Available On: PC
Pacific Rim meets Chess isn’t exactly the most common elevator pitch for indie games, yet it perfectly describes Into the Breach, the long-awaited sophomore release from beloved FTL: Faster Than Light developers Subset Games.
Into the Breach successfully retains all the fun roguelike challenges and tactical strategy of FTL while minimizing most randomized frustrations, creating a compelling tactical board game.
Gotta Go Back in Time
Into the Breach presents an exciting premise: a squadron of piloted mechs has the power to travel through time and space, and they use it to try and save a number of Earth timelines from being destroyed from the threat of giant monstrous insects called the Vek.
Each timeline is divided into the same four islands, and each island has a handful of maps. The theme of time-traveling mechs battling giant monsters is abstracted onto this series of small, square, pixelated grids. The little animated figures would look right at home on a Super Nintendo or Game Boy Advance title, lending the world a retro charm.
Initially I have only the beginner mech squad, which offers a balance of Punching Mech, Tank Mech, and Artillery Mech. More advanced squads can be unlocked by earning various achievements, and can even be customized and randomized for more replayability.
The time-travel conceit is a fun answer to the game’s roguelike structure. Completing at least two islands opens up the final mission, which scales depending on when I choose to assault it. If I fail, the timeline is lost, but others are still out there.
Failure thankfully isn’t nearly as common or punishing as FTL. Into the Breach’s biggest key to success is presenting as much information as possible, whether that’s showing objectives, rewards, and layout before choosing a level, or telegraphing the exact order that my foes will attack during battle.
Playing an individual level is like playing an advanced Chess-like board game with the perfect amount of tension. Enemies emerge and begin targeting buildings or my own mechs. The game visually marks exactly which squares will be under attack. It’s my job on my turn to prevent them. Attacking and killing enemies is an obvious choice, but not always possible.
Instead many of the abilities (each of my three mechs can equip two) provide movement, like shoving enemies back a space or turning them around. Enemies continue to target the square relative to their previous position, meaning it’s possible, and very effective, to turn them against each other. This opens up an amazing plethora of fascinating moves and options that reward efficient use of all of my powers, as well as intimate knowledge of each insect monster.
Killing every enemy Vek is never necessary, as each map counts down from five turns. Victory is given simply for surviving, creating a series of varied levels that never wear out their welcome.
Most maps have their own environmental hazards or objectives. Acid pools make enemies take more damage, water drowns and kills bugs instantly, and mountains simply block movement and provide cover.
Each island also has a number of levels with optional objectives, like keeping a railroad open to allow a train to pass each turn, or defending a pair of renegade robots. Failing these additional objectives doesn’t mean losing anything, but success offers rewards in the form of Reputation (currency for buying equipment), additional Power Grid bars, and more Reactors for powering up my mechs’ abilities and stats.
Each mech has its own hit points. When reduced to zero the pilot is killed, though I can keep the mech for future battles. Pilots gain experience and come with their own perks and abilities, like a one-time shield or flight. Losing a pilot is bad, but as not as crippling as losing crewmates in FTL.
The more important life blood is the Power Grid. This is my overall health bar for the entire run, and it’s damaged any time a building on my generated square boards gets destroyed. This creates a richly thematic scenario where my mechs are often throwing themselves in the way of enemy fire in order to protect the civilians. If the Power Grid goes down, the entire timeline is lost.
My strategy for each run is largely derived from my mech squad. My favorite is currently the Zenith Guard, which includes a Laser Mech for dealing hefty damage to multiple enemies, a Charge Mech for knocking foes backward or into one another, and a Science vessel for providing shields and critical movement-altering powers.
Balance is tricky in most roguelike games that rely on procedural generation. Despite dozens of hours playing FTL, I never could beat that game on Normal mode. Within a few hours I had already beaten Into the Breach on Normal. The fact that I can assault the final mission after only two islands is a nice way of allowing an easier run, or a harder one if I want to play longer. It’s still a challenging game but more of the challenge lies in earning the many varied and fun achievements and unlocking new squads rather than simply trying to see the end credits.
Into the Breach has not been rated by the ESRB. The pixelated 16-bit-style graphics are easily digestible for anyone. Enemies simply explode into nothing, and there’s no blood.
Into the Breach definitely proves that Subset Games isn’t a one-trick pony. Though still using a roguelike structure, its carefully orchestrated turn-based combat plays more like a well-balanced board game. The randomization is minimized in favor of rewarding effective tactical maneuvers and efficient use of all my powers and abilities. Eight squads, randomized maps, and over fifty achievements provide ample replayablity for one of the best strategy games of the year.