A great number of Early Access games are unfinished in a much larger sense than Klei Entertainment’s Invisible, Inc. Important gameplay features and user interface elements might be missing entirely, obscuring the game’s intent and making it difficult to tell how everything will come together in the future. Invisible, Inc. is a lot easier to understand. Despite still being in active development, Klei’s stealth/strategy hybrid feels much more complete than many of its Early Access peers, if not as fully fleshed out as it could (and will soon) be.
Probably the biggest contribution to this impression is the amount of polish already applied to the game. Invisible, Inc.’s visual elements, from menus to character animations, are crisp and evidently refined, reflecting the same colourful and imaginative design work that has become the standard in previous Klei titles (like Mark of the Ninja and Don’t Starve). The impressive look is matched with innovative gameplay concepts made good through smart mechanics. It’s a bit reductive to say that Invisible, Inc. is simply a stealth take on the turn-based tactics gameplay of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but, as a reference point, Firaxis Games’ alien invasion reboot isn’t a bad place to start. At first blush, design elements like character inventories, cover systems, and a mission selection map that highlights international hotspots make the game appear overly derivative. Luckily, the similarities are only skin deep.
The major difference between the two games comes from Invisible, Inc. being concerned less with simply eliminating enemy forces than in thoughtful sneaking and low-key thievery. Players choose from a handful of secret agents, each with special starting skills (like an ability to unlock security doors or hack computers from a distance), and guide a small team of these characters through a series of global enemy facilities referred to as “corporations.” Each stage is procedurally generated, its hallways, camera positions, and guards scattered throughout a constantly changing environment. The goal, though, always remains the same. Every level is a gauntlet that requires players to gather as many resources as possible without losing operatives to the permanent death that comes from being knocked out by an enemy.
What makes Invisible, Inc. most unique is its alarm system. As the player works their way through a level, a circular metre in the upper corner of the screen is constantly filling in, notch by panic-inducing notch. Every time the metre hits its limit, new threats are introduced to the stage. These range from fresh guard patrols to unexpected surveillance camera activations—all representing a steady increase in difficulty and a higher likelihood of failing the mission. The alarm system encourages players to do the opposite of what stealth games have trained them for: creeping slowly and methodically through levels. An overly cautious agent will quickly find her/himself outflanked by far too many guards to easily exit the stage. On the other hand, the player who beelines directly for the end of a level will miss out on the cash, items, and new recruits they need to upgrade their team well enough to take on the game’s increasingly difficult later missions.
These systems—constant unpredictability, urgency, and a zero tolerance for mistakes—force the player into punishing compromises on a moment-by-moment basis. They also make Invisible, Inc. a compelling experience. The turn-based sneaking provides just enough empowerment for the player to feel satisfied when slipping past enemy patrols or snatching money out of deposit boxes, but also limited enough that tension remains high throughout entire missions. Some may be turned off by the fairly high difficulty of the game’s Normal mode (even Easy provides a substantial challenge), but those who are intrigued by a fresh take on stealth and strategy and are willing to roll with the punches of Invisible, Inc.’s ruthless design are likely to discover something truly interesting.
Klei Entertainment previously used the Early Access model to release survival simulator Don’t Starve, steadily adding new features onto a solid foundation that was enjoyable enough in its own, unfinished right. There’s every sign that Invisible, Inc. is following the same path. Though it’s easy to see where additional elements can be introduced to make for a richer experience—more agents and inventory items and a greater variety in guard types would help—there’s already a unique and well-polished game to play at this early stage