Into the Breach | Principal Platforms: PC | Developer: Subset Games | Publisher: Subset Games | Genre: Strategy, Roguelike | Year: 2018
Take the turn-based precision of any tactics game, throw in the theme of Starship Troopers, a bit of the roguelike addictiveness of FTL, and you’ll arrive at Subset Games’ superb sophomore effort called Into the Breach. Yeah, I’m down with spoiling the outcome of the review like that because honestly, I can’t imagine many players being able to repress their fondness for what is surely one of the most charming video games we’ll see all year.
The setting once again takes us into the far future where humanity’s interstellar colonization has drew them the ire of the Vek; a hostile race of insectoid aliens that don’t appreciate human-y things like power plants or buildings full of helpless people. A small band of time-travelling soldiers is all that stands between them and total annihilation and so as commander of this elite squad it’s your job to direct the mechanised troops in order to push back the Vek and protect your employer’s interests across four warring islands.
At first glance the game is somewhat reminiscent of an obscure title called Faselei! where players would program giant mechs to carry out actions in a later phase. With Into the Breach, only the enemy turns are programmed in advance and the player’s time will be spent trying to foil those impending threats by any means necessary.
Those who bemoan a lack of true heroism in video games can rejoice at last because innocent lives are very important to your ongoing success here. Every battlefield structure is linked to your primary energy grid and thus when a building full of bystanders is razed – alongside a guilt-imposing alert of how many casualties were just sustained – the grid’s health depletes along with it. In true roguelike fashion there’s no reloading a save or checkpoint either, so learning to protect the grid is essential if you hold any hope of reaching the final mission.
It’s no coincidence that each map shares the same 8×8 tile layout as a chessboard because the elements that make Chess such a painstaking pleasure are very much evident here too. Into the Breach is all about minimization and I’m not just referring to how adorable the giant mechs look in pixel art. Minimizing the damage caused by the Vek is your paramount concern and yet there are times when minimizing the risk of future turns is just as vital. Similar to Chess, you can get very good at Into the Breach by thinking multiple turns ahead of your current position and there will be many times where you’ll need to sacrifice your pieces – or should I say, pilots – in order to prevent key objectives from failing.
Positioning is a vital concept here and simply moving enemies from one tile to another is sometimes the best tactic for maintaining control of the board. Many weapons include the ability to push other units because of this and you’ll find the tempo of battle flows in your favour when enemies can be pushed into water (often drowning them for an instant kill) or onto tiles where other enemies would have spawned.
The sheer tactical awareness that this sort of approach requires is made easier to digest by the gorgeous user interface. Every attack vector and unit ability is clearly signposted through the use of animated tooltips and the tutorial featuring the well-balanced Rift Walkers squad will have new players aware of the basics in minutes.
That’s not to say that every rule is as clear as it could be. I’m not sure why buildings are immune to fire for example and it’s not always clear what effect certain actions will have on tiles that are undergoing a status change. Do smoke clouds counteract any existing status effects? Do flying enemies drown if they’re hit by a freeze ray whilst they’re hovering over water? Do they thaw out when the same occurs over lava or A.C.I.D.?
This aspect of trial and error can occasionally upset things and the lack of reference means that you’ll likely be making mistakes even after mastering the game’s subtleties. An in-game encyclopedia would have been a nice addition in this sense, but then again perhaps that would’ve added more clutter than is really necessary.
It’s important to always be informed though because like FTL, Into the Breach is another one those games where a single bad move from the player can spell disaster. Fortunately Subset Games dialled the difficulty back a bit here by adding an inspired reset turn option that will help players remedy some of their more common blunders.
Opening up the game even further is a robust achievement system which unlocks brand new squads of mechs to play with. Maybe you’ll harness the power of lightning as Blitzkrieg, burn the Vek to a crisp as the Flame Behemoths, or just make your own fully customized team from any mech that you have available. Surviving pilots are another persistent bonus that can be carried over between sessions and because the campaign’s length can be freely determined by the player, it helps anyone who is less skilled see more of what’s on offer without having their progress walled off.
There’s so much more awesome content to discover that’s it’s hard to do justice to it all. Consider though the little dollops of character brought about by the writing and Ben Prunty’s catchy soundtrack, the myriad bonus objectives that thrust players into cameos alongside allied tanks and terraforming machines and earthquakes, tidal waves, erupting volcanoes, and haywire robots frozen in ice.
Will the grid defences hold this turn? you ask, as another Vek mortar flies through the air towards a robotics factory that you really needed to protect but got so caught up in the turn that you forgot to keep it covered! And so too will there be stories of the miracles you pulled off in the face of adversity and the combos you made involving that one weapon acquisition or that one custom squad full of OP Ice Mechs.
It’s an addictive package to be sure, one so entertaining and intuitive that the biggest challenge can be finding something to criticize. If you want a direct comparison with FTL, then Into the Breach does seem to have a shorter lifespan because of its minimalist design. This is an easier game on the whole (to the point of tedium if you play on the Easy setting) and certain scenarios will start to feel samey with fewer chaotic elements to consider. There’s also a minor point concerning its final mission that whilst still thinky and backed by a wonderfully tense piece of music, doesn’t compare to the outright climax of felling the Rebel Flagship.
But so too is this game more accessible than its predecessor and the rules that govern it more dependable for the entry level strategist. I observed very few bugs in this release build and the overall impression I get is that a lot of time went into making the experience as smooth and as satisfying as possible. The prevalence of ‘turn angst’ not withstanding of course!
It may seem strange to say as much, but the one other video game that Into The Breach reminds me of isn’t so much FTL, or an XCOM like you might expect, but rather ZombiU. There was a case where a group of developers looked at the hardware at their disposal and made the absolute most perfect game they could with what they had to work with. In a flavourful sense, Into The Breach is very similar in that Subset Games looked at their specialised genre and created the perfect time travel yarn to explain away all the repeat playthroughs, recurring characters, and the pleasant takesie-backsie design of player turns. It’s a level of detail that reveals how impressive this supposedly lightweight release really is.
If the game shares one major thing in common with FTL, then it’s the fact that I want to immediately start playing it again only moments after shutting it down. It was never going to be easy for Subset Games to equal the brilliance of their first effort, but honestly, with Into The Breach they may have just topped it.