Into The Breach
If you don’t have a lot of free time on your hands, it’s about to get even sparser as Into The Breach will devour every spare moment of your life. Subset Games, who brought us the similar time sink FTL: Faster Than Light know what they’re doing. If there were any concerns that their initial hit was a fluke, ignore them immediately — this is a deceptively simple strategy game elevated to the realms of greatness through a dizzying array of choices and hyper-addictive gameplay.
The world is being invaded by bugs. But before you have sweaty flashbacks to the cringy cult series Earth Defense Force, take heart that fan favourite Chris Avellone is in charge of writing duties, so NPCs screaming “GIANT INSECTS!!!” every five seconds are nowhere to be found. The bugs — known as Vek — are here to destroy all of our buildings, and only a crack posse of piloted mechs stand in their way. The game is split into islands, each containing individual 8x8 grid zones in which a strategic battle takes place over a number of turns. Each building the Vek destroy reduces the world’s power grid by one unit and if it reaches zero, it’s game over for humanity.
You only have three mechs per battle to turn the tide, and their health bars are limited. They take damage from direct attacks, from environmental effects, by standing on Vek spawn points to prevent new enemy units emerging, and from being pushed into other units or buildings. There is an ace up your sleeve though: you can see the target of each bug’s attack on their next move, and every one of those possible damage outcomes can also apply to the enemy. This information is the key to the entire strategy of the game, and even though it’s a simple premise, that foresight can prove the difference between victory and crushing defeat.
Each turn, your three mechs can either attack, or move and then attack — the exact mirror to the enemy’s turn. What follows is an intricate game of kaiju chess as you position your huge mechs around the area, setting each of them up to inflict the most damage while protecting your buildings. Some of your attacks can push enemies in a direction, meaning their original signposted target can be diverted to a land obstacle, or better still, one of the other bugs. Other attacks just deal damage directly, while others may do a combination of both — either head on, or over buildings. Manipulating mechs to force enemies into each other’s line of fire, into water or off cliffs, or hitting them into each other for increased damage to multiple units, is the key to survival.
Of course, strategy without any heart would be a soulless experience, so Subset have ratcheted up the emotional factor by providing your mechs with human pilots, which you can name. As you destroy Vek and gain experience, your pilots level up and unlock new abilities such as increased movement or health, the ability to reset your turn more than once per battle, and more. As your pilots improve, you will find yourself becoming helplessly attached to them. But as we have learned from history, the greater good is the most important factor in any war, and it will often be necessary to sacrifice your mech (and the pilot’s life) in order to protect a building, and your power grid. No individual is too great to risk the entire game for, even if you did name them after your childhood pet or favourite movie star. Agonising decisions will linger, many days after you send Mittens and Harrison Ford to feed the worms.
Yet, we’ve barely begun to cover the depth of strategy and decision-making that Into The Breach offers. Every battle zone on an island has bonus objectives, such as protecting facilities, taking minimal damage, or destroying a number of enemies. Fulfilling them offers up precious grid power, reputation points or reactor cores. Reputation is spent on supplies such as additional weapons or passive abilities for your mechs, while cores are needed to actually utilise many of these, as well as increase the health and movement of your units. As such, improvements chosen from the mission select screen are incremental over time, encouraging you to spend your points wisely whilst also offering a handy simulation area for you to test out new upgrades before you commit to them.
This extends into battle itself. You can undo the movement of any unit, but once it has made its attack you’re locked in. Thinking two or more steps ahead is pivotal, and often traumatising; there will be times — many, many times — where you can see that three of your buildings are being targeted, but you simply don’t have the movement or attack power to protect all of them. Do you sacrifice a point of grid power to try and inflict maximum damage on the remaining Vek? Or do you serve up one of your pilots and hope that they have enough HP after being hit to survive the remainder of the battle?
The spinning plates don’t end there, either. As each island zone has different objectives and therefore different rewards, and since every island culminates in a final battle with a powerful Vek for the HQ on that island, you need to choose your priorities wisely. If you reach the boss with minimal grid power, you risk sacrificing all of your hard work. But if you don’t have enough experienced pilots or upgraded mechs, you might not be able to take out the enemy anyway. If you lose a battle, you’re teleported back through a breach (read: time travel mechanic) which allows you to retain just one of your pilots and try again. And if you’ve spent an hour levelling up a couple of them...well, you start to see how the game’s devious nature can really get under your skin.
The more islands you liberate and the more challenges you complete, the more mech teams and aesthetic touches, such as different skins, you unlock. Each team has different abilities and can also be equipped with numerous weapons purchased after an island is freed. These include grappling hooks to pull bugs towards you, missiles which rain fire in a straight line on everything under them, and boosters which jump you towards a square and push everything else out of the way. Every weapon can also be upgraded to increase its effectiveness, or add secondary abilities. Put simply, there are so many different combinations of loadouts for your mechs, that it will take you many, many playthroughs before you even begin to get a handle on the nuances of the game.
Even the battlefield contains a number of risk-reward options. Time pods arrive at certain intervals for you to collect, containing reactors and even experienced pilots you can install in your mechs. Similarly, a range of environmental effects such as cataclysms and floods which wipe out chunks of the land, air strikes and lightning storms which damage random squares, and smoke, ice, acid and fire effects all come into play at various points. The harder the difficulty of an island zone, the more of these elements you’ll come up against — but the bigger the reward is if you’re successful.
When you’ve saved two islands, you can either continue rescuing another or go straight to the endgame, which is a double header of grids to survive. Since the difficulty of that final challenge scales to your current level, the only difference is whether you want to carry on and try and improve your score. Once again though, only one of your pilots will make it through to the next timeline regardless of whether you succeed or fail.
The most significant element of Into The Breach’s gameplay is its fairness. Sure, there are times where you’ll be up against the odds, trying to protect multiple targets despite having two of your three mechs webbed or frozen. But its genius lies in giving you the power to control your destiny. You can see what will happen next on every turn — what you do with that information is the difference between the strategic prowess of Nelson and the utter futility of Field Marshal Haig. Every mistake can be traced back to your own action (or inaction) and the lean nature of the game means that encounters are swift and brutal.
The wealth of options, upgrades and random events mean that there are plenty of reasons to keep playing for dozens of hours, should you wish. There are caveats, though. The relatively small number of different island zones may limit your enthusiasm after numerous playthroughs (though it hasn’t happened to us yet), and the time-travel story — despite Avellone’s best efforts — is passable, and has very little bearing on the game. And oddly, despite the relatively simple nature of the game mechanics, the achievement system vital for unlocking new mechs is poorly explained, buried under sub-menus and arguably tougher than it needs to be in order to progress.
These are mere quibbles, though. We’ve yet to tire of saving humanity, and each zone we rescue sees our strategy improving incrementally as our familiarity with both our mechs and the enemy increases. What it lacks in depth of narrative it more than makes up for in its minute-to-minute gameplay, making Into The Breach the perfect game to dip in and out of for half an hour. Or, more likely, far, far longer.