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Invisible, Inc. Early Access Preview

21 Aug 2014  by   Tim McDonald
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Oh, games. If games were named according to my skill level – and that would be a very weird and very difficult naming convention to enforce, I grant you, but bear with me here – this would not be called Invisible, Inc. It would be called Highly Visible, Incredibly Incompetent, Repeatedly Riddled with Bullets, Inc. Which I admit would probably get us less customers, but at least they’d know what they’re in for.

Invisible, Inc. puts you in command of a small, covert team of freelance espionage agents in a megacorporation-run cyberpunk-y world. You are The Operator, the one responsible for picking their missions and guiding them through. You have three days until something considerably rubbish happens, and you need to use that time raiding corporations, stealing money and intel, and upgrading your agents to prepare for the final mission.

Invisible Inc - 06

Not that I’m complaining about the (rather good) soundtrack, but Invisible, Inc. could really do with licensing the Mission: Impossible theme.

It all plays out like some sort of stealth-based XCOM, and that’s one of the most wonderful sentences I’ve had cause to write in some time. You move your agents around in turn-based fashion, and then the corporation you’re infiltrating has its move. The kicker is that, initially at least, they don’t know you’re there. The guards aren’t moving randomly – they’re patrolling, or standing stationary. If you make noise or get spotted, though? At that point, they’re going to be actively searching for you.

You have a couple of advantages. For one, you can peek around corners and the like to get an idea of where guards are; you can also spend Action Points to predict their movements and see where they’ll be heading at the end of the turn. For another, you can use the “Power” resource to hack most of the systems around each map. Cameras can be turned into your eyes, and gun turrets can be disabled or turned back on their owners. You can even get your hands on more programs that let you refresh the AP of your agents, or create noise-based distractions. You can see which squares are visible to your foes even if you can’t see the foes; you can see their last known positions; you get a nice little arrow pointing out where you heard people moving. In theory, you have all the information you need to remain completely undetected.

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All sorts of things can be hacked at the touch of a button, but you’ve only got a limited supply of Power so picking and choosing is important.

Unfortunately, you also have a number of unique disadvantages. For one thing, the corporations have a unique alarm system which raises its alert level for every few turns you spend inside, so time is not your friend. Time is a Very Bad Thing that will result in more cameras being brought online, more firewalls being put on the hackable equipment, and more guards arriving and patrolling. For another thing, knocking guards out is a very temporary solution and they will be looking for you when they wake up, while killing guards instantly bumps the alert level. You can have an agent sit on them to pin them down indefinitely, but that’s basically taking one of your agents out of action for the turn. Worse still, the standard melee knock-out every agent has can only be used once every three turns. If people are coming after you, you’re in trouble.

So yes, you’re probably going to get spotted. If an agent is seen by a guard, then they can move exactly one square to get into cover. If they try to move farther, or move into a square that isn’t in cover, then they get shot and are instantly downed. There are a number of other little tricks you can employ – you can have another agent sneak around behind and disable the guards, or maybe shut a door to break line-of-sight if there’s one in the way – but being spotted is, really, another Very Bad Thing. There are no desperate gunfights or hit chances here; if you’re seen, then you will either make it out of the situation unscathed or you will lose an agent. There’s no “this might happen.” Everything is predictable.

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If your screen looks like this, you’re screwed.

Which, really, is Klei Entertainment all over. They showed a complete mastery of form with Mark of the Ninja, a 2D stealth game which cut out almost everything superfluous and just offered a raw, superbly designed stealth title. This is… kind of the same, insofar as it is really all about thinking, planning ahead, and taking calculated risks. You could just go through that door and hope there’s nobody in there, or you could spend an AP to peek through it, or you could just end the turn and listen out for patrolling guards. Weighing up the risks is, in large part, the game. It’s just that calculating the risks isn’t aided by percentage chances to hit, and randomisation doesn’t play much of a part in whether you succeed or fail.

Except, of course, in terms of the level design. Right now the procedurally generated levels are largely okay, although it occasionally creates some utterly horrible situations. On one attempt, the very first room outside of where I started had a camera watching from the corner, a guard staring directly at the door I needed to use to enter the room, and another guard patrolling in every two turns. That took some inventive use of a one-turn invisibility cloak and the ability to drag bodies.

Also, the final level is largely a gigantic maze of empty rooms, but I can’t judge that too harshly because it’s clearly a placeholder.

Invisible Inc - 02

Upgrades are costly, but important. Fortunately, the game has such a wonderful art style that staring indecisively at the upgrade screen is actually quite a pleasant experience.

The money and items you steal can be used to upgrade your agents. Each stat (Stealth, Hacking, Inventory, and Anarchy) offer different buffs at different levels; for instance, Anarchy starts off by letting you pickpocket conscious guards and ends with you earning a bonus every time you steal some cash. Some items require certain stats at certain levels – the high-end hacking tools that get you a huge amount of Power, for instance, might require maxed-out Hacking, while invisibility cloaks require some training in Stealth.

It sort of reminds me of FTL: Faster Than Light in that you can’t really guarantee how you’re going to set everything up, because you have no idea what equipment you’ll find/be able to purchase/whatever, but you can still somewhat influence it based on the choices of mission you go on. Some missions guarantee more money, while others guarantee a piece of high-end equipment. There are even prison breaks which can result in you rescuing a captive agent and getting another team member, or liberating a wealthy prisoner who’ll pay top dollar for his release. I do kinda wish that I could stash and rearrange gear at the end of each mission, though, because I don’t really want a tool I can’t yet use taking up an inventory slot on my next operation.

I do wish there was a bit more to the metagame, too. Pretty much the entirety of Invisible, Inc. is the tactical stealth, which is good, but it’d be nice to have a bit more to do in the world map barring upgrade agents and pick your next mission. It’s tonally reminiscent of a less morally bleak Syndicate, and it’d be good to see some of the world map stuff from that game here. If nothing else, it’d be nice to play corporations off against each other and decide what missions to go on based on things other than “how guarded is this location”, “how much of my three days will this mission take”, and “what are the rewards”. For that matter, the corporations don’t seem at all different from each other at this point in development, although that might also be my inexperience with the game. I think each corporation has a different visual design for its levels? Maybe?

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You can also set it so that your agents will attack enemies who move, which can prove incredibly useful. Hide next to a door, open it to make a guard investigate, and then zap him in the back of the head to put him out of commission for a few turns.

On the plus side, Invisible, Inc. takes a cue from Klei’s Don’t Starve in that failure earns you experience, and experience unlocks more stuff, like more agents and more computer programs. Every agent has their own starting stats and equipment – one starts with an invisibility field, while another has a rifle that can kill guards at range – so this sort of thing does offer quite a bit of replayability.

Right now, Invisible, Inc.‘s biggest problem is its lack of content, but that’s not something I expect to remain a problem for long. The placeholder final level introduces a boatload of enemies I hadn’t seen before, with all sorts of unique attributes that made them radically different to deal with, which implies that there are a lot of abilities and pieces of equipment still to come – along with those new enemy types. I’d like to see a few refinements to the interface and the visuals, as when rooms are clustered close together it can be hard to tell where walls actually are without rotating the view five or six times. I’d also like to see more of a metagame, as mentioned, but that might be outside the scope of the game – and if it is, that’s not too big a shame. The focus is clearly on the tactical stealth, and the tactical stealth already shines.

So yes, it’s good. It’s definitely early and it definitely needs more content, but the basic mechanics here work well, and with Klei’s history in Early Access I suspect that it’s going to see a lot of improvements fairly rapidly. Also, I’m finding it very hard not to just fire it up and do another mission every time I have a few minutes spare, and that’s normally a pretty good sign of quality.

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