Developer Starward Industries
Publisher 11 Bit Studios
Platform Played on PS5
Release 6 November
Available on PS5, Xbox Series X/S, and PC (Steam)
If, like me, you grew up on a steady diet of Star Trek, sci-fi B movies and The Eagle, then The Invincible, a love letter to hard science fiction and retrofuturism, will grab you until its dramatic final scene.
The Invincible reinvigorates the ‘walking sim’ game design trend from peak PS4 era indies like Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch. Played in first-person, there’s rarely any traditional shooting or action of any kind, instead ideas, atmosphere and a sharp script immerse you in a fictional world.
Developer Starward Industries has used Polish author Stanisław Lem’s novel of the same name as the basis for The Invincible. You play Yasna, an astrobiologist and crew member of an expedition to the planet Regis III, but things have gone very wrong. You wake with no memory of why you’re on this forbidden planet, where your crew are and what you should do next. The setup is perfectly pitched, as you undercover the secrets of Regis III just as Yasna does.
Lem’s novel isn’t just used to ground science fiction, as Yasna and her commanding officer debate evolutionary theories and ponder humanity’s relationship to technology, but it inspires every retro dial and alien vista. The art direction and world-building of The Invincible is pitch-perfect retrofuturism; a unusual mix of bulbous spider-like droids, chrome rocket ships, and yes, flying saucers.
The planet of Regis III is designed to be explored, a feast on the eyes at every turn, from angular volcanic rock formations to oceans framed by hazy moons you’re encouraged to push on, clicking for screenshots and gazing at the sights of an unearthly place. Art direction enhances story too; with a nod to Chris Foss as sandy dunes give way to a painterly metal maze - dubbed The City - and all bets are off. (Created using Unreal Engine 5, it impresses.)
I won’t cover the story here, as discovering the fate of Yasna’s crew and the secret history of Regis III is all part of the joy, but I will say The Invincible is as on point with its storytelling as it is the art direction. There are questioning, even eerie, scenes to experience, narrated with a deadpan line delivery by characters in awe of their surroundings and the prospect of a scientific breakthrough.
Aiding you in uncovering these story beats are a mix of Golden Age-designed tools, such as an electromagnetic scanner below the surface of Regis III and a scanner to pinpoint lost crewmembers. These are elegantly designed gadgets that embrace the analogue nature of Lem-era science fiction movies (and earlier).
Unlike the current trend for games to speed towards the next big shootout, The Invincible instead slowly approaches ideas and a celebration of science fiction. Lem is the inspiration, but so too are the comics of the Golden Age and New Wave of sci-fi; the game’s story is recapped using Frank Hampson-like comic panels (Dan Dare fans will love these). It’s a neat and stylistic way to share the many subtle narrative path variations the game features, as some choices directly impact the story.
What issues there are with The Invincible relate to these moments of choice. Often they can escape you and some feel less satisfying than the developer intended and the need for narrative info-dumps and sci-fi filibusters, can lead to some pacing issues, particularly in later stages when the game becomes more reliant on open world exploration. These feel in-keeping with the era-perfect sci-fi, after all what is The Day The Earth Stood Still without Klaatu’s monologue, but non genre-fans could find it, and the constant sci-fi musings, cold.
These are small quibbles with a game that consistently delivers on atmosphere and a design that is perfectly attuned to its recreation of retrofuturism. Every time you may think a scene is dragging or an open-world section is padding the flow of the story, you’ll encounter a sight of genuine awe. How much of this you love, how much of The Invincible you engage with, could however depend on your love of the source material, because this developer goes all-in.