Finding strength in the shadows is a key pillar of most stealth games. In the face of immense power, characters make up for brute force with nimble movement and a keen eye. Often, players find themselves descending from rafters and rooftops to doll out death on unsuspecting foes. Indeed, the name “stealth game” implies that games like Invisible, Inc. are about not being caught.
But Invisible, Inc. and games like it have found loving fanbases because they make what happens when you are caught interesting too. A spy thriller wouldn’t be all that thrilling if everything went swimmingly. This is why, so often, stealth sequences in games not interested in stealth as a key element not only fail to land, but also feel so frustrating. At the core of many great stealth games are two questions, one: how can I manipulate this environment and those that inhabit it to suit my needs? And two: how will I reset a bad situation to my advantage? Invisible, Inc. succeeds as a stealth game because it gives players myriad answers to both of those questions.
The core gameplay loop of Invisible, Inc. is simple. Each mission you choose costs a certain number of “hours” to fly to, which cuts into your allotted 72-hour deadline. Once you choose a mission, your agents spawn into a procedurally generated level where you’re tasked with acquiring some sort of asset (cash, other agents, new technology, etc.) then escaping. Each turn, an alarm ticks forward from one to six, signaling the growing awareness of your presence in the building, and as the alarm level climbs, new threats are deployed in the environment.
Your agents start out with the remains of an arsenal that suggests better days: a taser that knocks out enemies for a few turns, a gun that instakills but is limited to three shots, and individual skills and training. Each agent has attributes that make them unique: some are better at hacking computers, others glide across the tactical grid much faster than their comrades, one has a cloaking device. As you complete missions, you’re pushed to find new ways of repurposing your resources to get your agents out alive. Your other major weapon is Incognita, the hacking interface you use to mess with your enemy’s gear and security systems.
During my first play session, I breezed through the introductory level, sneaking around the corporate office and into the exit elevator without trouble. Huh, that was easy, I thought. But on the third level, I made a series of early mistakes: I miss-clicked and ended up in an enemy sightline, then I tried moving and my agent was shot dead because of a guard’s “overwatch” status, a mechanic fans of Firaxis’ XCOM should find familiar. Damn, what now? Down to one agent, alarm bell ratcheting up, I frantically searched for the exit to no avail. Security guards cornered and killed my final agent. My run was over. What the hell? I felt blindsided. How could I fail so hard, and so fast?
On my subsequent runs, I embraced the opportunity to fail. Instead of simply moving my agents around the map, meticulously trying to go unseen, I thought more about their abilities and how I could utilize them in new ways. A core mechanic available to all agents is “Run,” which increases how far they can move at the expense of making noise that will alert guards. I played many levels sweating out how I’d get to the exit without guards gunning me down because I didn’t think to just run. It’s not immediately intuitive why you might use this ability, especially compared to how clearly readable the limitations of your gadgets are otherwise. Sure, the obvious advantage is that you move faster, but the more I played, I realized that alerting the guards could be advantageous. For instance, running can also be used to manipulate patrol movements and send them to positions that better suit your agenda.
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It’s About The Moves You Don’t Make
Invisible, Inc. actively pushes players toward Hail Mary decisions like this. By leaning into risky tactics, your agents have the potential to score more loot. For instance, instead of wasting an Action Point (AP) to “Peek” behind a door and see a limited view of the room, you can just open the door at no cost. It’s a riskier move because you don’t know what baddie could be lurking behind it, but it can also pay dividends in the end. During another run, I picked an agent named, Derek, who has a teleportation device you can give to another agent or place somewhere on the map. At first, I wasn’t sure how to use it effectively, so I dropped it on a random space.
As I made my way through the map, nabbing money and gear along the way, the alarm kept ticking. Moments like these feel exhilarating — one bad decision in Invisible, Inc. can get your whole party on a trajectory to a wipe, but a cunning decision can do just the opposite. I imagined the smirk on Derek’s face as the guards pointed their guns at him. I could practically hear him whisper, not today, gents, as he clicked his teleporter, landing him right near the start of the level. A move that started as a haphazard experiment transformed into what would be a climactic espionage moment in the best secret agent media.
Of course, these kinds of random plays won’t see you all the way through. The game continues to escalate scenarios as your 72-hour time limit ticks away. After a few missions, Incognita’s hacking skills — which start out fairly benign and one-sided — are complicated with the introduction of enemy viruses called “Daemons” that inflict different status effects on the environment and Incognita when you recklessly hack into enemy equipment. The escalation (mostly) feels fair and adds tension that is stressful, but inspirational. The more you play, the greater the well of knowledge you have to tap into. Situations that once seemed insurmountable become more than conquerable. They become invitations to flex your skills and try new things.
The combination of stealth elements and the genre pillars of rogueslikes makes Invisible, Inc. special. Roguelikes shine as a genre because they transform learned experience into a mechanic — we can always find a new path if we are willing to truly reckon with the course of actions that got us to our present circumstances. Through its marriage of roguelike design philosophy and stealth mechanics, Invisible, Inc. takes a cue from jazz, making your improvisational skills just as important as planning and forethought in a beautiful, silent song.