Review for The Invisible Hours
The Invisible Hours seems like exactly the kind of experience that’s tailor-made for the virtual reality world. Hot on the heels of 2017’s The Sexy Brutale, which impressed me greatly, Tequila Works presents another mansion murder mystery, only this time in a much different fashion. Though it plays just fine without it, the up-close and personal feeling created by VR deepens the experience exponentially in a title that’s highly recommended for anyone who loves a great yarn told decidedly well.
The setup doesn’t exactly sound like it’s breaking any new ground: famous inventor Nikola Tesla has invited five strangers to his secluded New England island mansion, for reasons only he seems to truly know. But when the guests arrive, they find their would-be host has been murdered, marking at least one of them as a cold-blooded killer. Think of it as Clue with a dash of historical fiction mixed in, as one of the guests in attendance is none other than Thomas Edison.
Calling The Invisible Hours a “game” is a difficult claim to back up; there is very little for the player to actively do apart from finding collectibles and interacting with a handful of items to examine them. This is because, despite the cast of multiple characters, the player is never given actual control of any of them. Instead, you are essentially a free-floating camera, able to move around and explore the grounds of Tesla’s mansion at will, independent of where the action is taking place. Detective Gustaf Gustav, one of the guests, will conduct his investigation whether you are paying attention to him or not, and the linear story plays out right through to its conclusion without any assistance from you.
That is kind of the point of The Invisible Hours. It offers a unique sense of observation bordering on voyeurism; an exploration of the mansion, yes, but primarily of the personalities that reside within it. While this limits what you are able to do – drawers, cabinets, boxes, and suitcases, for example, cannot be opened and searched – it offers a great sense of freedom in another respect. At no point are you tied to a particular character, or even a specific piece of narrative that is unravelling. At any time, you can simply walk away to pursue another area of interest.
The cast of seven characters (including Tesla’s servant and ex-assistant) is rarely assembled in the same place. Rather, they spread out across the many rooms of the two-story mansion, following their own motivations, interacting with each other, or even just pursuing a silent task by themselves. Secret alliances, rivalries, romances, and even violence are occurring throughout the mansion at any given moment, following a schedule set by the developers, whether the player is there to see them happen or not.
Following the first big commotion of the discovery of Tesla’s lifeless body, Gustav, assuming command of the situation, begins a series of one-on-one interrogations with the remaining guests in the dining room. You are certainly free to remain by Gustav’s side, listening to one alibi after another, but you can also decide to follow the blind butler on his errands or tail the flirtatious actress around to discover what else is going on. For instance, while two characters may be having an innocuous conversation in one room, elsewhere in the building a different guest may be in mortal peril.
The game is really more of a collection of scenes (the developers, realizing this, even thank the player for attending their “play” in the closing credits) taking place simultaneously and in real time. The entire length of The Invisible Hours, when taking just one straight path through the story, is only a little over an hour from beginning to end. Of course, the temptation to veer off and experience other activities extends its longevity, and spending time with the cast of characters in this way is the game’s true heart and soul.
Fortunately, you aren’t forced to restart from the beginning just to see other things. Along with the freedom to move from set piece to set piece, you can also control the flow of time. Very simply, using a rewind and fast-forward feature, all the events happening in the mansion can be replayed or sped through at will, making it much easier to catch a missed event. A menu screen even lets you jump from moment to moment on a timeline, switch between the game’s four chapters, and track each individual guest’s movements on a mansion map, which allows for instant travel to any location in the manor or surrounding grounds. In a select few cases, certain areas are off limits until you have witnessed a character entering them for the first time, after which they also become freely accessible.
The game will frequently pull you in multiple directions that all seem equally engrossing all at once – if you’re paying attention. You will be able to hear muted voices if others nearby are having a conversation; other times, you may simply see that something is amiss and deserves further following up. For example, while I was silently attending several characters attempting to hold a séance using Tesla’s spirit radio, I saw another character through the window, clandestinely sneaking across the mansion’s grounds. Making a mental note to investigate the meaning of this later, I turned back to the scene in front of me. In a later chapter, I noticed that Tesla’s body, previously covered by a sheet, was now laying exposed in the main entrance hall. Thinking this had to be a sign that I’d missed something important, I had reason to stand vigil over the body while I used my rewind powers to find out who or what had disturbed the dead man’s rest.
There is quite a lot to find out about the characters, and some unexpected twists and truly heartbreaking tragedy and drama lie in store for those willing to see it all. Though the cast sounds like your typical murder mystery who’s who – the son of a wealthy railroad tycoon, the detective, the butler – it’s a testament to the writers how few clichés rear their ugly heads. Who would have expected the gruff convict to eloquently recite Shakespeare in a surprisingly tender moment of romance? Then there is still more depth to unearth by finding scattered newspaper articles, as well diary entries written by Tesla himself that further a hidden side story. How much character development is dug up depends on each player, and I found myself desperately wanting more by game’s end, not because there was too little of it, but because it was that good.
Equally important are the superb voice-over performances from everyone in the cast, bar none. It’s hard to know where to start when choosing a favorite; each person is convincing, the case of an actor truly embodying his or her character. Music features only rarely, generally reserved for specific scenes playing out. What is here is effective and beautiful, sometimes heart-pounding, sometimes melancholy and tragic. The sound design itself – rain pounding on windows, the grandfather clock chiming in the entrance hall, the crackle of electricity flowing from Tesla’s machines – is crisp and clear, though the constant echo of character voices, even when outside, becomes too noticeable.
Compared to the music and voices, The Invisible Hours’ graphics don’t stack up. That’s not to call them bad, as the detail with which some characters are animated impressed me, particularly when two of them are interacting with each other. But the models themselves aren’t on the high-res, photorealistic side, and certain facial expressions just seem to stick to characters, like a slack-jawed expression meant to indicate surprise that refuses to go away even after the moment’s ended. The mansion also would have benefitted from a bit more variety, though at least it feels distinctly “Tesla” – his inventions and designs appear everywhere, from the famous Tesla coil to a chess-playing robot. (The game even dabbles a bit with some fantastic theorizing about the actual truth of his life and death, though all of this is simply window dressing for the murder mystery.)
Since the game has been released for a variety of consoles and systems, featuring both VR and non-VR modes, its mechanics also vary a bit. The immersion factor of virtual reality can’t be overstated here, as it effectively put me into the director’s chair, positioning my point of view for different scenes just so, letting me get as up-close and personal with the action as I wanted to. Playing the PSVR version, I preferred using the PlayStation’s Move controllers, which have a really nifty Tesla-esque effect applied to them in-game, though playing with a normal controller is also possible, and even made selecting of objects slightly easier. Forgoing VR entirely means trading in the increased intimacy for a much smoother, traditional first-person 3D movement scheme, giving each player some trade-offs to choose from.
The idea of a murder mystery, particularly in VR, immediately appealed to me, and to be sure, The Invisible Hours did deliver on that promise. But now that the credits have rolled, I feel like I experienced so much more than that. It’s not that I fell in love with each suspect; not all are meant to be likeable. But it’s how each character’s personality took shape right in front of my eyes, and the way that I was allowed to come in as an outside observer and be a part of moments not meant for strangers’ eyes that most sticks with me. Considering the relatively brief duration of this game, even counting the extended time I spent shedding light on every nook and cranny, it really managed to grow on me. The mystery may be solved, but I’m already looking forward to diving into whatever the team at Tequila Works brings next.