“Now you see me, now you don't.”
Stealth and strategy fall under separate genre labels, but stealth requires careful strategy. In many ways the two go hand in hand, and Klei Entertainment's Invisible, Inc. operates with the symbiotic relationship in mind. It's a strategy game first and foremost, but success involves stealth. Getting spotted isn't a viable option, and the emphasis on low-key movement establishes the game's singular identity. It also provides a hefty challenge, as does the game's procedurally generated structure. The content itself feels underdeveloped in spots, but at its core Invisible, Inc. is an effectively tense experience.
The start of each campaign comes with a warning: “You will fail. Repeatedly.” The foreboding message clearly sets the tone for Invisible, Inc., a game in which players can't save at any time. Think of Ironman mode from XCOM, except you have no choice in the matter. The game drives home the practice of careful planning, as one wrong step can be the difference between life and death. But with failure comes experience—I could see the improvement in my performance as I became more familiar with the mechanics of the game. The inclusion of a one-turn rewind system also helps, though higher difficulties lower the number of replays per mission or eliminate them altogether.
Invisible, Inc.'s insistence on stealth gameplay defines its challenge. Characters die in one hit, so it's the player's job to avoid the gaze of all enemies, cameras, and other formidable obstacles. At the same time, quickness is valued above all else. Every turn increases the enemy's security level, and higher levels introduce more immediate threats. Cameras get rebooted, new enemy types appear, and viruses enter the system. The handy AI program Incognita helps combat some of these threats by hacking various devices around the map. If the player holds enough power, they can cut off cameras, switch power grids, and generally turn the tide of the entire level.
Challenge also comes from the game's limited resources. Obtaining enough credits to upgrade characters, purchase new equipment, and load new programs into Incognita to create a total badass party is nearly impossible, which means tough decisions must be made. On the one hand, I appreciate the game's introduction of resource management. But the credit pool is so small that I never felt like I could add meaningful upgrades to my team for a prolonged period of time. In fact, two of my new team members had no equipment whatsoever, which rendered them useless for multiple missions. It's less of a welcome challenge and more of an annoyance.
The game also falls short in the content department. An entire playthrough on beginner difficulty takes roughly a few hours, which ties into the narrative's 72-hour timeline. The actual length isn't a problem since the game encourages repeated playthroughs; it's the momentum of the campaign that stands out as an issue. I assemble a strong team, start to get into a rhythm with the mechanics, and then the campaign ends. It's not abrupt in the sense that the 72-hour clock is visible at all times, but the climax doesn't have the impact to match the tough-as-nails difficulty.
Invisible, Inc. is not a one-and-done kind of game, though. Completing the campaign on beginner difficulty is just the start. New characters and powers unlock after the initial playthrough, and higher difficulties increase the intensity tenfold. All levels are procedurally generated, so missions and maps change with new campaigns. Nevertheless, most of the map layouts blend together and the changes feel minimal. Objectives still boil down to accessing terminals, rescuing new characters, or completing a few other menial tasks. Even though the format of the game caters to multiple playthroughs, my desire to do so steadily waned.
Despite its shortcomings, Invisible, Inc. offers a nerve-wracking campaign in which decisions and consequences truly matter. Even on the most mundane missions I was constantly on edge while guards patrolled surrounding areas. It doesn't feel like a complete experience in some specific areas, but the combination of challenge and stealth gameplay provides a refreshing change of pace for the beloved genre.