Publisher: Klei Entertainment
Genre: Turn-Based Tactics
I discovered the existence of Klei as a developer by sheer serendipity. By that time, they had already released Shank and Shank 2, though it was Mark of the Ninja that initiated my interest in the developer, because I love ninja; MotN would emerge one of my top games of last generation.
By sheer serendipity, I encountered Klei again one random day while firing up Steam and behold: their newest IP, Invisible, Inc., is a featured release as “a stealth-based tactics game by the makers of Mark of the Ninja.” I needed to know no further before taking the plunge.
In a very cliché sci-fi/speculative fiction backdrop, unchecked globalization has taken root, and
Google, Amazon, Proctor & Gamble, and Boeing megacorporations have grown to become larger than governments of the most powerful nation-states. Invisible, Inc. exists for the purpose of executing covert operations in an effort to undermine the hegemony. But one day, the underground organization’s anonymity is compromised and a strike team raids its command center. Olivia “Central” Gladstone, the commanding officer, disconnects the outfit’s prime asset, the artificial intelligence known as Incognita—cleverly derived from “incognito,” and the original title for the game—by loading it to a device that resembles a glow-in-the-dark floppy disk, and escapes. Incognita, the lifeline of Invisible, Inc. only has 72 hours of energy before it shuts down permanently, decommissioning of the world’s last bastion of resistance against the megacorporations. Alongside the Operator (the player, whom I will refer to with this name henceforth), Central scrambles to rebuild Invisible, Inc. for a retaliatory strike by uniting Incognita with SecNet at the headquarters of the biggest, most fortified, privatized conglomerate on the planet. Central suspects that a mole is responsible for the exposure of the outfit, but there is no time to meditate on that….
Violence: As a gameplay mechanic, Invisible, Inc. actually encourages pacifism by penalizing Operators for using force, let alone the deadly variety. Should Operators choose to fight rather than flee, options range from smoke grenades to doors armed with electricity to temporarily incapacitate guards on patrol. Melee tasers and dart guns round out the non-lethal options. If Operators are in the mood to inflict some fatalities, guns are available, through hacking armed drones and turrets are more common. A dead guard can be identified by a small pool of blood on the tile where the body lies.
Language: One character drops an S-bomb during a campaign mission. If an agent is downed, Central might d**n the situation.
Drugs/Alcohol: Some items represented by a syringe prolong enemy incapacitation.
Spiritual: Invisible, Inc. in essence is a sort of Robin Hood simulator. The “redistribution of [assets and resources]” is a noble endeavor, but still no excuse for kleptomania.
Invisible, Inc. is a game a many nuanced choices, from missions to weapons to hacking (HAX) objects to achieve victory.
After the introductory cinematics, Operators are brought to a screen displaying the in-game seventy-two hour countdown overlaying a basic atlas of the world sprinkled with icons representing different mission types. Clicking on one of these missions (generally in the campaign, an Executive Terminal is a good first move) brings forth a screen along with Central’s voice narrating the nature of the mission. After the loading screen following acceptance of the mission, Operators are brought to an isometric view of a room into which the two default agents are teleported. From that point forward, the Operator uses his or her mouse to issue commands to these agents on a tiled, grid-based, procedurally generated map, HAX cameras, loot safes, disable drones, and knock out guards in an effort to complete whatever the map objective happens to be.
That is the basic premise of the game: selecting missions form a map screen and completing them. Nevertheless, the depth of Invisible, Inc. comes from the numerous features that I will describe semi-exhaustively here.
Backtracking to the 72-hour timer, the Operator has three “days” to infiltrate the locations of different megacorporations and procure agents, weapons, equipment, and funds. Traveling to each location will eat between five to twelve hours from the remaining total, depending on the distance between the Invisible, Inc. jet and the target. When a day lapses, the rival
corporations beef up their security measures, adding more (armored) guards, drones, and higher tiers of firewalls to break. In all but endless mode, this process will cycle until day 4, when the final mission unlocks and becomes the only mission available. Rather than rushing to all the missions that are further away (12 hours), for best results Operators are encouraged to prioritize missions that are closest so that their agents will not be ill-prepared on the final day.
The missions themselves vary in objectives, though they are as “procedural” as the maps are generated: HAX into this, steal that, knock out this dude, purchase that, rescue them—goals in Invisible, Inc. are not that complex. Nevertheless the challenge is produced through the Operator’s ability to overcome the thousands of variables generated in each campaign, each mission. I have played campaigns when I never had the opportunity to liberate another agent from a Detention Center because they did not spawn, or when they did, were in a time-prohibitive location. I have had maps give me Corporate Vault missions but no precursor Chief Financial Suite missions from which the special passcard can be acquired that is necessary to unlock the door to the most precious loot for resale. In other runs, I have been able to acquire a full team almost instantly, have them formidably equipped, and upgrade their most important stats.
In addition to the locations I have already mentioned, Cybernetics labs house devices that can either add augments to the Operator’s agents or create new slots for future augments. Nanofab(ricator) Vestibules house a HAX-able interface where agents can choose, for a price, from a wider selection of gadgets and gizmos than what might normally be in stock at the more common nanofabs found in any other missions. Server Farms possess mainframe access terminals where Operators can purchase additional programs for Icognita. Finally, the aforementioned Executive Terminals can be infiltrated and HAX to discover new locations on the map if the ones already available do not satisfy.
During missions, agents must take cover, avoiding the line of sight of cameras, guards, and drones—or simply taking them out—while progressively making progress toward the mission objective. The most unique obstacle in Invisible, Inc. are called daemons, or “viruses” that are fused with firewalls (barriers that need to be HAX). Other obstacles include barriers that can install daemons or advance the security tracker, and others such as turret guns can outright kill an agent. There are also ground microphones that alert guards should Operators make noise (usually from a lethal weapon, but also from sprinting).
Dameons! Daemons everywhere!
If a human or robotic sentry catches an agent, all but the most lethal kind (Operators should get in the habit of hovering the mouse cursor over everything to check its buffs) will “freeze” the agent and elevate the alarm level. The agent has one turn to take action: attack first, move one square, or allow another agent to take action such as close a door blocking that guard’s FOV or knock them out. If Operators fail to issue a saving command, the agent will be shot and incapacitated. They can be resuscitated during a mission with medi-gel or dragged to the escape elevator by another agent, but of course, having one less agent to do either will prove difficult. If all agents are caught, the game is over (be sure to talk trash with that final agent before they go down). It is also possible to reach the escape elevator without the entire team intact in case Operators feel that an agent must be sacrificed for the good the success of the mission. I have found myself abandoning mission objectives because the zone is too hot, and Central lets me know about it with dunes of salt!
The block is HOT!
Each turn not only restores agent action points (AP), and refreshes their ability to attack, but it also advances the previously-mentioned security tracker by one tick. There are five ticks to each security phase, and six phases total in each mission. With each passing phase, the repression intensifies, turning on additional cameras, summoning more guards or drones, fortifying the firewall against HAX, and arguably the most sinister feature of all, pinpointing the location of an agent to the the guards, causing them to deviate from their linear and predictable patrol routes and begin searching erratically for the Operator’s team.
Incognita assists the Operator by updating the UI with important information such as daemon infestation—essentially viruses installed to Incognita’s database which manifest themselves as status ailments such as but not limited to: increased firewalls, an additional guard summoned, HAX disabled for x turns, or agent AP reduced for x turns. Daemons are generally bad news, and they are attached to safes, cameras, or consoles that often need to be HAX to conquer the mission. Lucky Operators have a tiny chance of unlocking a “reverse dameon,” granting a benefit rather than a flaw, such as free credits or more AP per turn for x turns.
At the beginning of a campaign, Operators must choose a program for HAX and a program for power regeneration; from the start, only Lockpick 1.0 and Power Drip are available, breaking down 1 firewall for 2 power and passively regenerating 1 power per turn, respectively. Thus far, I have seen firewalls on various objects in missions as high as 7, and with only 20 power as the max that Incognita can store at one time, it would take 14 power to HAX that one camera, drone, or even augmented guard armor with the starting programs. Therefore, Operators are encouraged to find and HAX server access terminals to purchase programs for Incognita to make life easier, such as “daemon sniffer,” which identifies an unknown dameon, or “hunter” which kills a daemon outright. I was lucky to find “wings” during one run, a supposedly rare program that grants agents 2 AP/turn for the low cost of 2 power, and it only has a two turn cooldown.
Klei knows their stuff: the consoles where Operators can purchase HAX for Incognita play looping MIDI music just like the old school warez that real-life software pirates use(d) to crack PC games. How do I know this? What’s that over the—*runs*
There are too many programs to address in this review. Operators should know that between the programs that can be found in-game or unlocked to begin a campaign, the combinations are incalculable! Operators can experiment to find their preference. Personally, I am a fan of the Parasite HAX (initial cost 0, increases by 1 per infected firewall; breaks down 1 firewall level per turn) and Fusion (costs 5 power to activate, 3 turn cooldown; gain 3 power per turn while active).
Fans of cover-based games like Gears of War, Mass Effect, or of course and especially MotN will be accustomed to the stealth and cover mechanics featured in Invisible, Inc. Out in the open, agents stand upright, holding a gun if in their inventory, and are full of color. While ducking behind, in between, or aside a wall or other object, the agent will be shrouded in MotN-style shadow while displaying a “hiding” animation based on where the “eye” icon on the mouse cursor indicates how they will be hidden from enemy line of sight. While concealed, agents can use AP points to peek around corners and through doors to predict where the enemy will patrol during its turn. Scouting is knowing, and knowing is half the…process of reconnaissance.
Failure to properly scout and ambush enemies entering the room with a taser will advance the tracker by one for every agent discovered. Killing can advance the tracker up to four bars per body produced, not including the discovery of that body. HAX drones and knocked out guards eventually recover, though the latter can be delayed by standing over them (“pin” status), but when the assaulted recover, they begin actively searching for their assailants. In other words, Operators are encouraged to avoid conflict because that only creates more.
Jolie “Banks” Murphy, huh? You sure her first name shouldn’t be replaced with “Angelina“?
In terms of playable characters, Deckard and Internationale are the two default agents, but as Operators gain experience (I am unsure, but I think experience is measured by the “net value” calculation that displays at the conclusion of each mission), more agents and programs will unlock. Decard is thoroughly an agent for beginners; his default augment identifies daemons on nearby objects so that newbs should not be caught off guard by them, and he comes equipped with a get-out-of-jail free card in the form of an active camouflage item. Deckard arguably becomes obsolete as Operators unlock other agents and programs, but Internationale is considered to be a top agent at all phases of the game, for newcomers and
veterans. Her wireless emitter/neural disruptor allows her to detect electronic devices from a distance. This translates to Operators being able to HAX cameras on the other side of walls or safes in a room that is inaccessible until near the end of a mission, so that by the time the agents arrive, it will be open without a wait—except on harder difficulties and later alarm phases when some devices reboot and need to be HAX again. Other agents include, but are not limited to, Shalem 11, who comes equipped with a lethal, armor-penetrating weapon complimenting his augment for armor penetration when attacking; Sharp, whose six open augment slots are better served in endless mode; and Nikita, whose augment allows her to attack twice per turn while gaining more AP. I personally prefer Internationale and Banks, whose augment allows her to open red doors without finding a security keycard, as the best agent duo. Every agent has an “on file” and an alternative “archive” version to unlock.
I have been speaking much of augments. Indeed, Invisible, Inc. borrows heavily from Deus Ex in this regard. Augs are permanent upgrades to agents which, combined with purchasable stats such as speed (more AP per turn), HAX (more pwr from consoles), strength (more inventory space and + turns to enemy KOs), and anarchy (+credits or chance of item when stealing), makes for some formidable assets. They can be found in nanofabs, but the best are in Cybernetics Labs where the consoles must be HAX before they can be used to install augs.
Between the procedurally generated missions, HAX, and agent combinations, Invisible, Inc. has virtually infinite replay value, especially when adding in the extra twist available in time trials or the elevated security levels in endless mode.
Successfully eluding ‘bots and guards on my way to the exit after securing the lewt sends signals to my brain to release endorphins of satisfaction into my body like an aug that stuck in the “on” position. Likewise, I find the shrewd art direction in Invisible, Inc. stimulating. There appears to be two similar, yet distinctive styles at play. Sharp angles, elongated proportions, and muted pastels dominate the images appearing during loading screens, and I cannot help but to believe that Peter Chung’s (Æon Flux) aesthetic inspired the artists at Klei. The visuals in the actual missions deeply echo the Shank and MotN flavor of flash confined within the walls of a cyberpunk dungeon crawl. Incognita mode compliments the tactical overlay by conjuring a strangely familiar and comforting cyan and green tint that young folks may remember from Matrix, but sci-fi buffs will shake their heads and cite the original Tron. Even so, after a few campaign runs, the procedurally generated maps become indistinguishable from each other even though I know I am raiding different megacorporations.
The menus in Invisible, Inc. have been intuitively crafted to maximize navigability. If the standard campaigns are insufficient, there are a number of options available for Operators to customize their experiences to their liking. Klei was prudent enough to include a Prince of Persia: Sands of Time-style
David Wise set the bar for modern industry standards for music with his soundtrack for Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze—particularly, the way in which a track for a level undergoes multiple phases as the player progresses. Likewise, Invisible, Inc. follows this model: its music undergoes multiple phases as the alarm level increases. Still, it is nowhere near the quality of Wise’s composition, and only the FTM and Plastech tracks are memorable.
Son, they will cut you.
The character models are chiseled from the same stone as the character models in MotN, right down to the idle breathing animations. Particularly piquant are the striking Warcraft/StarCraft-like character portraits; I am impressed with how distinguished each character is in their designs. However, I wish there were more discrete features exhibited in the agents; practically all of their animations are identical.
Likewise, several other elements in Invisible, Inc. are merely serviceable. Central and Monst3r are the only two characters with voice acting, and the latter is needlessly condescending. In fact, the only time the agents say anything is at the beginning of a mission, and maybe only one or two of them speak…in text.
When I say that Invisible, Inc. has “virtually” infinite replay value, I mean to say that while it is not mathematically possible to comprehensively experiment with all the variables, such as starting agent duo, I do not believe that this is the kind of game that should be played exhaustively, and that is why I struggle with it as a package. I do believe that it is a good game, but I feel that what keeps it from being a great game is a palatable lack of balance and direction.
The regular campaigns are brief enough so that any single session does not overstay its welcome, and that is intelligent design. However, a consequence of deriving inspiration from a roguelike is that not every playthrough is fun. Even when I win, it’s because I am scraping by with skill, although I would prefer to experiment with cool gadgets. Endless mode is a solution to the abbreviated campaign, increasing the likelihood of maxing out four agents to a certainty as long as the player is talented enough to not lose. At times, I feel that endless mode the best, “unintentionally intended” way to play Invisible, Inc., but then again, as of this writing, I am on day 11 of endless and my agents seem invincible even at alarm level 6 (based shock trap III). I feel challenged, but I don’t fear losing. Then again, I routinely play games involving heavy strategy.
Overall, I would recommend Invisible, Inc. to gamers looking for some strategy in their lives, but are disinterested in a game with a skill ceiling as high as the nosebleed section.
The Bottom Line
The experiential fusion of roguelike with stealth and strategy in Invisible, Inc. is as ambitious enough for gamers to overlook its hitches and enjoy this unique take on tactical strategy genre.