Namco Bandai teaches a lesson in poor release timing with the recent launch of Inversion. Saber Interactive’s latest original IP quietly landed on store shelves earlier this month, right smack in the middle of E3, a time in the gaming year when most gamers briefly forget about current games to look forward to the gaming innovations and experiences of the future. For a game that’s been in development as long as Inversion (it was announced in 2009 and originally was planned to launch in 2010), it’s a shame its release came and went with such little attention, because despite some gaping flaws and a prevailing air of blandness, it pulls out some clever game design tricks that deserve commendation.
The story of Inversion begins in the near-future city of Vanguard, once a peaceful place now overrun by the Lutadore, a race of enemies armed with gravity-manipulating technology that rises up out of nowhere and begins slaughtering and enslaving the human population, adults and children alike. A pair of lame buddy cop wannabes heads the charge to overthrow this sudden threat, Davis Russel in the leading role as a father and husband who discovers his wife dead and his daughter kidnapped by the ruthless invaders, with his partner Leo Delgado riding shotgun on this post-apocalyptic sci-fi mission to save one little girl.
Not to diminish the years of hard work the writing and art teams put into the development process, but Inversion is an undeniable failure in storytelling and art direction. The bumbling narrative and total lack of a distinct artistic identity send this game crashing back to Earth on its head every time it seems poised to reach its gravity-defying ambitions. The plot is so full of holes and blundering twists, it’s tough to overlook unless you have some innate ability to forgive and forget. You never learn anything about the motivations behind why the Lutadore are attacking and rounding up children or the history behind what is inferred to be a long-running conflict between the Lutadore and an equally unexplained army of robots that start sprouting out of the ground. The driving force behind your participation never goes anywhere either until a last-second twist at the end attempts to do so in a slapdash way. The story and universe just never form a cohesive whole, not even enough to succeed at a B action movie standard.
Because of these faults, Inversion gets off to a rough start. Through the first couple chapters, I was almost ready to cast it aside as another in a long, endless line of bland, bare-minimum cover shooters. I always try my best to avoid making direct comparisons, but this game doesn’t even try to hide the fact that it’s borrowing from Gears of War in more ways than one, so it would be dishonest to overlook such a fact. Between the girthy character models, the weighted player movement and control feel, and even the look of the context-sensitive command prompts, it is clear Saber chose Epic’s footsteps to follow in. I don’t knock the game for being derivative – all games are in one way or another – but I do fault it for coming out of the gates so slow and safe.
Before long, however, Inversion breaks familiarity and lets loose with its own brand of cover-based warfare. Alongside the usual assortment of machine guns, rifles, laser blasters and flamethrowers, a device called the Gravlink powers the game’s dynamic, topsy-turvy action, granting its wearer the ability to command and weaponize the forces of gravity at will (as long as there’s enough juice in the ol’ battery pack).
The Gravlink has two modes: Low G and High G. In Low G mode, the device fires out bubbles that create small zero-gravity zones in the targeted area. Within these bubbles, all objects and enemies are temporarily forced into a state of suspended animation to be pelted with gun fire or manipulated to the player’s every whim. A complimentary tether allows you to latch onto hovering objects or beings to hurl as projectiles at other enemies or to break through obstacles, bringing back fond memories of Midway’s forgotten gem Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy. High G, on the other hand, raises the gravitational pull to crushing weights and, as a secondary ability, provides an energy shield to deflect incoming bullets.
The Gravlink gives the player a lot of freedom to approach set pieces in different ways. Firing a Low G blast into a pool of lava, for example, creates a molten globule that explodes into a ball of napalm when launched at the enemy. Similarly, floating barrels will sometimes leak gas, and when captured in a Low G bubble these gas balls become bombs (or you can always just fling the barrel itself). Alternating between the two, enemies can be launched into the air and then gruesomely combo-slammed back into the ground. Manipulating gravity also grants the ability to create new cover points on the fly, perhaps by tether-tugging a destroyed car to an advantageous position or by pulling down an overhanging cargo container. Certain Lutadore are armed with Gravlinks as well, though, so be aware that gravity isn’t yours to command alone. Hunkering down in one cover spot usually isn’t a smart idea, or else you too will be left dangling in the air without protection.
Inversion really starts to turn heads as the environments shift. While large chunks of the game keep the protagonist rooted to good ol’ terra firma, certain moments toss the rules of gravity out of the window and thrust you into some truly unorthodox firefights. Vector Shifts invert the battlefield completely, causing the sides of buildings to become the floor while you fire away at sideways or upside-down enemies attacking from other planes of gravity. Zero-gravity zones push the envelope even further, removing the player from their grounded position and transforming the area into a field of floating debris to use as cover pieces. These aerial battles get pretty crazy as you begin launching from cover point to cover point, blasting away at those Lutadore bastards in mid-flight before grabbing onto the next ledge. Saber Interactive beat 5TH Cell’s Hybrid to the punch, that’s for sure.
Multiplayer is another potential selling point, but sadly it has yet to materialize due to limited exposure and a dead player community. I’ve been sitting on this review for a couple weeks now hoping to get a glimpse at how the gravitational combat and flipped-around level design might alter the dynamics of competitive shooting, however to this day I have only been able to find a single deathmatch skirmish against one measly player. After tediously running around the map for a few minutes unable to spot my lone competitor, I quit out and haven’t been able to secure another match since. Campaign co-op isn’t fully implemented either. Random matchmaking lobbies and offline couch co-op are nowhere to be found; you’re only option is to invite or be invited to a Party, which is about as effective as the Wii Friend Code system unless you have a lot of people on your friends list who happen to own this game. AI Leo holds his own as your partner during solo play, but bringing a real friend or even some random player along for the ride surely would heighten the enjoyment.
It doesn’t happen enough, but when Inversion hits its stride, it is a very good game that breaks the laws of conventional third-person shooting in dynamic and innovative ways. Unfortunately, as a whole the experience is severely undermined by bland visuals and a general lack of artistic personality, a dull, go-nowhere storyline, and one of the more vapid casts of characters seen in recent video game history. If you don’t mind a sloppy, poorly written (and acted) narrative or already plan to skip through the cutscenes any way, Inversion’s brand of gravity-shifting action may just win you over before the 8-10 hour campaign runs its course.
+ Gravlink brings fun, fresh ideas to the third-person shooter playing field
+ Adaptable cover and inverted, zero-gravity levels form dynamic set pieces
– Story lacks explanation and is full of gaping plot holes and silly twists
– Thoroughly bland and nondescript art direction
– Co-op doesn’t support offline couch play or random matchmaking lobbies
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360, also available for PC and PS3
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Saber Interactive
Release Date: 6/5/2012
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1 (2-12 online multiplayer, 2-player online co-op)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher