I never imagined I would once again return to the barren deserts of Regis III. I can still remember the feeling that accompanied my first visit to this planet many, many years ago; a feeling of utter amazement by the vast landscapes of sand and rock sculpted by centuries of erosion. Today, I touched down on it once again, courtesy of the video game developed by Polish Starward Industries studio. And this reminded me of the old, classic sci-fi book by the genius himself, Stanislaw Lem, entitled The Invincible.
- Good plot
- Faithfulness to the original with some changes (it's possible!)
- Great mystery
- Retrofuturism and atompunk
- Rock formations were probably designed by a geologist-artist!
- Collision system issues
- Occasional problems with animation and sound
- For some: it's a short game (6-8 hours)
The book that served as a groundwork for The Invincible was written by Lem in 1963. If you don't remember this writer, here’s a recap: he’s the author of Solaris, later adapted by Tarkovsky in a three-hours masterpiece, and by Soderbergh in the rather infamous movie starring George Clooney. It was Lem who, in 1974, was denounced to the FBI by Philip K. Dick, who was already quite detached from the reality at that point. In a letter to his superior, he claimed that Lem didn't exist and that it is actually a committee of the communist authorities who wanted to take over the world.
Today, we know for sure that Lem did exist and was quite a cheerful guy for the most part (he died in 2006 in Krakow). He left behind a legacy of amazing works, such as Solaris, The Futurological Congress, Fiasco, Return from the Stars, Peace on Earth and, last, but not least, The Invincible. To this day he is considered one of the most outstanding and insightful science-fiction writers. Now the world will be reminded about him thanks to the this game.
What’s The Invincible, and what it isn’t?
The Invincible from Starward Industries seems to follow the usual pattern of adaptations by deviating from the original plot, presenting its own interpretation of events. I wrote "seems to," because the game does it with much, much more consideration and seriousness than you’d expect from a game.
The book tells the story of the crew of an interstellar behemoth cruiser, the Invincible, which lands on the planet Regis III. In the game, we assume the role of Yasna, a biologist who suddenly wakes up on the planet's surface, with no recollection of how she had arrived there. We will soon be able to establish contact with our supervisor, the astrogator (astral navigator) Novik, and then discover that we aren't part of the crew of the Invincible, but instead, we belong to a small research team from a faction that’s not on the best terms with the Invincible’s owners. Our goal will be to find the rest of the crew and, of course, unravel the great mystery of the dangerous planet we know from the book. To avoid spoilers, I won't attempt to explain what's happening on the planet and what the real threat is there. However, I will mention that the mystery created by Lem 60 years ago, and the philosophy behind it, still leave a profound and lasting impact.
The game's developers, however, didn't try to correct, change, or modernize Lem. On the contrary: the mystery remains virtually the same as in the book. Of course, there, we didn't read anything about Yasna or the factions at play for the purpose of the game. But adapting the book in a direct way, i.e. trying to design an adventure as it was described by Rohan and the rest of the Invincible’s crew, would be akin to scoring an own goal – Lem's book relies heavily on dialogue and philosophical-scientific ponderings than action or singular events. In Lem's work, the entire mystery is revealed in a chapter which is entirely about a conversation, in which one character delivers a scientific lecture to another. This wouldn't work at all in a game, and the developers simply had to... adjust the story. By introducing Yasna, it was possible to preserve the setting, storyline, significance, and even the overarching message of the book in a pure, untouched condition, while also revitalizing the novel's world for the requirements of the game. Kudos!
Imagine it this way: you encounter the very same secret that Lem described in his novel, but from a different perspective that at the same time doesn't alter anything in the story. The developers are so faithful to the original that, truth be told, someone should buy this game for Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, the showrunner of Netflix's The Witcher, with a note: "That’s how it’s done."
The exploration and the excitement we get from The Invincible is second perhaps only to its brilliant storyline. The developers come out on top of an extremely difficult task: interpreting an all-time literary classic, staying faithful to its content, introducing precise changes that make it work as a game, and delivering a gripping “walking sim” set on a stunning planet. This truly is one of the greatest games of this year and beyond.
The Invincible by Starward Industries is, broadly speaking, a narrative adventure game centered around exploration. We tread a desolate and inhospitable planet, engaging with the surroundings, as we strive to unravel the enigma that shrouds this alien world. In order to avoid dying of boredom and also to better understand how to interpret events on the screen, we maintain continuous communication with Novikov. By using the dialogue system (we can make choices even while our character is performing an action), we learn more and more about the planet and our objectives.
The phrase "exploration-based, story-driven adventure game" is often, sometimes in a negative context, simplified to the term "walking simulator." And that's all fine. The game is a walking simulator in the same way that Firewatch was one. But at the same time, The Invincible is the best walking simulator you can play right now. Moreover, the game brings an overwhelmingly amazing story – a story that can engross you completely and propel you forward. No other walking sim has valued exploration as much as The Invincible does, truly.
To make it more exciting, the game features numerous choices and 11 endings! I have only seen 4 so far, and I am wondering what I need to do to see all of them. The choices made during the game don't have a significant impact on the progress. It's just that someone will die and someone will survive. The main function of the choices is to create a stronger bond with the main protagonist. The game can be completed in 6-8 hours, which may be an advantage for some and a disadvantage for others.
It should be noted that The Invincible doesn't try to revolutionize the genre, but rather takes advantage of all its great assumptions. So, if you're expecting an action-adventure game or a shooter of sorts, this is definitely not the right place.
The Invincible uses available solutions – we walk through beautiful landscapes, talking on the radio. Occasionally, we utilize one of the three available gadgets (a telescope, a radio for locating people, and a metal detector) and use the map to solve Yasna's current problems and find directions. The developers have rightly excluded any interface from the screen – we don't get any feedback and markers (except when looking through the telescope). Therefore, it's crucial to keep good track of our environment in order not to get lost. Well, we can even name some landmarks and they will appear on the map as such. A great feature that does wonders for immersion.
What makes The Invincible particularly stand out compared to other “walking sims” is that we can control a few vehicles to travel across the planet. I have to admit that I was skeptical about the idea, knowing how difficult it's to design (even in AAA games) a good driving model, but honestly, I was positively surprised. The rover that we control works really well; it doesn't get stuck on uneven surfaces and really helps us move quickly between the two points on the map. It’s pleasant to drive and feels quite realistic. More kudos!
And that's basically it when it comes to gameplay in The Invincible. You can notice that there isn't much "gameplay" in this game, but this particular genre has always relied on story, and it is simply great. The game lacks a survival aspects – oxygen isn't an issue, for example. And honestly, I am very happy about it – let me reiterate, The Invincible is an interactive story with choices that will impact the game's ending. And that's it.
Retrofuturism and atompunk
The Invincible has several notable advantages, in addition to its captivating plot, these include its unique art style, retrofuturism, and atompunk. I'll just say it plainly: when it comes to these features, the game is a masterpiece. Starward Industries seems to have studied thousands of illustrations and posters from the 1960s, and based on imaginings of the future from the past, have created one of the most visually stunning games. I'm not talking about the technology here; this aspect is best described as “sufficient.” I'm referring to the style, aesthetics, and artistic direction of the game. All objects and structures look like they've been taken straight from our grandparents' childhood.
Streamlined, yet seemingly heavy equipment includes levers and pulleys, lights, cranks and cables. We are discussing a vision of the future in which displays were rare and people still mostly used paper, and if they were already present, they were thick, convex screens resembling those used in oscilloscopes. The interior of our rover looks like an ancient Mini Cooper – analogue gauges, knobs, and indicators. The robots we encounter resemble Bender from Futurama.
As you discern the landscape for the first time, you can name a few landmarks, which is neat.The Invincible, Starward Industries, 2023
So, imagine a distant future in which the digital age never arrived. Computers haven't undergone a miniaturization and technology weighs. Imagine a science-fiction story in which the main character, Yasna, still uses a hand-drawn map while exploring an alien planet. Yes, the game's developers were faithful to Lem in every minute detail. In fact, they even included easter eggs in the game related to Lem's actual predictions. He was the first person, as depicted in the novel Return from the Stars, to predict the invention of e-books and audiobooks. Honestly, if you enjoyed the Fallout style, The Invincible arguably does it even better.
And if, after watching all these gadgets and technologies, you decide that it can't get any better, pay attention to the surroundings. The way the developers designed the rocks, mountains, or boulders deserves a medal. I'm not sure if the developers consulted geologists, but I've never seen such exquisitely designed rock formations, tunnels, or caverns in any other game. They’re impressive while also promoting exploration. I stopped in my tracks or strayed from the path only to admire the mountain chains and deserts.
The rest of the surroundings also look really good – there are locations in the game that are breathtaking. They were designed to intimidate, dazzle, and astonish us. When you see "the city," you'll understand what I'm talking about, and when you stand by the ocean... just wow.
Looks, sounds and works well, but...
The game as a whole leaves a good impression. Alongside its outstanding visual presentation, the music and sound design are captivating, effectively enhancing the action at the right moments. But The Invincible, although it is invincible in its own genre, has a few cons.
The biggest issue for me was a certain clumsiness in controlling the protagonist – sometimes getting onto some rocky shelf turned out to be an exceptionally difficult task, because the character got stuck. There were also problems with animation, sometimes its absence, as well as with audio – for instance, the doors would open without any sound. I couldn’t interact with an object after a cutscene despite being able to do so before it. However, the developers assure that they are aware of the issues and are working on a patch that will fix these bugs by the release day (and add support for ultrawide monitors).
Nevertheless, it's worth noting here that the biggest "con" of The Invincible isn't even considered something negative for me. I like its limited, concise gameplay, typical of the walking simulator genre. I personally believe that not every game has to be identical, and if someone wants to use this genre to narrate a story about an unexplored planet, then I'm ready to pack oxygen tanks, don a spacesuit, and board the rocket.
More Lem, please
Starward Industries is conquering space with The Invincible. And they do it like no one else before. The exploration and the enjoyment we get from it is perhaps second only to a brilliant storyline. If you have read the book, you'll find many interesting things in the game, and if you are still reading it, don't worry – The Invincible will explain everything to you, increasing the tension, in an understandable way. And this is one of the more fascinating ideas when it comes to sci-fi, which takes us to unknown planet, so it's even more worth playing the game.
I am happy to return to a work of Stanislaw Lem. I believed that the game would be successful, but honestly, the developers still managed to positively surprise me. Primarily with the artstyle, but also with the way they tell the story from the past century. In some respects, The Invincible is simply – a work of art. And among others, a great story and about 8 hours’ worth of wandering through one of the most beautifully designed planets in a video game, with some decent replayability on top.
Matthias Pawlikowski | Gamepressure.com