What is it about breaking rules that we find so beguiling? What shard of the human spirit is it that wants to plant two feet and stick the same number of fingers up at the system? Whatever it is, clandestine agency Invisible, Inc has given in to the temptation often. Which is why, in the opening seconds of an incandescent campaign, the megacorps that rule this noirish cyberpunk world join forces to eradicate you from the face of the Earth.
Driven from your home with naught but a shuttle, just two agents not either dead or captured, and a fastdegrading but ludicrously potent AI called Incognita, you have 72 hours of backup power to find a way to keep her from fragmenting completely, at which point all hope is lost. That’s in-game hours; the whole campaign could take you as little as three in real time. It’s a breathless start to a game that does nothing but escalate until the nerve-shredding finale, a haymaker of a finisher that will floor you in one way or another.
The part in between is all about riding the crest of the disaster curve, and the thrill of transgression. You are in control of hacker-spies on the run, and the only way to stay ahead of the corps is to keeping doing what they do best: slip in through the back door, snatch whatever you need, and make a break for it before you attract too much attention. Here that means turn-based sneaking across gridded facilities in which you’ll find yourself consistently outgunned – if an agent’s exposed and cornered, a single shot will take them down – hiding always a cleaner option than confrontation.
That implies Invisible, Inc is a stealth game, but that’s only true insofar as it suits you to not be seen coming. You can play aggressively if you can balance out the negatives, while procedurally generated levels and evolving threats eliminate the path-watching memory tests and rote learning hang-ups of that genre. It’s more a high-stakes heist simulator with no time for malice aforethought. Stealth’s just one tool in your roll bag.
But it will still take plenty of thought to keep your agents alive. Partially, that’s a question of target priority. After the obligatory first mission yields a list of juicy sites to hit, you have to examine the pings on the globe and weigh up the benefits of each potential take. Is it worth ten hours in the air to spring someone from a secretive holding cell, hoping that it’s a fellow Inc-ling? Or do you raid a nearby cybernetics lab to install a few body mods, and then crash the server farm next door to bolster Incognita’s subroutines in the same time frame? You’ll need money to pay for your black market toys, too, and to develop your agents’ very particular skillsets. Seventy-two hours feels awfully tight when it slices down to just a handful of missions to get all that done.
Sterner tests await when you teleport into each level. The corps may lack much in the way of differentiation and identity – one plush, Deco-futuristic office here is much like any other – but they all jealously guard their stuff. Patrolling guards and drones are obvious lines of defence, but you face layers of digital protection, too. And here’s where Incognita demonstrates why she’s worth saving, a click allowing you to see the world as she does: a matrix of security subsystems and the firewalls that protect them. At first, using her is little more than a case of clicking to hijack cameras or cut the power to infrared grids, with nothing out of reach, but a limited pool of power and the backlashes that come as the threat level climbs soon mandate judicious hacking. Firewalls rack up and daemons are installed that punish you for compromising their systems, stacking negative effects atop you unless you can afford countermeasures of your own. And missions often force you to confront your greed: you may want the contents of that safe, but can you afford not to hack a walking gun platform and use it to head off the guard who’s coming to check up on the bug you tripped last turn, all because you hadn’t left yourself the reserves to deafen it? Fans of clear inspiration Netrunner will know the feeling well. With the dynamic systems of both the physical and digital worlds to juggle, each feeding into the other, it’s not infrequently that the thrill of tinkering with a Rube Goldberg machine of potential disaster gives way to the horror of the whole thing crashing down around your agents’ fedoras and chrome cans. With their death a likely outcome of pushing your luck too far, you’re granted a stock of turn rewinds, the limits tightening as you ascend the difficulty tiers. Without the safety net of Beginner mode, which is otherwise no soppy tutorial, mission outcomes are fixed, however, so undos become another limited resource to handle with care.
As befits a system of so many adeptly crafted layers, Invisible, Inc offers a brilliant game of lock picking, where each tumbler has to receive just the right amount of pressure to progress. But it assimilates a little too much machine to connect as successfully on a human level. Despite the wonderful vibe imbued by the expressive art style and the dry tones of matronly M-alike Central, agents are merely pawns that boil down to little more than a dossier photo and special ability. Similarly, Klei hints at an intriguing world of clashing, distinctive conglomerates, which is instantly undercut when the level tiles feel like they’re all drawn from the same bag. That’s not to say Invisible, Inc is bland; a game that allows you to deliver a final quip in desperate circumstances is not short on personality. Nor is it insubstantial; this is rare case where the drive to keep experimenting means the gap between finishing one campaign and starting the next can be measured in microseconds. It’s just sometimes too obvious that it’s cold, emotionless rules, not people, you’re flipping the Vs to from moment to moment.