Written by Steve Heller
When you really break down the poorly named Walking Simulator genre to its core, the main pillars which separate the mediocre from the greats come down to environments, characters, and a sense that you are actually in the world. On one end of the spectrum you have Firewatch from Campo Santo, a game that builds one of the most genuine and naturalistic relationships in the industry. It all takes place in a breathtaking living and breathing state park. It deals with live emotions, and you feel as though you are part of the journey. On the other end you have Dear Esther, the game that coined the term Walking Sim, but is nothing more than trudging through environments and listening to a voice reading off letters to the protagonists deceased wife. The environments are dead, static, grey, lifeless. While it was good for its time, I would say it is one of the worst embodiments of the genre these days.
The Invincible is somewhere between the two. It desperately wants to be Firewatch, with the constant banter between Astrobiologist Yasna and her Astrogator chieftain, Novik. But much like Dear Esther, the environments are dead, devoid of any true interest, and while it makes sense in context, it doesn't necessarily make for a terribly exciting endeavour.
Classic novel misses the jump to a new age
The Invincible is actually a valiant effort at adaptation, taking the 1964 published novel of the same name from famed sci-fi writer Stanisław Lem, and bringing it to a new age. Lem was a prolific "hard sci-fi" writer, writing over a dozen novels and becoming a cultural icon in their homeland of Poland. You may not have heard of The Invincible, but you most certainly have seen Lem's influence in the genre with his most famous work, Solaris, being adapted into movies quite a few times now. The Invincible is often regarded as the first work of fiction to explore the idea of nanobots, artificial swarm intelligence, and smartdust, all of which are hallmarks of so many works of modern sci-fi.
Tackling a work like this must have been hard, and full marks to Starward Industries for having the gumption for doing so. However for a story-focused game with no combat, there sure is a lot of missing pieces to this story that make The Invincible hard to parse, especially during the opening hours of the game.
You play as Dr. Yasna, an Astro-biologist aboard a science vessel for the Commonwealth headed towards an unexplored planet, Regis III. The Alliance is another faction who is fighting against the Commonwealth in a space race. Why? Who’s to say?! All we know is that both factions want to land on Regis III, and we aren't entirely sure why.
That's when the amnesia kicks in. I. know. I can see you rolling your eyes already. But in the case of The Invincible, the amnesia has weight on the plot that is unfolding, and is a unique way to bump you through the story in a non-linear fashion. Dr. Yasna doesn't remember how she got to the surface of the planet, or where her crewmates are, and interacting with objects in the world brings forth those memories, adding new context to proceedings.
Despite the lack of narrative conetext, the first few hours of The Invincible are fairly compelling to explore. The abandoned surface of this desert planet is breathtaking, with aqua blue skies, and the combination of browns, reds, and yellows that create the cliff faces are a stark reminder just how barren Starfield looks in comparison. But before long the beauty of the world fades away, as you settle in for what is a long and linear path where you simply put one foot in front of the other.
Walking and talking
The movement speed in The Invincible is incredibly slow, which makes traversing the often wide open spaces feel like such a chore. It doesn't help that more often than not there is only one way forward but the game gives you the illusion that you can go anywhere. While tracking down the camp where my comrades were last seen, I hit several invisible walls which looked like viable options for exploration. Over in the distance I saw a little crag path and tried to climb it. "Not this way" the game said. But that rock .03mm to the right? Yeah sure, we will let you climb that. So much time I spent exploring were met with these frustations, not really knowing where the game wanted me to go.
Then there is the talking. I mentioned Firewatch in the opening because it was immediately apparent that the developers were trying to recreate that spark with Henry and Delilah, albeit with a more professional approach. Instead of flirting with each other, Yasna and Novik are avoiding a workplace harassment suit and just focusing on the mission. Except Novik seems to know way more than he should about what happened to you as well as the protocols and intentions of the rival faction. Like... a lot more. Like "MAYBE HE ISN'T SO GOOD OR WHO HE SAYS HE IS?!" vibes that are so strong, it feels like the game is trying to sneakily plant that idea in your head, while wearing a nametag that says "CLEVER WRITER".
That's actually one of my biggest problems with The Invincible - the game never trusts you to marinade in its themes. At it's core, this is a story about Yasna not only surviving and understanding what happened to her and the crew she was with, but exploring the question of whether or not humanity should even expand. Should we seek other homes to invade? Does something alien to us inherently make it alien? Can our limited scope of understanding in this universe actually allow us to have meaningful exploration? Those are all really interesting and soul searching themes. But Yasna will never let you think about them for very long, because she will heavy handedly tell you her exact thoughts, and make sure that you understand what the game wants you to be thinking about.
Welcome to atompunk
One area that The Invincible does stand out is the aestethics. Taking the hard sci-fi influences to heart, each piece of machinery you can interact with feels very tactile. You will often be opening compartments of machinery and robots, and the game will have you press buttons to turn the nobs and flick metal switches, and it FEELS so very good. Move over NASApunk, because Starward Industries has brought atompunk to the table, and it just feels like you are in this alternative 1960s inspired future.
There are various tools throughout the seven hour journey that have a similar tactile feel. Early in the game you gain access to a lifeform scanner, and a sort of x-ray gun that lets you scan the environment, and both feel like the kind of machinery that you would have seen on Buck Rodgers or Space 1999 back in the day, and that goes a long way to what carried me through The Invincible until the end. It feels good to be in this world, but it doesn't feel good to trudge through it, if that makes sense.
And the tools are not used to their full potential. While I don't come to these sorts of games to solve big puzzles, The Invincible has next to no thought provoking progression gates. The tools are used simply to point you in the right direction, which really means that this game is just walking and talking for seven hours, with some occasional driving sections in a lunar rover. If you break up your play sessions like I did over several days, that is an easier pill to swallow. But overall, I just wish there was more to do here. More to see here. More to day dream about.
The Invincible is a passable walking simulator that has a decent story at its core, but doesn't trust you enough to really examine it. It's gorgeous deserts are breathtaking at first, but by the time the credits rolled I was more than happy to leave the surface of Regis III behind. If you are looking for a chill "press the stick forward and listen" game this could be a fun time, especially for sci-fi fans. But for most, this simply isn't worth the asking price or your time, in a year when narrative games are at an all-time high.
Developer: Starward Industries
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S