-penetrating augments or gear, which are always in short supply.
And of course, KO’d guards only remain unconscious for a brief period of time (2-4 turns, typically), and when they wake up the alarm level goes up anyway and they start hunting for you. The trick is that if you “suppress” a guard a by leaving one of your agents standing on them, their KO timer doesn’t go down. The effect of all of this is that you can quickly end up in a ridiculous (in a good way!) logistics puzzle of dragging the bodies of knocked out guards around as you try to keep them out of sight and suppressed while staying close to the rest of the team. When things get really ugly, and half a dozen guards are coming at you, setting up ambushes and deciding when to stop suppressing a guard can be a satisfying challenge.
The variety of equipment is not huge, but it’s enough to create a unique flair and role for each member of the team, which in turn creates a unique experience for the entire run. A single high-level piece of equipment can be game defining, like a level 3 stealth field that can turn your entire team invisible for a round, or a level 3 EMP bomb that can knock out power to mainframe devices across a huge area. Most gear, including weapons, either operate with cooldown timers or consume power. Again that timing element! At the higher levels of difficulty, you need every trick you can muster to survive. Using the stronger equipment also requires upgrading your agents, which is expensive on its own, so it all ties back to the strategic gameplay.
Invisible, Inc. is a challenging game that is put together extremely well. The tactical gameplay is exceptional in my mind. At times it can feel a little puzzle-like, as if there is always one right solution to a tough situation you are facing. But in reality the hunt for an optimal solution is never cut-and-dry. There are enough unexpected elements that pop up during play to keep you on your toes as the tension nears its climax. Depending on the difficulty level you chose, the game gives you a number of rewinds per mission. Using a rewind brings you back to the beginning of the previous turn so you can try a different approach if you made a miscalculation or get stuck due to a random element. Playing on harder difficulties gives you fewer rewinds (or disables them entirely).
I find the game aesthetics very attractive. It reminds me of Pixar’s The Incredibles, in a sort of comic hero way, and I like it quite a bit. I’m still rocking a 7200rpm hard drive (no SSD for me), and I’m amazed how quickly this game launches and loads, making it easy to jump in and quickly get to the action. Performance-wise it’s been smooth sailing from the start.
Overall, Invisible, Inc. has been an exceptionally fun game to play. I do wish the narrative structure of the game was more inventive and varied, as I think it could have made the strategic level gameplay more interesting. And as a game with character progression a sense of RPG-ish elements, there really wasn’t much other narrative or dialogue to add character to the different operatives. So thematically the game comes off a little dry.
However, the triple-layered tactical gameplay, requiring that you juggle your agents’ actions, alarm levels, and Incognita’s hacking and power management makes for a tense and complex experience. If you are interested in turn-based tactical games, especially with an infiltration/stealth theme, Invisible, Inc. deserves a serious look.