You can’t get away from the fact The Invincible is based on a hard sci-fi Polish novel from the 1960’s. Aside from the fact that it’s typically plastered all over the title screens, there’s a heavy feel of post-Soviet optimism, liberally peppered with an Eastern European philosophical rumination on the nature of humanity… it feels a bit clichéd. This is a game that wants you to listen to everything it has to say, whilst taking in the spectacular sights of a totally alien world – it’s a blend of beauty and intelligence that’s not easy to forget once you’ve experienced it. However, it’s also the type of title that struggles to give the player much in the way of agency and demands a relatively linear trudge through fairly interaction free environments. Have Starward Industries and 11 Bit Studios managed to find the best balance of visuals and writing that will do a classic novel justice and keep the gamer engaged?
Yasna awakes to find herself on a strange world, which as an intergalactic explorer shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Yet it is because her last memory is of getting into a cryosleep chamber for the journey back to Earth after a mission to catalogue distant planets. Contact with her ship and crewmates seems to be non-existent, and there’s not exactly a lifetime’s worth of oxygen in the tank, so it’s time to get moving and find rescue. It doesn’t take too long to get in touch with the ship and from the Astrogator onboard (Novik) discover that Yasna is on Regis III, a planet they were diverted to whilst sleeping with the intent of uncovering the mysteries it holds before anyone else turns up and nabs the secrets for themselves. Clearly, nothing has gone to plan, the crew has been separated, and there’s the ever present threat of a hostile alien landscape to contend with, as well as opposing space race nations on their way. Can Yasna regain her memories of what they’re doing there? Will she find out what is going on across Regis III? How will she find a way off the planet and back to safety? All these questions are answered throughout The Invincible’s runtime, and not always quite as you’d expect.
Whilst the narrative and exploration of Regis III is linear, the outcome of The Invincible is anything but, with Yasna’s responses to all conversation elements forming the ultimate direction of the story. There are multiple endings available depending on the decisions made, and whether you find an affinity with your astrogator or not can determine whether you trust and listen to them at key points. Picking up subtle clues in the dialogue and mission logs is quite critical to forming an opinion and deciding on what you think might be the right outcome, and with this being heavy going at times on the nature of the development of life in the universe it requires careful listening. Unfortunately this is where the game really lets itself down as the audio balance is atrocious. There’s no other way to describe it – you might as well put the game on mute, you’d understand more. Yasna is fine, but Novik is almost unintelligible at the best of times, and when the environmental effects pick up you’ve no chance. Even in the relative calm of a rover cockpit I ended up with a glitch that made it sound like I was inside a washing machine as some unknown chunk of metal swirled around in the back, and I almost gave up on deciphering where the plot was going. Admittedly, the worst of the issues have been patched out since launch, though at 95% of the story done when that happened I’d already become disengaged.
At least there’s the gorgeous visuals and 60’s sci-fi aesthetic to appreciate and distract from what you’re really meant to be doing. Regis III might be desolate and inhospitable, yet it makes for a striking setting and one that continually offers up breath-taking vistas and curious geological features. It might be an invisible path to follow along the route to salvation, but The Invincible does a great job of making it feel like there’s a whole world at your fingertips. Routes aren’t obviously signposted, though you end up on the right track without realising it, and that nudging is so subtle at times you would swear it was entirely your decision to go in a particular direction. To avoid breaking the immersion wherever possible, information and conversations are sparked by looking at objects, and interaction markers are discrete yet visible. It leaves an uncluttered display that allows you to take in as much of the view as possible. It’s even possible you’ll forget you’re wearing a helmet the entire time and look past the ever present mic on the left hand side. In terms of visuals it’s a feast for the eyes and manages to do wonders with a predominantly sand-based colour palette.
Granted, the audio was challenging to understand for most of my play time, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t without merit, and the voice over team have worked well with the material. There are tonnes of lines to listen to, and many will end being optional, and at no point does it sound like anyone was giving less than their all. If you do need an alternate way to figure out what’s going on, there’s a handy recap available at any time with the comic book from the pause menu, and this acts as a primer for where you’re up to in the game. Additionally, alternate chapters are available after subsequent decisions so you’re able to see how the story branches based on what you decide. The inclusion of a complex video game dialogue system in The Invincible to shape Yasna’s character and adjust her world view depending on your responses makes for an intriguing approach to divergent story telling; and is one that almost demands an additional playthrough to understand just how much you can alter the outcomes. With a relatively brisk runtime there’s plenty of scope to do this, though be aware that it is mainly the chats that change, not the journey through the majority of the game.
Where The Invincible excels is in the design of Regis III and the imparting of tricky sci-fi concepts whilst you are a captive audience. It’s barren, brown and beautiful to behold due to the amazing concept work and influence of the source material. Where it falters, at least in my case, is with the terrible default volumes and inability to get the mix right with the in-game options. For a title that is so reliant on the conversing between the protagonist and supporting cast to form opinions, relationships and viewpoints it’s almost criminal it was released in a state that simply stopped you from hearing half of the discussion clearly. Maybe one day I’ll fully revisit Yasna’s story and play for a better outcome, but don’t let my experience put you off given that my main issue has been fixed. There’s something deep and meaningful in this translation of Stanislaw Lem’s work and it will resonate with those that inherently want to explore the mysteries of the universe.
A PS5 review copy of The Invincible was provided by 11 Bit Studios PR team, and the game is available now on PlayStation, PC and Xbox for around £30.
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