The Invincible Review
Journey into the Unknown
Almost as fast as they came onto the scene, walking simulators were cast away. As a fan of the genre, I loved getting to experience the likes of Tacoma, Virginia and What Remains of Edith Finch tell their captivating tales. However, it's not hard to see why the genre fell out of fashion over time. If the story isn't hooking you, the lack of deep gameplay mechanics can make the experience unbearable. As the first one in a while that I can remember, The Invincible is using its book background to hopefully side-step this potential problem.
Waking up on the planet Regis III, biologist Dr. Yasna has found herself in quite the situation. She has no recollection of how she ended up here, and no clue as to how she is going to get back to her orbiting ship, the Dragonfly. As she explores the desert planet, she slowly begins to piece some of the puzzle back together. Yasna touched down on this planet to find the rest of the Dragonfly, whose other crewmembers went down for an expedition. Originally left off the trip due to her background, astrogator Novik entrusts Yasna with figuring out what happened to everyone else. What they will discover is that Regis III has far more secrets than anyone on the Dragonfly was expecting.
This first-person game is based on a novel of the same name by Polish futurologist Stanisław Lem. While I have not read the book it is based on, The Invincible kept me intrigued for most of its runtime. The mystery of what happened to the crew of the Dragonfly is rolled out perfectly, and the uncovering of information corresponds nicely with chunks of Yasna's memory being filled. I don't want to spoil what is causing all the trouble, but I was surprised at what it ended up being. Even more important than the mystery, though, is that the relationship between Yasna and Novik is well developed. Outside of some interactions with rival space crew the Alliance, this is largely a two-person adventure. Their relationship transforms as Yasna explores more of the planet. Stress from the situation they are stuck in, and reasoning behind why they even came to this planet in the first place factor into to where their relationship goes. It feels dynamic, and accurate to how co-worker bonds can get strained over time.
If there is a weakness to the story, it's that it can come across as a little too dry at times. To use a specific term, this is what some would refer to as hard sci-fi. We're getting lots of dialogue into theorems and heady ideas into what certain things are that are discovered on Regis III. It can be a lot to focus on at times, especially during the lengthy flashback sequences. More than once I felt my interest get pulled away as another scientist droned on and on. I also wasn't fully on board with the multiple endings of the title. They do a decent job of wrapping things up based on your endgame choices, but they felt a little abrupt. The first ending I got rolled credits at a rather unexpected moment, and it was not appreciated. I get the idea to leave things open-ended, but there is a way to do that without being so abrupt.
Befitting of the plot, the gameplay of The Invincible can also be rather slow. The game is a standard walking simulator, and there's little else to it besides exploring Regis III. There's some very light puzzle solving, but nothing that will remotely tax you. It often reminded me of Firewatch. A slow-paced, two-person adventure where dialogue and plot took precedence over gameplay. As a fan of the former, I didn't have an issue with the gameplay here. The purposefully slow and methodical pace added to the eeriness of the mystery. In fact, the one segment of the game that could be classified as combat is arguably the worst part of the adventure. Yasna is a biologist, not a soldier, so the whole setpiece felt rather out of place.
With that said, I do think there are some elements of the gameplay that could have been cleaned up. At around the half-way point, Yasna gains access to a rover that lets her explore the planet quicker. Although more convenient, it's also where the game loosens up on telling you where to go. You are given vague directions, and unless you want to open your journal repeatedly, it's easy to get lost out in the barren desert of the planet. The in-vehicle camera feels off as well. I constantly had to reposition my view in order to get a clean look out the windshield. Finally, there were a handful of moments where specific prompts didn't correctly pop up. This led to some confusion as to what I was supposed to be doing at a given time. Nothing game-breaking, but in a title that already skews towards a slower pace, these annoyances just added more unnecessary padding.
Even though Regis III has the look of a barren desert, there's a lot of visual splendor to be found on it. There's some kind of alien presence on the planet, and that leads to some fantastic locations and fauna to see. The retro futuristic tech the Dragonfly uses adds a lot of character to the world of the game too. Yasna has two tracing devices on hand that have that clunky, old-school sci-fi look I love to see. I loved coming across the different base encampments as well. Again, the tech reminds me of classic sci-fi films from the 60s and 70s. The moody soundtrack composed by Brunon Lubas does an excellent job of setting the tone for the adventure. It can be soaring at parts, but there's a sinister undercurrent to it that adds to the eeriness of the plot.
With its slow-moving gameplay and heady narrative, The Invincible is not for everyone. Even if this adaptation has been softened compared to the novel, it's still a complicated story. The choice to make it a walking simulator fits with the vibe of the game, but this does lead to it getting stale at times. Ultimately, though, I think the unique look of the title, the mystery of Regis III and the fleshed-out relationship between Yasna and Novik make the story worth seeing through to its different conclusions. For their debut effort, Starward Industries shot for the stars. And while it may not fully reach that mark, this is still an intriguing adventure.