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Subset Games are known for making one game, their smash-hit indie title FTL, the poster child of early Kickstarter success. So how do you top a game like that? The primarily six-man team took the rougelike progression honed in FTL and put it in another genre- strategy tactics, similar to XCOM, Fire Emblem and Advance Wars. And add some good writing.
It’s the end of the world, climate change is real and now giant kaiju monstrosities called the Vek are attacking the last remaining pockets of humanity in four islands guarded by different corporations. Defend what you can with the three mech units available or fail.
Then travel back in time to do it all over again. Once more, into the breach.
If you are familiar with FTL’s pixel art style, then you will be at home with Into The Breach. It has a small, condensed look in the game screen, a contrast to the portraits of characters, including the slimy Veks, that are all well detailed. The muted colour palate you will see match the stark tone of the world, but the different islands you battle on have distinct looks that stand out.
While the art is just decent, the UI design is brilliant. Everything you need to know before, whilst and after making your moves each turn are all highlighted. You know exactly where the enemy will attack, how much damage it will do and which area will be affected. You know exactly where your mech can move and how each attack will affect the target and its surroundings. You know exactly the order of events that the enemy will move so you can plan ahead.
In regards to the tactical combat, nothing is obscured, everything you need to know is laid out very clearly. Should you read all the moves correctly, everything will fall in place just as you expect it to be.
But still, there are some work that can be done in this area. When there’s plentiful of enemies, the UI can be busy and even with the ability to highlight exactly where the enemy is attacking, the other UI elements can still block your view.
The soundtrack complements the action well. There are a good variety of tracks and they serve to add more to the setting. The victory song after securing an island is both happy yet melancholic, foreshadowing that the challenges to come will be harder. But hey, enjoy the little victories.
For some reason, the soundtrack reminded me of the original Borderlands- the plucky guitars evokes a desolate, near-hopeless landmass in imminent death. And that’s a good thing, it drew me into the world even more.
Speaking of which, for a small game that isn’t story focused- Into The Breach is a masterclass of worldbuilding with only very little tools used. The flavour texts, from the pilots congratulating each other for a kill, the CEOs of each island praising or berating your performance, the cheers of the civilians when they see the mechs drop down and the sound of grief as a civilian building is to be attacked by Vek are all done to an exceptional degree.
Chris Avellone, a veteran games writer for classics such as the original Fallout games, left his mark prominently in the game.
Into The Breach starts with you picking one main pilot and customise your squad of three mechs, though you will start with the basic Rift Walkers. Once deployed, you pick an island to go first, which then opens another screen where you pick your missions. Each mission on the map are procedurally generated, but predictable.
Once you picked a mission, the game turns into strategy tactics on a chess-like 8X8 tile. The Vek always move first- starting with them crawling out of the ground. You pick where to deploy your units next.
After that, the first turn starts and the Vek will then project their attacks, but only commit to it after you take your turn. Your task is to figure out how to defend from these projected attacks. The Vek’s priorities are, most of the time, not your squad of mechs, but instead will focus on the objective and various civilian buildings that doubles as a power grid- which inhibits the Vek from spawning en masse. The power gird is akin to the hull health in FTL- get it down to the last pip and Vek will be overrun the planet- that’s game over. Power grid pips carry over from each mission, and is hard to bring back up.
Unlike XCOM where the key to winning the long game is to keep as many soldiers alive, most of the time you have to put your mechs in peril to secure the objectives and protect the civilians. Pilots that do not have special portraits can be dispensable and you will always have the three mechs for each battle, all start with full health. And thanks to the overwhelming numbers of Vek you will mostly struggle to minimize damage rather than killing them outright in the first few hours. There is a turn timer, but you will be glad to see it count down- it determines how long you have to survive and achieve or defend an objective.
Combat is more direct- you will deal the exact damage as shown. But it is surprisingly deep thanks to environment hazards and the abilities available. Some attacks, like the Rustling Hulk’s humanoid bruiser mech, can not just deal damage, but push enemies one tile away. It allows you to create chains of combo attacks, turning the pre-empted strikes projected by the Vek against them. There were times where I did not kill the Vek outright, but pushed them to a specific tile where it will block another Vek’s attack and then die after blocking another Vek from spawning at the tile it is now sitting on.
But the pushing mechanics is a double-edged sword. A push can deal damage to whatever it is adjacent to the direction, and that means it can damage a building (and drop your power grid value), or do collateral damage if your other units are in position. Into The Breach will put you in very tough spots where you really need to consider all your potential moves before committing. Some may describe it as akin to a puzzler, or maybe even like chess.
For each island, all you need to clear out is 4 missions before you face what is essentially a boss level. Once that cleared, you can then cash out your reputation points, earned by completing objectives or selling unneeded gear to buy upgrades, new abilities, or repair the power grid.
Clear two islands and you can initiate the endgame, or complete one or two more islands first, though the endgame difficulty will scale accordingly. Whatever the outcome throughout your run, victory or defeat, your surviving pilots will beam out to enter a new timeline- and start a new run. Pick your main pilot, customise your squad of three mechs..
Content & Longevity
As you can see, Into The Breach’s progression system is of a rougelike, where the game is played in repeatable runs rather than a full, hand-crafted campaign. Each run can either end in seconds or last you to an hour and a half to finish. The abilities on sale after finishing an island are random. Time pods filled with random goodies will also appear randomly- think of it as loot boxes but without the microtransactions.
There are several elements of persistent progression. For each new run, you can carry over one of your pilots, along with its current level and unlocked abilities. Earning in-game achievements will score you coins used to unlock new mech squads. Along the way, you can acquire new named pilots- each with their own specific abilities- inside time pods or as a reward for completing all objectives in an island. The named pilots can then be picked to start your new run in the future.
This is where the RNG can screw you. Like most rougelikes, there will be some lucky runs, and some that are worth abandoning right away. Personally, I do not like such system. I would always pound my head through the toughest of missions because I thought it was mostly my fault that I landed in such dire consequences thanks to its transparent combat system. But it’s not. Some runs will offer you good named pilots early and have the abilities you wanted, but some will be duds.
As long as you can wrap around the concept of accepting defeat early and fail faster, it would not bother you as much as I was.
After struggling with a lot of runs (including a harrowing defeat where I was just 1 turn shy of victory), I lowered the difficulty from Normal to Easy. All persistent unlocks and achievements carry over, and it did help me see and unlock more of the content, but it felt maybe too easy for me. The Vek isn’t as punishing and won’t be making bolder moves to screw you up as much, but if you’re just here for the fun and not the punishing difficulty, it’s a viable option.
Getting a victory in Into The Breach is just the tip of the iceberg. Once you’ve unlocked more named pilots and mech squads, the game changes dramatically. The Rustling Hulks may be the standard way to play, but the other squads will make you approach each mission in very different ways.
For example, the Flaming Behemoths are immune to fire, don’t deal as much raw damage but can just burn a lot of tiles away. So you have to position your units to get the Veks on fire quick. The Steel Judoka uses the same gimmick as the Rustling Hulks- re-positioning enemies, but the way it re-positions them is way different. It’s not just straight pushes to the front and requires a different mindset to be effective with them.
You can even pick-and-choose your own squad of mechs from the ones you unlocked. Want to have a squad full of punching mechs? Sure, but be wary of its disadvantages. Want to let RNG decide a squad for you? Go ahead if you’re feeling lucky.
Into The Breach works at its best when you just want something quick to pick up and play, and then later put down anytime. The missions are bite-sized, it saves every turn (which also means no save scumming) and there’s no consequences for ending a run midway and just start anew.
And every time, the challenge, the harrowing decisions to make and the satisfaction of seeing a plan work as intended (or surprised that it worked better than expected) is still there.
Into The Breach leverages Subset Games’ expertise on making rougelikes that players will want to keep coming back, but set it in a different genre. The execution of the strategy tactics side of the game is one of the best I’ve ever played- it is rewarding when mastered and having all the information upfront makes you more in control for every move.
The rougelike progression is a matter of taste- FTL fans will be right at home with this, though it can lead to some frustration due to some runs not going in your favour. The game is difficult, even punishing for some on Normal, but dropping down to Easy will make you not see how intense the combat portion is. But it lets you see the game opening up further with more pilots and mechs that should keep you playing more and more.
Into The Breach is bite-sized strategy tactics, perfected. Should the RNG is in your favour.