Review: Into the Breach

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Review copy provided by developer

I’ve come to realize that turn-based strategy is probably my favorite genre. It didn’t occur to me until recently, but my time spent with Invisible Inc, XCOM, Darkest Dungeon, and other slow-paced, cerebral titles accounts for some of my best gaming experiences. Now I can add Into the Breach to that hallowed list, not merely because it belongs next to other greats but because it helped me reach this realization. This is one of the few games I could easily play indefinitely, testing new permutations of strategy and risks thanks to an absolutely brilliant confluence of design.

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The world has ended, and you have failed it. The monstrous insects known as the Vek have destroyed the last vestiges of humanity, but all is not lost for you can slip through temporal breaches into new timelines where there is still hope. Commanding a team of three pilots and their giant mechs, it’s up to you to stop the invasion you couldn’t stop before. As you save cities and islands from the crawling onslaught you’ll earn the trust and aid of corporations, offering you new weapons and upgrades to support your strikes against the invaders. Once you’ve secured enough resources you can take the battle to the Vek hive and attempt to save the timeline once and for all.

Of course, if you fail there are always other timelines. Into the Breach isn’t a roguelike but it has a similar structure, where every game has some slightly randomized elements due to existing in a new timeline. I’m always a fan of integrating story with game systems and the structure of saving or abandoning timelines as you work through new runs of the game is extremely clever. So too are the related systems like being able to carry a victorious pilot forward to the next timeline, or locating time pods during battles that contain valuable new resources for your efforts. The presentation here is top-notch, pitched and melancholy at just the right degrees, thanks to this unified foundation.

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As genius as the premise is, it’s the gameplay that makes this one stand apart. Each mission takes place on a small, gridded battlefield between your three mechs and whatever the Vek can throw at you. All you have to do to win is survive usually five turns, after which the giant insects get so disheartened I guess they give up and go home. But it’s not just about your mechs surviving, because each map has buildings that form the local power grid. This grid is essentially your life bar, and if too many buildings are toppled by the monsters, you lose. New Vek burrow up from the ground almost every turn, too, so it’s imperative that you keep up with their attacks and find some way to counter them.

The thing is, you get to see attacks coming before they happen. At the beginning of each turn, the Vek make their moves and prepare to attack with giant mandibles or acid globs or whatever else they have cooking. After that, you get to use your three mechs to mitigate as much damage as possible to the grid, your objectives, and yourselves. It’s not a straight shootout either, because most weapons can push or pull enemies, too. Because of how enemies work and how short missions are, you’ll soon find most of your strategy revolves around moving enemies away from their targets rather than killing them. After all, you can move an attacking Vek next to another Vek to make them hit each other, or put something atop an emerging Vek to stop it from joining the fight, or just smash them into each other for extra damage.

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This one brilliant twist is enough to give the game an entirely different complexion from most turn-based strategy. It becomes a puzzle game, where every turn you pore over your options trying to find the best use of your three mechs against the approaching chaos. In many missions you won’t be able to save everyone, leading to tough choices about what sacrifices to make. Losing grid puts you closer to failure, losing pilots can limit your tactical options, and losing objectives cuts down on your rewards. Staring at a turn for five or ten minutes and then finally figuring out the one safe path forward is an amazing feeling, and a big part of why this game succeeds in being so engrossing and gratifying. But it can also be stressful, and if you forget a key part of the situation or just end up trapped, that’ll be the end of that timeline and a few hours worth of work.

You’ll need to be prepared to fail now and then, especially with the game’s open-ended difficulty structure. Each run plays out over four islands, each carved into multiple sectors. Sectors have different objectives that earn you grid power or currency if completed, and the more objectives present the harder the mission. Once you’ve cleared two islands of the Vek menace you can opt to keep going, or attempt the final mission. If you keep clearing islands the final mission scales up, so the longer you go the more difficult it gets. Honestly it’s a great way to make the game accessible to everyone, and serves as a good counter to the disappointment of losing a long or promising timeline. And I need to mention the dozen or so mech squads you can unlock through achievements, each so unique in its design that you’ll hardly have any idea how to triumph with them until you try them out.

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The struggle plays out in rich, clean pixel art reminiscent of the old Advance Wars games in the best way. You’ll never have trouble seeing what’s going on even when maps are burning, sinking, exploding, and melting all at once. The UI is just as clean, putting all the information you need right at your fingertips and featuring an incredibly clear and useful turn order list to help you plan your moves. The sound design is up to the task as well, though the soundtrack isn’t quite as catchy as I was hoping in the wake of FTL. But what a minor complaint that is in light of how much this game gets right. Into the Breach has built an absolutely captivating system of strategy that manages to be thought-provoking and challenging without being the least bit confusing. Mastering the game is an exquisite joy from start to finish, and anyone with even a passing interest in mech tactics owes it to themselves to give it a try.

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