Few things can elicit the mixed feelings of wonder, danger, and isolation like space. Its scope, beauty, and risk are often taken for granted in video games, reduced to a playspace for outrageous technology, incredible powers, and soaring space operas.
The Invincible seems to buck that trend, embracing the adventure and trepidation of visiting an alien world. We went hands-on with an early build of this narrative-based, first-person sci-fi adventure from Starward Industries and came away with more questions than answers about what’s going on in the universe — all in the best possible way.
I begin my demo cruising an interstellar rover toward the last known point of another crew. It’s bright, and the sun is high in the air over a desolate canyon. Strange columns of brown and red stone rise around me, and a deep, unnatural gouge in the canyon wall creates an unsettling “otherness” to the space.
The Invincible is based on the 1964 book of the same title by Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem. It’s a work of hard sci-fi, leaning heavily into a firm set of scientific rules and principles rather than relying on Star-Wars-esque space magic. Expect this game to challenge you philosophically rather than take you on a light-hearted romp through outer space.
Disembarking my vehicle, I climb through an abandoned research station and crawl through a narrow tunnel. At the bottom is a clearing and a large robot, almost similar to a miniature automaton from War of the Worlds. The missing crew is nowhere to be seen until I stumble across a body partially buried in the sand.
In these early moments, one thing already sticks out. There’s a powerful feeling of the unknown running through The Invincible. It at once pulls at my natural curiosity and fills me with a dread I can’t quite shake. Finding that first body doesn’t help; my character reports her findings over the radio to her colleague, and I choose the option to express the grim resignation that I am not surprised to find members of this crew dead.
I turn my attention to collecting information. The lifeless robot is an Antimat, a mobile platform for an anti-matter cannon. I pull the log from its board camera, and I’m treated to a series of semi-transparent slides detailing what happened. The crew had used the Antimat to bore a hole into the canyon wall, but it turned on its human controllers and slaughtered them with its cannon for unknown reasons.
The retrofuturist technology in The Invincible is on overt display throughout. Everything is clearly inspired by the ’50s and ’60s ideas of what advanced technology would look like “in the future,” similar to the ideas and themes running through the Fallout series, just without the apocalypse (as far as we know so far).
Beyond the slides and the Antimat are handheld meters, a map, and low-tech optical binoculars. It’s an interesting aesthetic and could be a nice change of pace from the usual high-functioning sci-fi typical in most games. But we’ll have to wait and see in the final release.
Seeking answers, I press forward into a cylindrical hole in the wall. At the other end is a humanoid robot walking in a circle and bizarre metallic plants with deep, inorganic roots running in the ground. It starts a philosophical debate between my character and her handler about what constitutes life. They clearly have a long history together, and the rapport makes for a lively conversation.
Eventually, the man-shaped robot wanders off. I follow it, only to see it vaporized by the now-awakened Antimat. The anti-matter cannon now trained on me, I prepare to meet the same fate before the automaton inexplicably stops and returns to rest. There’s a new tunnel formed by the powerful shot that obliterated the humanoid robot. I enter it and continue pursuing the mystery of the missing crew and this strange planet.
As my demo ends, I’m starting to get a clearer picture of what The Invincible could be: Firewatch in space. The natural banter and walking-exploration gameplay already have their teeth in me, and this small slice of the universe is just enough of a taste to make me want more.
The atompunk technology aesthetic is extremely compelling, and if Starward Industries can nail the story adaptation, this could be one of the most interesting games on Xbox, PlayStation, and PC when it releases sometime in 2023. Stay tuned for more.