There’s a certain butt-hole clenching quality of games like Splinter Cell that’s unavoidable. Crouching behind a box as 4 armed guards just barely miss you, and then dodging out and scurrying to cover is one of my favorite moments in gaming. I love feeling like I’m the predator, and they’re the prey despite having me outnumbered and outgunned. These high-intensity moments are what has defined the genre of stealth games and continues to be one of its most valued assets.
Klei Entertainment makes the decision to completely circumvent this genre staple with Invisible Inc. which ultimately plays a bit more like XCOM than Splinter Cell, for better or worse.
The game kicks off with Invisible, the organization of which you take control, being outed by the dubious corporations ruling the world. On the run, the organization’s AI – known as Incognita – has just 72 hours worth of battery life. During this 72 hours, Invisible’s spies must gather as many supplies, cash, captured spies, and intel as possible in order to stand a chance against the corporations.
The plot serves the gameplay well. The 72 hour “limit” increases the necessity of careful planning. Flying around the U.S. might only take up a few hours, but eventually you might need to travel to Europe, or Australia, or back west in South America. You’re going to want to complete as many missions as possible, and it’s most efficient when you’re not traveling all over the planet, but maybe you have plenty of cash but not enough spies. In this case it might be necessary to expend more time to gain more valuable assets. This aspect of the gameplay is incredibly clever and increases the already high level of anxiety this game will undoubtedly elicit.
Between missions, and before choosing your next, you’re given an opportunity to better your spies through either the purchase of new supplies – including Deus Ex-style augmentations as well as weapons – or by increasing certain abilities of each spy using cash found during missions. Most spies you’ll come across have one strength, one which starts higher than the others, so it’s wise to build, for example, one spy to be your “hacker” and another to be the muscle. There isn’t a lot of detail in leveling each spy, a small handful of generic categories which can only be increased 6 times. Initially it’s a little underwhelming, but it proves to be one of the wiser decisions made by Klei.
At any time during a mission, a spy can die. Just like in XCOM, the spy will remain dead for the duration of the game. By not forcing the player to spend an eternity leveling this character up, it takes away a lot of the frustration that comes from the loss of a soldier in XCOM. There also isn’t a huge disparity between a rookie spy and a veteran, unlike the veteran soldiers of XCOM, which are easily 3 or 4 times stronger than one of the rookies.
Unfortunately, I found this system to be a bit of a bust. It wasn’t terribly difficult to retry a mission once I had failed (I was prompted to do so upon returning to the Mission Select screen). Because you don’t have a small army backing Invisible like the one found in XCOM, you don’t have unused spies to fall back on (at least, not to the same degree). Losing even one character can be catastrophic to the rest of the game, and it’s worth finding a way to go back in time.
During missions, you’re tasked with completing certain objectives which you’re made aware of beforehand. Each mission is procedurally generated, which means when you’re asked to “retry” a mission, you’re actually doing an entirely different mission with the same objective. This turns the stealth genre upon it’s head a little. The genre is well-known for including a large amount of trial-and-error, and retrying an entire mission removes that aspect entirely.
While in mission, you have a limited number of “rewinds.” These set the game back a few moments to before things turned into a clusterfuck. So if a character gets shot, and you’re pretty sure you could do something differently to get her out of the situation, you can. By doing so, Klei pulls Invisible Inc. right back into the realm of trial-and-error.
During missions, the alert level of the facility in which you’re snooping around increases one point per turn (Yeah, it’s turn-based, do with that what you will). Every five turns the level goes up a phase. The first few phases are relatively harmless; guards are “more aware.” But as you enter the fourth and fifth phase, the game starts throwing more difficult enemies at you, some of which you have absolutely no defense against other than to hide from them.
Invisible Inc., perhaps more than any stealth game before it, really encourages non-violent solutions. Each spy’s ability to take down an enemy is limited thanks to a cool-down which can last as many as 8 turns, but might only render an enemy unconscious for 4. Upon them regaining consciousness, they’re aware of a spy and thus act accordingly. It’s oftentimes better just to leave them alone, even if it is super tempting to knock them out whenever given the opportunity.
Invisible Inc.‘s greatest strength is, unfortunately, the very reason I had a difficult time enjoying the game. By this point in the review, it should be relatively clear if this game sounds like something that interests you, but I just couldn’t find myself really wanting to play the game. Here’s the thing, though: It does absolutely nothing wrong. In fact, it does everything pretty damn well, but turn-based games just don’t hold my attention, and I thought the inclusion of stealth aspects would maybe change my mind. It didn’t.
Stealth as a gameplay mechanic, in my playthroughs of various games, is high-intensity, and usually relies just as much on my skills as it does the downfalls of AI. I’m aware of this, and I’m totally understanding of the fact that this is exactly why a lot of people don’t like these sorts of games. Invisible Inc. takes a decidedly different stance on stealth, one which is arguably better. The isometric camera allows you to be more aware of your surroundings, and a strong utilization of Incognita means you’re fully aware of the security systems around you. Whereas Splinter Cell relies heavily on carefully timing your moves, Invisible Inc. requires nothing of timing. Instead it asks you to make calculated and careful decisions about where you’ll hide from enemies and gives you ample time (rather, unlimited time on a per turn basis) to make the smartest decision possible. It works beautifully most of the time, with only a few instances of “I thought I was hidden, why wasn’t I hidden?” occurring. In many ways, it’s a revolutionary system for the stealth genre.