The Invincible Review
I suppose there are lots of ways to adapt a work of fiction into a game, especially a classic sci-fi novel. In the case of Starward’s The Invincible, the studio has chosen something akin to a walking simulator. The novel is Stanislaw Lem’s book of the same title, and the result is a game that’s absolutely true to the spirit of the book, though not a literal translation. The big question for me was, is the experience playing the game an improvement over just reading the novel?
The Invincible rests heavily on discovery and surprise, so no spoilers. The basics: you play as Yasna, who finds herself seemingly alone on the planet Regis III. As her head clears, Yasna begins to piece together her memories and her mission. You, and a handful of other crew members were sent to Regis III to explore and research the planet before the arrival of the Invincible, in the novel a massive flying fortress. Something has happened, your fellow scientists are missing. Guided by Novik on the Invincible, you set out to locate the crew and uncover the secrets of Regis III, making some potentially paradigm-changing discoveries along the way.
While the game does not stay 100 per cent true to Lem’s novel, it certainly captures the tone of the book. The vast majority of the narrative comes from dialogue, much of it from Yasna talking to herself. I tend to push back against this conceit, but without it, The Invincible would be virtually silent. Happily, the writing and acting are both good enough to carry the experience. Yasna is a well-developed character, and the game explores some weighty themes.
Lem’s book was written in 1964, at the height of the Cold War. It was a new era of space exploration. In its design, the game does a good job of capturing Lem’s 1960’s brand of sci-fi. Devices and technology reflect that specific and peculiar flavor of retro futurism.
The player’s role in The Invincible is primarily to move Yasna from point A to B, either on foot or occasionally via on-rails driving sequences. You click through maps and fiddle with devices like homing beacons and analog binoculars.
Yasna’s range of motion is pretty limited and her movements are very deliberate. In fact, just about everything is pretty slow moving. The controls feel stiff and clunky, like an artifact of games gone by. Just trying to click on map locations can be a tedious task. While The Invincible likes to present its world as open and explorable, the reality is that there is really very little freedom.
While The Invincible looks like an action game, the experience of playing it is much closer to an interactive visual novel. As a so-called walking simulator, the game suffers from long stretches where there simply isn’t much going on and some frustrating controls when there is.
There is always something to look at, however. The Invincible has impressive art direction and paints a convincingly real planet out of rocks, mountains and mysteries. The alien sky and vast landscapes are haunting. While the audio design is hit-and-miss and a bit buggy, the game’s synth-heavy music does a great job of setting the somewhat bleak emotional tone.
The game ran well on the PS5, but be warned, there are no manual saves and save points are widely spaced, meaning that you can expect to listen to long stretches of dialogue more than once if you quit and reload. I suppose these could be opportunities to try different branches of the text. The game has multiple endings but at seven or so hours, more than one pass might seem like a slog.
The Invincible has a strong narrative and treats its source with respect and imagination. Pair that with a beautiful world and you should have a classic. The only things holding The Invincible at arm’s length from greatness are some dated-feeling controls and pacing that drags more than once. The Invincible is a convincing homage to a popular novel but slightly less convincing as a game.
***PS5 code provided by the publisher for review***
- Interesting narrative
- Great art direction
- Well voice acted
- Clunky controls
- A bit slow moving