Turn-based games are supposed to be about time. Patience. Giving the player the luxury – and comfort – of taking as long as they want to make sure they get their moves just right. Invisible Inc is a turn-based game, but it takes that decades-old assumption and just throws it out the window.
Made by Klei, they of Mark of the Ninja fame, Invisible Inc takes place in a near-future world where corporations run the show. The game quietly launched on Steam’s Early Access last week, and while far from complete – there’s only one game mode available – there’s more than enough interesting content already there to talk about it.
You play the role of a field commander, leading small teams of operatives into office buildings around the world, where they have to hide from guards, disable security cameras, hack security turrets and steal a whole bunch of stuff.
Normally that’s action that needs the soft touch of an action game, but in Invisible Inc everything is isometric, takes place on a grid and is turn-based. Think XCOM, then, only with a number of key differences.
First, the stealth. You’re a covert operative here, not a soldier, so the key is to avoid combat, not seek it out. Both security cameras and enemy guards have cones of vision that help you get around their gaze, only here’s the thing: that gaze isn’t constant. And this is where the turn-based of the game starts to mess with you. Sure, you might be able to slip past a guard as he’s standing now, but if he turns around next turn and catches you standing in the middle of the hall, you’re toast.
So you need to not only plan for the turn you’re on, but the turn ahead. It’s taxing, and at times makes getting past guards as much of a puzzle game as an exercise in tactics.
The next difference is something fans of the excellent Gunpoint will be familiar with. The game has a mode where, at the flick of the spacebar, the screen goes all Matrix-y and gives you a look at the security network apparatus around you. From this screen, you can disable cameras, shut down servers, hack security turrets and crack safes. You only have a limited pool of resources with which to spend on these hacks, though, so using them is a case of deciding whether it’s worth it given the constraints you’re facing.
The biggest of which is time, and this is where the turn-based nature of the game (well, at least the parts already available on Early Access) is really flipped on its head. Each mission has an alarm countdown. Every time you end a turn, this ticks down. After 5-6 ticks, the alarm escalates. Each time it does this, your job gets harder; there’ll be more cameras, more security guards and eventually the appearance of elite guards, who are death on legs and are to be avoided at all costs.
What this does is stop you from really thinking. There’s no time, or point, to carefully planning your way through a level. You have to think on your feet, combine strategy and luck as well as you can, hit “end turn”, watch everything play out and hope for the best. Throw in the fact that without searching at least a few safes and terminals along the way for money and power you’ll be unable to improve your agents (you can buy upgrades), and it all gets incredible tense, unnaturally so for a turn-based video game.
I…don’t know whether I like this or not! At times, I appreciate the fact that it’s keeping me on my toes, stopping me from being the world’s most boring thief, who would spend three hours moving across four rooms. At other times, though, it just stresses me out. It’s my mission and I’m the commander; if I want to take my time and do the mission carefully, I should be allowed to.
So hopefully that gets balanced a little before the full game is “done”. Whenever that is for an Early Access game these days. Making it optional, perhaps, or even restricting its use for certain missions. Give me a chance to catch my breath, guys. I’m faint-hearted when it comes to stealth.
Because if I can slow down long enough to enjoy some of the other stuff on show in this game, then hoo boy. This could be just as good as it sounds when someone inevitably says “well, it’s like XCOM-meets-Gunpoint-meets Syndicate” and you go “wait REALLY because that sounds amazing”.
Invisible Inc is $16 on Early Access.