In a world filled with so many derivative and generic titles, it’s tempting to shower even the slightest hint of innovation with utmost praise. One must still remain careful though, since even the greatest ideas are nothing without good execution. Inversion is the latest game from Namco and Saber Interactive, and it’s attempting to breathe some new life into the shooter genre with its unique gravity-based gameplay. Will this game truly turn your world upside down, or will you come to appreciate gravity when you’re tossing the disc out a window?
Inversion is set in a world a lot like our own. The game follows Davis Russell, a cop within Vanguard City. He’s heading home one day with his partner Leo when the city suddenly comes under attack by an alien menace known as the Lutadore. They’ve managed to harness the power of gravity and are now using it to tear the city apart. They also kidnap Davis’ daughter among many other civilians, so naturally our personality-deficient hero and his equally flat partner set out to rescue her and put a stop to the invaders. But what surprises await our heroes? What are the Lutadore here for? How did they manage to control gravity? More importantly, who cares?
Inversion’s story is drenched with cliché and is generally uninvolving throughout. Davis’ missing child is little more than an excuse to move the story forward, and the handful of soldiers and survivors you meet along the way are the very definition of forgettable. The writing is more miss than hit, with many lines being either so macho or so ridiculous that you wonder if the game has turned into full-on parody. A certain “manly” conversation within an APC is sure to make you laugh, and after killing the first Lutadore you encounter, Leo walks up to him and states that it has no ID and is “definitely not from around here.” Thanks, Leo; Any other bright observations? All of this doesn’t mean the developers haven’t tried, however. There are a surprisingly large amount of cutscenes throughout, many of which either waste your time detailing objectives you already figured out by then, or try and fail to inject some emotion and personality into our heroes. At the very least, they can all be skipped. Finally, there is a chest-slapingly stupid plot twist late in the game that has nothing to do with any of the game’s central themes and isn’t even properly explained. It comes out of left field and defies logic, yet its amusing nature actually makes it the most memorable aspect of the game.
Of course, the aspect of Inversion that everyone’s probably wondering about is its gameplay, and how (if at all) it attempts to stand out. At its core, the game is a meat and potatoes third-person cover shooter. Levels are arranged in a linear fashion with very basic combat arenas and no alternate paths, making for a pretty restrictive experience. That being said, it’s still possible to get lost within some areas, as they’re often cluttered and have very obscure doors and exits. The cover system itself is great, allowing you to easily sprint into cover and switch to other spots. Aiming feels a bit stiff, though, and it’s not helped by a lack of feedback when hitting enemies. It must also be said that the arsenal is as standard as they get, comprised of basic weapons like assault rifles, shotguns, and sniper rifles. Enemy AI is basic but gets the job done. Surprisingly, your AI partner is actually quite smart, even if there are other issues I have with him that I’ll get into later.
But enough of that! Let’s talk about the game’s unique hook; gravity. Early on Davis and Leo acquire a device called the Gravlink. As the game progresses, you’ll earn more powers for the device, eventually allowing it to switch between low-gravity and high-gravity, which makes objects lighter or heavier, respectively. It’s fairly easy to use, but some questionable design choices hamper the fun. Firstly, it takes too long to gain all these powers, meaning for the first two hours you’re stuck with simply the ability to levitate individuals, which gets old fast. Grabbing and throwing objects is probably your most useful skill, which you acquire right after that. The finisher attack you can perform after grabbing an enemy is useless however, as throwing them at an enemy or object is quicker and instantly kills them anyway. The biggest problem is that you’ll never have to use these powers in combat. In fact, most of the game can simply be played as a standard shooter, and the very few instances where you are forced to use the powers are unimaginative, such as clearing debris by lifting it or bringing down a pillar to make a bridge. It seems like a waste of a creative mechanic. In fact, the game as a whole is a lot less smart than it thinks it is.
The game also sports several zero-gravity sections, where you and the enemies float in the air and have to glide from cover to cover. These sections are easily the highlight of the game and make for some thrilling and unique shootouts. The absolute opposite of those would have to be the boss fights, which are at best tolerable and at worst infuriating. Some of them pit you in very claustrophobic arenas with little to no cover, and considering Davis is quite fragile, this is a big problem. Even worse, none of the bosses have any checkpoints despite being fairly lengthy and many have cheap instant-kill attacks that are nearly impossible to see coming, let along dodge effectively. Worse still is that these bosses are shamelessly recycled throughout the entire game. By the time you come to the fifth and final fight against a Slave Driver late in the game, you might just give up and quit. A shame, as these fights ruin the game’s otherwise decent pacing. Other annoyances include Davis’ aforementioned fragility, some annoying melee based enemies, spaced-out checkpoints, and your AI partner. He rarely goes down, but when he does you’ll have to quickly revive him or else fail the mission. If you get downed though, your partner won’t even try to revive you and it’s game over for you. Because of this mind-boggling design decision, it’s recommended you play co-op if you can, as both of you are allowed to revive each other. (NOTE: the co-op is online only, despite being advertised as including split-screen)
The game’s inconsistent framerate and screen tearing hurt this one a fair bit. The game can sometimes feel sluggish and stiff when a lot is happening, which doesn’t do it any favors. Texture pop-in is also very noticeable whenever a level loads or cutscene starts/ends, and the cutscenes themselves transition clumsily into gameplay with a black screen. It’s a real shame, because Inversion actually looks quite nice. Environments are well detailed, often large in scope, and incorporate some terrific lighting and shadows. The character models are similarly good-looking and also sport convincing animations. Couple that with the impressive environmental destruction, and you have a game that looks like an AAA title even if it doesn’t run as smooth as one. If only the art direction received the same attention. The game seemingly takes artistic cues from Gears of War, Infamous, Dead Space and Half-life 2, but in the process fails to establish an identity of its own. Even the most beautiful areas look drab and generic, and you’ll be hard pressed to remember any set pieces or environments after the credits roll.
Inversion’s sound design is decent. Some of the guns give off fairly muffled or weak firing sounds, but the explosions sound like explosions, and gravitational powers sound like what they probably would sound like. That said, the sound mixing is off, making many effects sound quieter than they should be. This is especially noticeable when Davis and Leo lift a garage door, and when they release it, it sounds like a pin dropping rather than a heavy thud. Some sound effects will occasionally get cut off, too. The voice acting is surprisingly good even when the writing isn’t, though the Lutadore’s speeches get incredibly annoying, as their gibberish mixed with English really get on one’s nerves after a while. The game’s soundtrack, at least when I noticed it, fit the mood well and provided a good backdrop for the action. The menu theme is especially pleasant and may even be worth tracking down an mp3 of.
The game is of average length, taking 7-8 hours to finish. Of course, considering how frustrating the game gets in its later chapters, there’s a chance many players won’t even see the game through to its conclusion. The campaign is only sporadically enjoyable throughout, and there’s really no compelling reason to return to it after you’re done, as there are no substantial secrets to find and the gameplay is not flexible or engaging enough to make a second playthrough worthwhile. The campaign can be played in co-op, which may alleviate some of its frustrating aspects, though it can’t be played in splitscreen. Finally, there is also a co-operative survival mode that can also be played solo, but its very basic design means it probably won’t extend the game’s value by much. Inversion might be worth a rental for those who are curious, but it’s impossible to recommend the game at full price.
At the end of the day, Inversion will have you experiencing more ups and downs than its gravity-defying protagonist. For every decently fun gunfight or zero-g section, there’s a frustrating boss or cheap death to counteract it. That’s not helped by the fact that even in its best moments, the game simply doesn’t provide you with any truly creative ways to use its unique gravity mechanics. Couple that with technical issues and a dull story, and you’re left with one of the year’s more disappointing titles. Inversion is not a bad game, but contrary to its aspirations, it never truly gets off the ground.
(Reviewed for the Playstation 3 platform. Review copy generously provided by Namco-Bandai. Thank you!)
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Lasting Appeal: 4/10