Every Level a Gamble

Review of Invisible Inc, a video game by Klei.

Procedurally-generated, or randomized, levels have always been a gamble in video games. It’s unpredictable. It can be the perfect experience for the player, or it can also be, at worst, a complete bore. you can’t really tell if the player will emerge from the level satisfied, or complaining relentlessly that the game was being unfair. You can’t even approximate. What you can do is manage your probabilities.

This is true for the players too. With handmade levels you can just memorize everything in it and plan your movements accordingly. At the farthest end, you can just look up online for a walkthrough. But when no one has any idea what’s going to happen next, the careful planning gets thrown out the window and you just have to try to be ready with what you have. Managing your probabilities.

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Invisible Inc is a turn-based stealth-focused rogue-like-like game where you play as an agency of spies infiltrating procedurally-generated buildings. Being a turn-based game that relies more on being undetected than breaking through every obstacles in your way, it really plays itself more like an elaborate puzzle game than a, well, any other game with this kind of setting, really.

When played right, this game will make you feel. It has some cutscenes, some semblance of a story in its very short story arch, but they don’t really matter much. You don’t play this game for the story. Instead,most of the tensions and dramas are actually played out in the game itself. Each level is randomised, and you never really know what’s going to happen then. It could go smoothly, or you can find yourselves cornered. There could be choices, a great plenty of choices, from which doors to open first to how much are you willing to sacrifice to make it out of this alive.

There’s that real sense of risk and danger to those choices too. When you’ve acted on something, there’s no back button. One of your agents died because you forgot to close a door? Deal with it.

Not the best shot of the game, but, jeez I'm tired and hopefully this is gameplay enough without confusing you with details.

Not the best shot of the game, but, jeez I’m tired and hopefully this is gameplay enough before confusing you with details.

In a lot of ways, it’s similar but also the complete opposite of another game I like, Sunless Sea. You’re taking chances and exploring the unknown, but while everything in Sunless Sea is prebuilt in its text-based glory, the events in Invisible Inc evolves entirely on its own. You can screw yourselves and it will be entirely your fault. You can simply survive a single level and it can feel like the greatest achievement possible. Being procedurally generated, though, it’s a bit of a gamble. You can have a very rotten level if you’re being unlucky, but that might just you not being well-prepared enough. Manage your probabilities well, and the hard levels shouldn’t be a problem.

While being made on the hard scale of gaming, it also has an entirely customizable difficulty setting. Like it hardcore but some elements just tick you off? Just turn it off. Can only beat it on easy, but there are some things that you’d rather make more challenging? Punch the slider up. Want the procedural generator to go mad? Tinker a bit.

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And on top of all its gameplay, Invisible Inc has a style to it. The story is really nothing remarkable, but it sets a tune. You’re spies on the run in a cyberpunk world ruled by corporations, where people have cybernetics implants and hacking is a weapon. The setting and the world’s lore is implemented to everything from the items you can have to the background of your spies to the visual of the game, giving it a… a structural, if not narrative, base on which it thrives. The game happily plays a lot of cyberpunk and science fiction tropes to their maximum, and they can do that without being trite or cliché because it is never about them in the first place. They’re the background, and on the front is the unique experience of every procedurally generated levels.

I’d like to say, on its base, this is a perfect game already, if not a strictly good or bad one. Every element of the game has worked and been interlocked with each other so well, you can’t take any of them away or add anything new in. Sure, you can add some new characters or new items; maybe make the scenario longer or add more to the story. But how the theme and gameplay match with each other, it’s perfect.

Screenshot from the Steam page. I can't believe all those screenshots are so empty, it seems like I always get flanked by objects and enemies in the game.

Screenshot from the Steam page. I can’t believe all those screenshots are so empty, it seems like I always get flanked by objects and enemies in the game.

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