The Invincible, based on a 1964 Polish novel of the same name, is a game that exists to explore themes of isolation and evolution. It takes the player on a journey to a far-off planet, placing you in the shoes of astrobiologist Yasna as she struggles to understand the nature of the life that exists on the planet and what has happened to members of her crew who have mysteriously gone missing. As a walking simulator, The Invincible lives and dies by three core tenets: setting, story, and voice acting. Unfortunately, the game stumbles on two of these key aspects making for an experience that ramps slow and speeds to a conclusion that feels at best rushed and at worst baffling.
A Story Worth Telling
The Invincible takes you to Regis III, a planet on the far edges of space as part of a crew of research scientists. You have been diverted to the planet on your way home at the behest of your government, the Commonwealth, to investigate Regis III ahead of the rival Alliance ship, The Invincible‘s arrival. The research team splits away from Yasna and mission leader Astrogator Novik, who remain in orbit while the others explore why The Invincible is headed that way. After losing contact with your team, Yasna heads to the surface to find them.
The mystery the game presents does an excellent job of evolving over the course of the 10 or so hour play time. What begins as a rescue mission morphs into a quest for understanding and eventually a race for survival. The Invincible excels in its story which is unsurprising given its origins as a novel. Long stretches of time pass dedicated to discussing the nature of evolution and unraveling the procession of life on Regis III. These conversations between Yasna and both Astrogator Novik and others are intelligently written, and all feel real and plausible from a scientific perspective.
The Invincible Meets Mass Effect
The Invincible incorporates Mass Effect-style dialogue options. The player can select from shortened responses shown on screen for longer dialogue from Yasna. The player can also choose not to respond at all. Generally speaking, the game does a good job informing you of what kind of response Yasna will have. The responses impact on Yasna’s psychological state, in that they can cause momentary tensions between her and other characters. However, these consequences fade away fast to return to the status quo. There is one grave example of the dialogue’s shorthand not being sufficiently descriptive. Unfortunately, this instance happens at the game’s climax. That the response chosen elicited the reaction it did, rendered me speechless. I ended up replaying the scene to get a different ending since it felt so incongruous.
Due to the explained in-game nature of the world, the developers have a built-in storytelling crutch in the form of blackouts Yasna experiences periodically throughout the game. These are both frustrating and I would argue wholly unnecessary. Especially since during one of them the game froze, and I had to hard reboot after a full minute spent on a black screen.
Aside from one moment of visual gallows humor, the game is almost wholly without humor. Novik especially doesn’t have a funny bone in his body. It would have helped to alleviate some of the intense moments of frustration and desperation Yasna feels. The game wallows in the exhaustion and stress of its protagonist. Some additional levity would have helped break that tension for the player. Instead, the game’s devotion to its own seriousness left me emotionally drained by the end.
Everyone’s Gone to The Raptu…err Regis III
By definition, a walking simulator like The Invincible involves extensive, well, walking. However, the speed at which Yasna walks through the craggy environment is painfully slow. Add on inconsistent hit detection with the rocks, and a running system that enables you to move quickly for about ten seconds, and movement becomes a chore. Regis III is a compelling environment that shows everything it has to offer in the first three hours.
The Invinvible’s art deco, pulp sensibilities give the architecture of the landing pods and human habitats an appropriately chunky feel. The world feels like a natural extension of current NASA/ESA designs for a lunar colony. The strange metallic life forms showcased in the first couple hours are intriguing, but the world never evolves. Ultimately, you are exploring a lifeless rock, and after ten hours, it is fatiguing. Additionally, due to just how unfriendly the world is to traverse, I felt like it was never worth my time to explore. The game also turns you around at various points if you walk in a direction you aren’t supposed to. This further frustrated any exploratory urges.
This problem is compounded by the absolutely arbitrary traversal mechanisms. These allow Yasna to climb random spots in the environment with the only indicator that they are climbable being a small circle when you get close enough. The hit detection on these points is finicky as well. It all adds up to getting anywhere being a slog even after faster modes of transportation are introduced.
An Audible Delight
I cannot stress enough just how absolutely eerie and perfect the soundtrack composed by Brunon Lubas is. There is nothing horrific or scary about The Invincible and yet the soundtrack alone had me on edge for the entirety of my 10ish hour run time. The bold discordant tones that underlay the background music make the experience tenser than it has any right to be. There are no real fail states in the game which is unfortunate since there are moments that deserved them. The early focus on lack of oxygen and food and water supplies is forgotten by a couple hours in. Big moments against what should have been terrifying forces of nature did not have the impact they deserved. Yasna’s plot armor ultimately undermined the severity of her plight. All that said, the soundtrack very effectively conveys the emotions of Yasna, her stress and desperation.
A stellar performance anchors the voice acting. Daisy May does the lion’s share of the work as Yasna. She is accompanied on her journey primarily by her handler, or astrogator, Novik played by Jason Baughan. Daisy does an exceptional job portraying the frustration, stress, fear, confusion and determination that Yasna feels. Yasna goes through a lot. Moreover, Daisy excels both when Yasna is at her most desperate and during conversations regarding the nature of life. Her counterpart, Novik’s emotional range never materializes. He is essentially a somewhat nihilistic sounding board for Yasna. Given Yasna’s frequent blackouts, I expected there to be a twist with him that never came. Ultimately, Novik is there to serve as a philosophical counterbalance to Yasna, and in that, he succeeds as a character.
Not Everything Everywhere is Meant For Us
The Invincible plays much like I would imagine the book feels. Its heady exploration of evolution, adaptation, and the nature of life wrap around the video game shell. The game drags on just a little too long. Ultimately, the game part of the equation just doesn’t do enough to make the experience fun to play. The ideas presented while compelling, fall apart in multiple of the game’s endings leaving me feeling baffled at some of the design decisions made.
The Invincible feels like a palette cleanser of a game. It attempts to be literature in a marketplace surrounded by bombast. Somewhere along the line though, Starward Industries lost sight of the fact that interacting with the world has to be engaging and not just a canvas upon which to paint a story.
Note – The Invincible PlayStation 5 review code was provided by 11 Bit Studios.