XCOM meets Transistor, uh, meets a stealth game
A chasm in stealth games tends to be player skill and the supposed skills of super sleuth avatars. You’re often eased into the situation, your lack of skill assumed, or you just fumble your way through — especially with the recent trend of stealth-optional games — feeling like Mr. Magoo. Or you’re good at stealth games. It’s one of the reason’s they can hold up to replays. Coming back with mechanical knowledge and slinking through areas like the pro you’re meant to be is exhilarating.
Invisible, Inc. is meant to be replayed, but that familiarity and advance knowledge is not where you get your sense of empowerment, as everything is procedurally generated and, thus, different each time.
Klei’s founder Jamie Cheng sat down with me and showed me how “active stealth, by moving and doing rather than waiting,” is a great fit for a turn-based system.
Invisible, Inc. (PC)
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Publisher: Klei Entertainment
Invisible, Inc. requires balance because there are a lot of overlaid systems. You have roughly a week and half to work up to your final job. Each day is a mission (randomly generated), like having to rescue someone you can recruit to your spy team. There’s a bit of Don’t Starve‘s permadeath here, along with the assumption that you will fail, and that’s okay. At least you’re only losing a few hours of missions rather than an entire 30-hour XCOM campaign.
So, active stealth. On the top right of the screen is a counter that goes up each turn (occasionally by more than one block). As the level rises, extra security cameras will be turned on, more guards will enter the fray, and things will become impossible. That’s the fire lit under you to keep the pace up and keep you from a) playing cautiously and b) playing obsessively.
Aside from your main objective (which can have time constraints — in rescuing a courier, he had to be extracted within a certain number of turns of he’d expire from fatigue) and obstacles, levels are all filled with things to hack for more resources. With the threat ticker, though, you won’t necessarily have time to scour each and every blacked-out room on the map, which keeps things tense and makes sure you don’t end up overpowered in subsequent missions because you got all the things.
It isn’t just active because of pacing, either. The UI is designed to give you as much information as possible, so that “when you die, it’s your fault.” You can even be alerted, with red spaces, when an area outside of your field of vision is potentially dangerous so you don’t blindly, “fog of war” walk yourself into a game-ending scenario, because losing one of your operatives is basically a game over, though you can keep trying to power through until you lose every operative.
And it’s tough to keep them alive with guards (and, later, drones and things) walking about. Cross an enemy’s field of vision and you’re allowed to move exactly one space in reaction, if that helps get you out of the way, or send an ally to deal with the guard, before they one-hit kill you.
Again, active stealth. Even this you can use to your advantage. Edge around a corner in a guard’s (separately defined) peripheral field of vision, then set a melee overwatch, and you can lure them to check it out and pounce like a trap-door spider. Every agent has a melee overwatch that incapacitates guards for two turns, or as long as you remain on top of them. If you get off for one turn, then get back on, that guard still only has one turn before they wake back up, confused. You can lure guards similarly by quickly opening and closing doors as you stand off to the side.
Even the act of peeping becomes active. Rather than watching an enemy’s movement pattern, the Observe action — newly implemented after feedback from the alpha — will let you know if a guard is patrolling, or just staying still. The idea, on a mission by mission basis and for the whole course of the game, is to gather information as best you can to become powerful. With Internationale’s beefed-up hacking skills, hack a camera from afar to increase your field of view and figure out what’s lurking behind obscured corners without putting yourself in danger.
And of course everything is properly antagonistic. Even going up against a vanilla, drone-less corporation for the sake of this demo, Cheng nearly blew the entire mission. Some hackable things have protections installed that will do things like up the threat counter a few more ticks or prevent CPU, your hacking resource, from refilling. It will be necessary to hack them anyways and deal with the consequences. Null drones disable the Mainframe view in their radius, keeping you from hacking at all until you dispatch them with an EMP.
In the alpha build that’s been out this year, Cheng said the “only way [he] can play it is by using exploits the normal player won’t know about.” This current build, rejiggered from the alpha testing, looks fantastic. Invisible, Inc. will be coming to Early Access next month, sans final boss, in an effort to keep iterating on player feedback and getting the balancing just right. Me, I’ll probably wait until the final release. When it comes, though, I have a feeling it’ll be one of my favorite games this year.