Game: Into the Breach
System: Nintendo Switch
Developer/Publisher: Subset Games
Age Rating: E for Everyone 10+ (ESRB)| 12+ (PEGI)
Price: $14.99 | £11.39 | €14.99
Release Date: 28th August 2018 (Switch)
The game is also available on PC
Review code kindly provided by Subset Games.
Overall Feeling: Two thumbs up!
Failure can be as exhilarating as victory. I have never been so excited to see “GAME OVER” as while playing Into the Breach, a turn-based tactical game from the makers of FTL: Faster Than Light.
You see, losing at Into the Breach simply means I’m coming back with a vengeance, because I learn how to play better each time. After 30 hours of play — consisting of 3 game-overs and 3 victories — I still can’t put it down.
Apocalyptic pocket chess
Each mission sees you controlling three mechs on the chessboard of a 8×8 grid. Your mission is to protect civilians and buildings from the invading Vek, giant insectoids that spawn from the ground every turn.
But unlike the long-term strategy of chess, Into the Breach mostly involves short-term tactics. It’s more akin to a puzzle game than a strategy game. Since you only have three mechs and are usually outnumbered by Vek, there’s no room for trial-and-error warfare. There’s often an optimal solution for each turn — hence, the puzzle-game aspect.
You’re given advance knowledge of what the enemy will do each turn. (Pushing R-stick reveals turn order.) In response, you move mechs and fire weapons, aiming to kill Vek or redirect their line of attack away from buildings.
You push me, I push you
Besides this foreknowledge, another game mechanic that makes Into the Breach different from chess and other turn-based games like Advance Wars and Fire Emblem is its push mechanic.
Some mech weapons do not only damage enemies but also push them one square away. This is useful for shoving a tough Vek aside, especially when he’s about to bulldoze a civilian building and your firepower isn’t strong enough to kill him in one shot.
Now, here’s where pushing gets fun: If you push a Vek into a neighboring Vek, it will injure them both. If you push certain Vek into water, they’ll drown to death instantly. Push them into smoke, acid, or other environmental hazards, and their attack will be canceled, they’ll take double damage, or they might even be vaporized.
So the game isn’t only about using blind, brute force. It’s about taking advantage of the surroundings while trying to protect buildings.
Mission priority one
To win a mission: Survive 5 turns without losing your entire “Power Grid.” Think of it as electricity that powers your mechs and is supplied by buildings on the map.
Measured by a bright orange meter, your Power Grid level decreases each time the Vek destroy a building. Lose one building, and you lose one power. Lose all power, game over.
Mechs, too, have their individual hit-point meters. Take too much damage and they’ll be knocked out for the rest of the mission. Worse, you lose the pilot permanently, along with his or her accumulated skills. I remember the time I lost Henry Kwan, a pilot who served me faithfully over five playthroughs. (No, I was not happy!) On the bright side, mechs always return in full health for the next mission.
But the big picture is your Power Grid meter. Unlike mech health, it does not replenish after every mission. So it doesn’t matter how many enemies you kill; what matters is keeping your Power Grid alive over the long run (and humanity along with it).
Failure can be fun
I wanted to play Into the Breach because I had enjoyed FTL‘s thrilling intensity and crisis management. To my surprise, ITB was pretty different game — one I enjoyed much more. Both games are fun for exactly the opposite reasons: FTL is stressful and panicky, while in ITB you can chew slowly over decisions.
In fact, you must plan every move carefully. Mistakes are costly, and you have to live with them. If you fail to save a building, your Power Grid takes a hit and you enter the next mission weaker.
There are times I’ve chosen to abandon helpless civilians (for good reason, I promise!). The game makes you feel the weight of your choice with simple but potent audio-visual effects, like a painfully jarring smash as a Vek scorpion plunges its giant stinger into a building and “171 casualties ” flashes in red onscreen.
That might sound stressful but ITB is really a relaxing game, thanks to the absence of time pressure that characterized FTL.
And even if accumulated mistakes lead to a game over, you’re allowed to bring one pilot (and their accumulated skills) over to the next playthrough! Along with lessons you’ve learned in warfare, this should give you a better chance of winning the next playthrough (or “timeline”, as it’s called in ITB). The concept fits well with the game’s narrative about traveling back in time to save the world.
Do it all over again
War against the Vek takes place over 4 islands, each with different terrain and environmental hazards.
But you don’t have to play all 4 islands. Unlock the Final Mission by simply completing 2 islands, and its difficulty will scale according to how many islands you’ve played.
You win the game by finishing the Final Mission. Then you’ll probably want to play again — with a new squad of mechs you’ve unlocked.
Into the Breach is a quick, short game. 2 hours was my shortest playthrough and 8 hours my longest. On each island, you’re allowed to play 5 out of 8 possible missions. These scenarios are randomly generated. Each mission can be finished in 5 to 20 minutes, depending on how long you like to mull things over.
The game “auto-saves” at any point you’re at, so I loved that I could play ITB on the go. But there are no manual saves, so you’re stuck with the consequences of crappy decisions.
There’s leniency, though, in the form of a “reset” button. Once per mission, you may reset to the beginning of the current turn. It’s a tremendously helpful and terribly limited resource.
You can’t have it all
Apart from the planning and survival aspects of Into the Breach, I enjoyed the challenge of decision-making. Which missions to prioritise? Which bonus objectives, which pilots, which equipment? You can’t always have it all.
Each mission is accompanied by bonus objectives, such as “Protect the time pod” or “Terraform the grassland” or “Do not kill the Volatile Vek”. You don’t have to pursue these objectives. Plus, you won’t always be able to fulfill them all.
But you won’t make it far in the game unless you prioritize certain objectives for the sake of rewards. For example, without earning rewards of Reputation (the game’s currency), you can’t shop.
You have a one-time opportunity to shop for crucial equipment after completing each island. Buy and sell weapons, replenish the Power Grid, or purchase reactor cores to upgrade mechs. But currency is always in short supply, so you have to decide if that new missile weapon is really more important than upgrading your mech’s range of movement.
Prioritizing is a key skill in ITB. Should you try to block new Vek from spawning, or weaken existing Vek? Should you sacrifice a whole building of civilians, or that one pilot you’ve gotten attached to?
The best thing about Into the Breach is that these weighty decisions can be made at a leisurely pace. It’s a thinking game with no time pressure.
Overall, gameplay is fairly simple but incredibly satisfying. The “push” mechanic in combat adds new flavor to the turn-based strategy genre. A fine marriage of mechanics and narrative makes ITB easy to grasp, and I found missions to be well-balanced at “Normal” difficulty.
The high replay value makes this game worth more than its $14.99 price tag on Switch. Controls on the Switch are great, too, like the game was meant for a handheld console.
For excellent design, I’m giving Into the Breach my first “Two Thumbs Up” rating!