Do you remember FTL? The lo-fi, roguelike space adventure from 2012? Well, nearly six years on, Subset Games, who made FTL, have finally released another title. Into The Breach is likewise lo-fi and roguelike with sci-fi themes, but this time it’s a tactical turn-based strategy game. On an isometric grid, giant aliens try and destroy your buildings while you have five turns to hold them off before they retreat. It’s a variation on a chess-like style of combat we’ve seen infinity plus times over the years – think the Heroes of Might and Magic series, Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem, Advance Wars, the Banner Saga games, Blackguards, etc. Into The Breach has a twist, though, and it’s a good one: you always know what the enemy is about to do.
The most obvious consequence of this is that it saves you having to account for what each enemy unit on the battlefield might do, thereby removing a lot of potential frustration. It also keeps you from needing to know what each enemy unit is exactly capable of – this is literally illustrated for you by an animated tooltip before it happens. There are no surprises here. The second consequence is that you can start using the enemy’s attacks against themselves. Say one is about to attack your building for two damage – oh no! – but if you bump it one square to the right, it’ll instead be bopping one of its allies for two damage. Excellent!
Using the enemies attacks against themselves is vital – it’s part of what makes Into The Breach both addictive and difficult. You only ever have three mechs to work with, each (usually) with just one action per turn. Meanwhile, you’re more often than not outnumbered, with a host of competing priorities. So instead of spending your time trying to work out which of your troops is vulnerable to attack, the large part of your attention will be trying to optimise the moves of your three mechs to cover as many bases as efficiently as possible. Not only do you have to try and get the enemy to attack each other, but you’re looking to use environmental hazards and the grid layout to kill two (or more) bugs with one shell.
It’s wrapped in a framing narrative that isn’t at all worried about fine details. Humanity on a flooded, futurist earth is at war with a host of giant insectoid aliens called “the Vek.” You are the commander of a unit of three mech units that have been sent back, or possibly just across, time, in order to change history. Your mechs land on each of the four islands left of humanity in turn. Each has different environmental constraints, prone to various hazards such as fire and floods, and a separate corporation monopolises each. One by one, you try and save different districts, battling the Vek and protecting the inhabitants. After you’ve cleared the Vek from two islands, you unlock the boss battle, but if you want a higher score and more achievements you’ll want to polish off three or four islands first.
Another place that Into The Breach differs from its forebears is that the survival of your mechs themselves isn’t a top priority. You have a power grid which acts as your overall health bar. Each time a Vek demolishes a civilian building, you lose power, and once your grid is down to zero it’s game over – your pilots jump to a different timeline, and you have to start again pretty much from scratch. Each round has a countdown of five turns, after which the Vek retreat, so no matter how wounded you get, surviving til then will allow you to carry on to the next fight. If a mech runs out of health, it becomes disabled. However, so long as your grid survives, your mechs are all fully repaired for your next bout (the pilots that run them can die, but this too may not end up being a significant setback).
The permadeath cycle here is basically perfect. It will be familiar to players of FTL, with each run taking an hour or two, and again here it hits a sweet-spot where every new attempt has the potential to feel like an important storyline, but not so important that dying and having to start over is the end of the world. Along the way, there are achievements to earn (which double as currency to unlock new sets of mechs), and different pilots to permanently uncover, so even a tanked run can bring satisfying gains. But mostly I love the potential for emergent stories that the roguelike scenario creates: bringing to life the close shaves, the scrambled defences and the accidental bungles in a way that can never entirely be replicated by your traditional save-and-reload mission structure. It isn’t always fair – you’ll still sometimes find yourself in dire situations without seeming to make genuine mistakes – but this slight element of chaos does feel like a legitimate part of the adventure if you can learn to roll with the punches.
Of course, having to start all over again constantly would be super dull, were it not for the many ways that Into The Breach varies the formula each time. The board and island layouts are randomly generated, with each grid having one to three bonus objectives from a cast of many (e.g. “Kill seven Vek,” “don’t let the bar get blown up,” “protect that moving train!”). Different grids suffer from various calamities (an air raid bombs five tiles at the start of each turn; a tidal wave progressively turns strips of the grid into water). Meanwhile, the new mechs you unlock each have unique moves that force you to strategise differently, and you can then combine these with different pilots who also each have their own special ability. The result is a game that has a lot of legs considering its otherwise repetitive nature. After twenty hours with it, I’m still looking forward to my next run.
I feel I should also mention the graphics and interface, which are simple but remarkably effective at clearly conveying a lot of information. This comes down to a combination of concise text, illustrations, symbols, and miniature animations. I don’t think I’ve yet had any major misunderstandings about what was happening – effectively all my blunders have been my own. The minimalist cartoon aesthetic also gives Into The Breach a nostalgic quality, which is complemented by the spacious, distant synths that soundtrack it. Add this to the fact that the game riffs on a genre that has been around since practically the dawn of video games, and Into The Breach itself feels strangely timeless.
Into The Breach is a tour-de-force of tight design, an excellent execution of an idea, and a wonderful take on turn-based strategic combat. I have pretty much nothing bad to say about it. My only wish right now is that there was more of it, that its permutations would stretch on forever, that there’d be islands that I’d ever be able to conquer, more different Vek than I’d ever be able to fight, and more different bonus objectives than I’d ever see. But I understand, design-wise, why this could never be the case. I think Subset have achieved something pretty special here; I look forward to coming back to it in all my future timelines.