More than any other aspect of games, clever design stands out to me. Flashy graphics, amazing sounds, awesome weapons, they all mean little to me if the core design of a game is not solid. With Faster Than Light, Subset Games established themselves as excellent game designers. With their new game, Into The Breach, they have surpassed their own benchmark, putting out one of the most crisply considered and expertly designed games you will play this year. While FTL and Into The Breach share similar pixelated graphical styles, this new title represents a tactical experience that has been boiled down to the essentials, and because of this, it is truly a step above most games.
A Bug In The System
The premise of the game is simple. The last vestiges of human civilization are being assaulted from all sides. Monstrous creatures known as Vek are breeding beneath the surface of the Earth. These enormous bug-like creatures are driven to destroy what remains of humanity. As with all terrible threats that lurk beneath the surface, the great equalizers are massive robots. These hulking, powerful Mechs can go toe to toe with any monster, and they might just give mankind a fighting chance. The problem is, so far this hasn’t happened. Man’s light has been extinguished, over and over again. The only way to try and save us all is for these Mech teams to use Breaches to travel into the past, to once again try and find a way to win the war in a new timeline.
You need to deal with the Vek threat, while not losing too many buildings, and managing damage to your Mechs. Buildings mean power for the Grid, and once the Grid is depleted it is game over for humans. The game is split out over four islands, all of them controlled by different corporations who will have a different attitude towards your attempts to take on the Vek. Missions can be chosen from a number that will available at any given time, each one bringing its own twists and turns.
At the end of each failed playthrough, you can once again jump back into the Breach and try to save the world. I’m not gonna lie, I am a sucker for games that take in-game mechanics, story, and the very act of replaying a game, and wrap them all together with lore. The game is, at its heart, a strategy game, but much like FTL, it harnesses its own features and rhythm to create incredible tension. Things can go from good to bad in a single turn, and no ticking clock forcing you to act means that you can sit and dwell in your private terror for as long as you wish.
While the way all the design choices come together make it a rather unique experience, the most interesting aspect of Into the Breach is that you get to see what enemies will be doing on their next turn. Enemy attack trajectories and areas of impact will be marked out quite clearly on the 8×8 grid that the game plays out on. This changes it from a straight up strategy game where you battle against the unknown, to one of vicious tactics that force you to act with the full knowledge of what your actions mean. If an enemy is about to attack and destroy a building, do you move a Mech in the way to block the damage? Will you attempt to focus out that enemy during your turn, potentially moving assets into bad situations? Or, is there some kind of clever play, where you move the enemy, blocking the path of another and maybe even causing the Vek to attack something on its own side?
Devil In The Details
Into The Breach is an incredibly tight and focused experience, and it is through this focus that its real strength shines through. Every turn is an invitation to do something a little bit smarter than you might give yourself credit for. Sometimes fighting to a stalemate is the best way to win. Sometimes you have no choice but to accept the loss of a building in order to save two more. The game asks you to react to what is happening, but also to consider what is going to happen in the next turn. It stacks up possibilities, allowing you to examine them and make your own choices. In this way, when you do something truly fantastic within the rule set of Into the Breach, the feeling of reward is amazing. There is little, if any, luck at play here. It is all you versus the system, and despite being punishing and brutally difficult at times, it is extraordinarily fair. A run is lost not because of the unpredictability of war, but because you failed to correctly react to information that is made obvious.
The difficulty stems from players being asked to answer multiple questions at once. Each enemy is its own puzzle that you need the solve. The hard part is finding a sequence of actions that will solve all those puzzles at the same time. This is also the secret to the game’s intense feeling of reward. While most strategy games seek to reward you during the moments of action, Into The Breach uses action as a way to amplify both reward and horror. Eureka moments will come to you while you survey the battlefield, then you get to enjoy your own ability to play the game while carrying out the sequence of events that you have discovered. Get too cocky, or don’t pay close enough attention, and your joy will turn to horror as you realize you didn’t notice some vital piece of information, or how an interaction would play out between you and an enemy.
There is also a lot to keep track of. You must decide what enemies to inflict damage on, and balance this with your ability to use weapons to move enemies into new squares. Knocking a bad guy into water will kill them instantly, while certain tile types will catch fire or release smoke if damaged. This can inflict further damage upon enemies, or cancel attacks. Environmental effects like collapsing ground and lightning strikes must also be considered and used to your advantage. For a game that is so focused, it contains a surprising amount of depth. There will be multiple ways to approach each turn, and you will achieve the most favorable result by taking the time to consider them all. Even the order in which you take on missions needs to be well thought out and driven by your needs. Missions can grant bonuses upon completion, so always being aware of what you need to stay in the fight is vital.
Another difference between FTL and Into The Breach is overall difficulty. While Into the Breach is certainly easier, this is all part of the design. If things go sideways during a battle, you have one shot to repeat that turn. Repeated replays means you can bump up the difficulty of each run yourself. Improved knowledge of enemies, access to different Mechs, and different upgrade paths will allow you to explore different play styles. While many of my FTL runs felt like I was desperately holding on by my fingernails, Into The Breach is more centered around rewarding my previous experience. Playing better will lead to better rewards, and the root to improved play is experience. Special achievements will unlock special Mech squads that allow for different tactics, and all the while you will be trying to get a better score than your personal best. It’s a solid system that invites playing again and again.
Another standout area is the music. Due to the odd rhythm, where a lot of time is spent examining the battlefield before deciding on your actions, the soundtrack needs to be both suspenseful and driving. It pulls this off exceptionally well, always seeming to sync up perfectly with what is happening. While most soundtracks try to drive a particular emotional reaction to a scene, Into The Breach has a soundtrack that makes itself applicable to the emotional state of the player at the time. Through effectively neutral songs, it always manages to reflect the player’s state back at them. It is an exceptionally clever sound design, and definitely a highlight of Into the Breach
For fans of strategy and tactics games, Into The Breach is a must buy. It manages to provide an experience that is both focused and deep. It does an excellent job of enticing the player to keep playing, while allowing them to do so at their own pace. I haven’t enjoyed my time with a game this much since Nex Machina, another example of incredibly tight and polished game design. My one concern is that by the time the end of the year “Best of” lists roll around, people will have forgotten just how marvelous Into the Breach actually is. It deserves any awards that come its way, and as much of your free time as you can put into it.