Sunday, 17 May 2015

Not Quite Review Corner: Invisible Inc (Klei)

Welcome to another installment, in which I'm going to talk about Klei Entertainment's stealthy roguelike, Invisible Inc. I just picked this up on Steam yesterday, and have been playing obsessively for the last few hours. I haven't beaten it yet (experienced level), but I am on what seems to be the final mission, and am playing through again with different characters to see if that has significant effect on my playthrough.

The story campaign is set in a William Gibson-esque cyberpunk world, and I'll go so far as to say that, unless you've been devouring cyberpunk for the last few years, many of the game concepts might confuse or irritate you. Corporations rule this dystopian world. Your rag-tag bunch of crooks and thieves has been a thorn in their side for far too long, so the corps decided to band together to take you out. Your organization is shattered, many of its members captured, and you're on the run with what's left of your super-powerful AI, Incognita. Your job is to stay alive, and find somewhere to house your AI before it degrades beyond recovery.

Incognita is one of the major gameplay elements. It's thanks to the AI that you can hack your way through the enemy defenses, and without hacking your team would be dead in the water, since the corp facilities are chock-full of security cameras, laser beams, security drones, combat drones and other, terrifying things. Plus, of course, security guards. So, so many security guards ... Your job, ultimately, is to keep Incognita alive, and the story missions revolve around you finding a new home for her, after the old one was blown up.

You begin play with two surviving agents, a small fund of credits, and not much else. The default agents are Decker, a thug with a handy-dandy invisibility cloak, and Internationale, a clever hacker who can rip systems apart wirelessly. Of the two, Internationale is probably the more useful, since Incognita needs Power to operate, and Internationale can steal that quickly and easily. There are other agents which you can unlock through play, or rescue from detention camps. Some are combat monsters, others stealthy thieves. Though each has a personality of sorts, it barely impinges on gameplay. Apart from individual character's special abilities, like Decker's chance to detect internet Daemons, each character is the same as another, increases abilities in the same way, and uses the same equipment. There are no character classes here. If you want Internationale to become a brawler, a brawler she shall be, and so on.

This is a turn-based stealth roguelike, with STEALTH writ in ten-foot high fiery letters. If stealth games frustrate you, on no account go anywhere near Invisible Inc. In many ways it's the polar opposite of XCom, despite both being turn-based strategy titles, because one of the draws of XCom is that you get to shoot, blow up and otherwise shred the things that anger you, whereas here you need to adapt to your environment, avoiding conflict if at all possible. Dishonored, another stealth title, also allowed the player to choose to blow off steam, and complete the mission, by killing everything in sight, waving a sword like Doug Fairbanks on amphetamines. Here, though, killing or indeed any aggressive action is tacitly forbidden. Each time a guard dies, or wakes up after you've knocked him unconscious, things get much more difficult, as the alarm bells start ringing and the surviving guards chase you down. At alarm level one, things are a little tricky, but at level six you might as well get in your coffin and call the undertaker.

This is a difficult game. I strongly recommend new players start at Beginner, and work your way up. Ordinarily the lowest rung of the difficulty ladder is for those who've never played this kind of game before, but this time, it's for everyone. Particularly since the game's stuffed full of concepts and terminology that aren't as clearly described as perhaps they could be. Again, it's a cyberpunk thing; especially when it comes to the hacking side of the game, you really need to be into the genre to get, say, Daemons, and how they can screw with your day. But it's also because there's a ton of stuff to take in, very little of which is going to be familiar to you.

For example: there's something called a Sound Bug on many of the levels. Presumably it's some kind of defensive mechanism, a type of trap. I have no idea what this thing does. It hasn't affected my game play - or at least, I haven't noticed it affecting my experience - but I know it's there, and I know it does something.  I've been ignoring it, which seems to work so far. I'd still like to know what it is.

Many of the game's concepts are deliberately video-gamish, which can be annoying. Case in point: if you hack some of the consoles on the level, you get the option to buy new programs or tools to help you out. Think about it: you've just hacked, as in gained illicit access, to their systems. You should have complete control, so why are you spending money, your own actual cash, to do stuff? Do Chinese hackers rip apart, I don't know, Amazon, say, just so they can purchase books on Kindle? Or here's another: many of the advanced weapons require ammo packs, one-time-use items, so they can be recharged. I assumed that meant if you wanted to reload during a mission, you had to have an ammo pack. Fine, but if I empty a weapon and then finish the mission, I can reload for free at home base, right? We have bullets stashed away at HQ, surely? No? I have to use the one-use-only item that cost me several hundred credits - again, my own money, because my hacker's a bit fuzzy on the whole stealing thing - to recharge? Damn. There is a story element that explains this - you're flying around on an escape jet, and didn't have a chance to bring supplies - but it still smacks of resource management shoehorned in to make the experience more difficult.

It's not as if you can get stuff easily. There is an in-game merchant, Monst3r, but he rarely has anything to sell, in story mode at least. You can buy things from corp machines, but there's no guarantee that the corp machine will have what you want, and of course you're dodging corp security all the time, so you can't hang around. That one-use-only item can't get replaced easily, so you have to be really, really careful, husbanding your resources.

It is basically Ironman by default, unless you're playing at Beginner level. Ironman, for those not familiar with the term, is a game concept which assumes that you cannot go back to a previous save, and play again. Every choice counts. At Beginner, you have the option of Rewinding, going back in time one turn, which you can do five times. You also have the option to restart the level, which is great when you thoroughly screw the pooch and are facing down a dozen enraged guards. At Experienced, you can no longer restart, nor can you go back to a previous save, and you only have three Rewinds. Thus, while not officially Ironman, Experienced forces you to play with no take-backs, and if the mission goes straight to hell, that's the entire campaign done and dusted, with all your people dead or in custody. You don't have the option to choose who goes on a mission. The game assumes everyone goes, so if you fail and your people are wiped, there's no way to recover. Ouch! I haven't dared try anything above Experienced yet. I think it might make me cry.

Is this a good strategy title? Hell yes. You will sweat over every single decision. When you manage a successful run, sneaking through the facility and stealing what you need to survive, escaping right under the enemy's nose, you'll feel like the hero of a heist movie. The roguelike aspect of it makes it feel a little as if the corp's architects drink a bucket of scotch for breakfast, lunch and dinner - seriously guys, corridors that go nowhere, what the hell - but it does mean that the maps have near infinite variety, which really keeps you on your toes.

Has it the same replayability as XCom? Well, it does have sandbox modes for you to tool around in, after the story mode's done. You could build up a team of hardened crooks and make the corps sweat blood, forever and ever and ever. XCom doesn't offer that, and its lack of new maps does make it feel same-y after a while. Even if a roguelike's maps look as if they were put together by Salvador Dali's cousin Sherman, at least they're different each time.

However there's not a lot of actual variety in the missions. Ultimately you go to a place, do a thing, and then run away. The thing you do can vary from hacking into a system, buying new stuff, capturing enemy personnel for the information in their heads and so on, but the mechanics of it never change significantly. Whenever you do a thing, alarm bells go off, making it that much more difficult to escape. No matter how you handle the capture of a corporate officer, for instance, in hope of stealing his data card, he always, always, always summons a high-level security guard to investigate. No matter how stealthy you have been, the alarm bells always go off, and the level of alarm always increases. It doesn't matter how clever you are, if you're still there when the alarm level reaches six - and it will get there eventually - you're borked. All this can make the game feel as if you're doing the same rote task, time and again, and it's mainly the adrenaline rush of avoiding the security systems that keeps you hooked.

Is it worth the money? It's currently going for $17.99 on Steam, and is also available on Mac and PS4. Not sure of the price tag on the other platforms, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it's broadly comparable. At that price, it's a steal. Even if you fall out of love with it eventually, it will consume many hours of your time before that happens.

Do I recommend it? Yes, but with the great big caveat that you have to like stealth games, and must be big into cyberpunk as a setting. It is not a game for hotheads, and if you lose your temper easily, avoid like the plague.

But all that said, if you do love stealth, if you're familiar with cyberpunk as a setting, and if you're looking for a turn-based strategy title to take over where XCom left off, look no further. Klei has you covered.


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