The Invincible is a competent first person exploration title, with a wonderful astropunk aesthetic married to a compelling narrative. There are minor issues with navigation, but not enough to prevent the game from being an enjoyable experience.
Even if you are a fan of the relatively niche literary genre that is hard science fiction, you can be forgiven for not having read Stanisław Lem’s The Invincible. The Polish novel doesn’t tend to show up on internet lists of “best hard sci fi novels” alongside stuff like The Martian and The Three-Body Problem — but it’s one of the first books to ever consider subjects like nano-machines and swarm AI.
Fortunately, Lem’s fellow Poles from Starward Industries have turned the novel into a game of the same name, allowing you to experience it first hand. The game doesn’t exactly follow the plot of the book, instead creating a new cast of characters that sound as though they fit nicely into the original narrative. Apparently, Stanisław Lem is something of a national treasure in Poland, and so the developers of The Invincible were very careful in how they handled the revered source material.
As a disclaimer, I have not read the original book yet (although playing the game has made me very interested), so if you’re looking for a deep dive into the way they relate, you’re out of luck.
The Invincible sees you playing Yasna, an astrobiologist She awakes on the surface of Regis III with no memory of how she got there — a classic video game set up if ever there was one — and sets off to figure out where the rest of the crew is, and how the heck she got down to the planet’s surface. She is supported in this endeavor by the friendly-but-professional voice of her Astrogator (captain), who you spend much of the game chatting with, à la Firewatch (a game the Invincible devs site as inspiration).
As this is a game all about the story and its philosophical implications, it’s hard to get too deep into the narrative without spoilers. Suffice it to say that — being based on a renowned Polish hard science fiction novel — both the story and its related musings are solid, and anyone who enjoys a little Arthur C. Clarke, Liu Cixin, or Ann Leckie will feel right at home on the surface of Regis III. There are philosophical discussions, scientific discoveries, beautiful alien vistas, and moments of danger. I found myself fully engaged in the plot, and both the story beats and the conclusion of the game were satisfying.
This was in no small part due to the excellent writing and voice acting for the two main characters (Yasna and her Astrogator), who both feel fully realized, and therefore relatable and sympathetic. Both display moments of skill and strength of character, and have moments of failure and weakness. Just like in Firewatch, you often have the option of saying something, and it was rare that I wasn’t attracted to at least one of the choices. Some of these choices can have story implications as well, which only adds to the immersion.
Again it’s hard to go into it without spoiling things, but there’s a decent sense of agency — although overall it’s a fairly linear game. The way Yasna reacts to her adventure on Regis III just feels real, which in turns makes the narrative far more compelling. The same sadly can’t be said for every character in the game, as some dialog felt a bit silly at times (and weirdly loud in the audio mix), but it’s a minor quibble overall.
The generally excellent characters are made all the more believable thanks to the amusingly kitschy atompunk aesthetic that permeates the game. While the actual visual design is obviously something that the writers of the 50s and 60s got wrong about the future, in The Invincible said aesthetic is so well-realized that it feels real — even though the comically large radios, scanners, and rayguns aren’t particularly realistic.
The interface is immersive, with all of your tools and your map/journal functioning as they do in games like Firewatch and the Metro series — no menus to go through here, at least until you’re ready to head back to your desktop. Using the big, bulky tools felt great, and they were never overused; in fact, I could have done with a bit more in the way of scientific-discovery-via-comically-large-scanner while on Regis III.
Still, there were a few occasions where I could have used more UI guidance: you’re generally left to find your own way around, with the map providing very little in the way of help. For the most part, the game does a good job guiding you where to go. However, once or twice I got lost and couldn’t locate the tiny note hiding on one of the many maps my journal had accumulated, and had to spend a lot of time backtracking until I found my way. (At one point I’m almost certain there was nothing on the map to guide me.)
The realism sometimes hurt the experience in other ways as well. While beautifully realized, Regis III is, for the most part, a barren wasteland, and you spend a good amount of time trudging through it. While this certainly adds to the narrative immersion, it isn’t exactly fun, and once the dialog options are exhausted, you’re left to silently immerse yourself in a sandy desert. What would be a fairly minor issue is exacerbated by the fact that Yasna can only sprint for about 3 seconds before she starts huffing and puffing and has to take a breather; getting lost further compounds the problem.
Navigating while in the vehicle you use a few times is equally frustrating, as it has a very realistic amount of visibility given its design — looking for landmarks while trying not to get stuck on rocks was perhaps the game’s biggest challenge. That said, I would have loved more access to the rover, just because it would have saved me some walking.
These frustrations were fairly minor, however, and for the most part I was always eager to continue Yasna’s adventure. It’s the perfect length for the story it wants to tell, and my 7 or so hours on Regis III felt well-spent. While it doesn’t break any new ground — except perhaps with its source material — it’s a solid entry in the first person exploration genre. Fans of games like Firewatch and Gone Home and lovers of hard science fiction alike should find plenty to enjoy in The Invincible.
The Invincible releases November 6th on PC (via Steam), Xbox Series X|S, and PlayStation 5.
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Unabashed FromSoftware fanboy still learning to take his time with games (and everything else, really). The time he doesn't spend on games is spent on music, books, or occasionally going outside.