Science fiction has long been one of my favourite genres across all forms of media. The perils of worlds beyond our own imagining in the far flung reaches of time and space are naturally rich in potential for adventure, but also provide a perfect backdrop for philosophical musings on the nature of our existence and our tiny place in this gargantuan universe. Stanislaw Lem’s 1964 book The Invincible serves as inspiration for Starward Industries’ new walking simulator of the same name, which hopes to recreate a future dreamed of 60 years ago by the Polish author and recapture some of his philosophies on the evolution of life and non-life through the lens of an alien world.
That’s no moon…
You play the role of Yasna, a member of a small but talented space exploration team from the Commonwealth returning home after a lengthy research sojourn. Your astrogator (astral navigator, not star alligator) Novik has made a final unplanned stop on the way home, yanking the crew out of their well deserved hibernation to investigate the mysterious planet Regis III. He has intelligence that rival explorers from the much larger and better funded Alliance are inbound to the planet, and he has orders to get a headstart on seeing what the seemingly lifeless Regis III may have to offer humanity and the Commonwealth.
As the team’s xenobiologist, Yasna is initially left on board as the rest of the team to begin their research on the desolate planet, but fast forward and Yasna suddenly wakes up on the planet’s surface with a mild case of amnesia. Yasna barely remembers her mission, but manages to piece things together slowly as she stumbles across the barren surface of Regis III looking for the rest of the crew who have mysteriously gone radio silent. The game follows Yasna’s journey as she strives to uncover the fates of her crew and ultimately the secrets of the time-forsaken planet which threatens to trap them in its grasp.
It’s beautiful, I’ve looked at this for five hours now
The Invincible is a walking sim through and through, with plenty of traipsing about the foreign landscape and only relatively minor points of interaction with it. You’ll push some buttons, pull some switches, drive some vehicles, make some conversation choices and solve some very light puzzles, but in the spirit of games like What Remains of Edith Finch and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture it’s all about the vibe and the journey, rather than your mastery of complex gaming mechanics. Given the amount of walking you’ll do the traversal does feel a little clunky, with Yasna only capable of running short distances before letting you know she’s tired by breathing heavily into her helmet, but the pace of your perambulation feels right nonetheless. This is largely due to the ludicrously gorgeous and varied vistas you are treated to at basically every turn, which would be a crime to run through at anything other than a slight trot lest you fail to take it all in. This was absolutely my favourite part of the experience; staring out across the ragged beauty of Regis III with its multiple moons and benign yet menacing rock formations undulating across its lonely surface, it all felt perfectly…alien.
The beauty of the environment is elevated by a unity in the art direction, which leans towards a photorealistic retrofuturistic look. This is best described as emulating the aesthetic of what someone in the 60s (perhaps sitting in a lime-green kitchen fixing a tuna berry sandwich) would consider futuristic. Principally this means that despite the appearance of obviously advanced technology allowing the wonders of space travel and exploration, devices and interiors have that rounded, campy (and occasionally kind of goofy) look redolent of classic films like Metropolis, 2001: A Space Odyssey and early Dr Who. Despite the fact that Regis III is largely barren, it has plenty of varied spaces to explore, and lighting is used to prodigious effect to make areas feel distinct and keep the immersion alive.
Just waiting for a mate
…in the spirit of games like What Remains of Edith Finch and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture it’s all about the vibe and the journey, rather than your mastery of complex gaming mechanics
The Invincible takes liberties with its source material, but largely hits the notes from the book. There are some interesting twists and turns as the revelations dawn and Regis III’s mysteries reveal themselves, but the game does suffer from some pacing issues in the back half. One of the key issues is that the game plays its major cards of mystery and suspense early on, and can’t quite maintain the momentum over its roughly seven-hour length. This is also down to the fact that there’s no persistent sense of danger or tension throughout what is superficially a rather perilous assignment. I’m not saying the developer should have shoehorned in some hokey hide-and-seek stealth, but a consistent sense of mystery and unease is often key to these sorts of experience, for instance in the likes of Soma or Firewatch. There are actually echoes of that latter title in the near constant banter between Yasna and her astrogator in orbit, and the voice acting work is actually superb, but this is also hampered by some tonal dissonance in their relationship and how it relates to what Yasna is up to on the surface. On a sheer technical side it is also let down by some pervasive audio mixing issues, where a speaker is suddenly too loud or too quiet or just straight up starts talking over the top of their interlocutor. This happens most often if you move too fast through the environment and don’t give a conversation enough time to come to its natural completion, and I felt I missed out on valuable interactions because of my natural desire to push forward rather than stand in one spot and have a chinwag with Novik.
The myopic will only get about half of this
Unfortunately, The Invincible also channels Firewatch in its fairly underwhelming ending, no matter what choice you make in the final moments. Your choices do impact the narrative along the way, but the payoff at the end fizzles out like a wet sparkler, and despite playing through three of the major endings and letting the credits roll to make sure I didn’t miss anything, it all failed to resonate and bring a sense of finality to the adventure.
The Invincible is a faithful presentation of Lem’s work brought to life by modern technology, perfectly reimagining the beguiling beauty of Regis III. It presents an intriguing mystery and more than a few high concepts to mull on while swirling glass of bandy and staring up at the stars, but it can’t fully maintain the sense of intrigue inherent in its setting over its runtime, and this is exacerbated by endings that are abrupt and unsatisfying no matter the choice you make. It’s certainly a superficially beautiful trip on an alien world, but doesn’t do enough to establish free real estate in my brain like some of its classic sci-fi contemporaries.
Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher
- Starward Industries
- 11 Bit Studios
- PS5 / Xbox Series X&S / PC
- November 6, 2023