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Review: Into the Breach

10-23-18

One of the most thoughtfully designed games I have played this year has to be Into the Breach. This clever indie game by the developers of FTL: Faster Than Light, Subset Games, takes the turn-based combat present in titles like Fire Emblem and stamps a unique twist on it by putting the emphasis on countering telegraphed attacks while also integrating roguelike elements. Into the Breach is overall impeccable in its game play and presentation, but at times its otherwise elegant design can prove to be a detriment.

The plot of Into the Breach is pretty basic: Menacing insectoid monsters are attempting to breach our planet from underground, and you command a task force whose purpose is to counteract their invasion. Your goal is to protect the surface by safeguarding nearby buildings, which provide necessary energy to repel most of the insects, and eventually take the fight to the bugs themselves. The roguelike elements come into play when enough buildings are destroyed, which causes an event where insects swarm onto the surface and you’ll have to send one of your units to an alternate dimension in the hopes of saving that one. Story, like with most roguelikes, is the not a priority for the game as it’s merely a means to provide context for your actions.

With the main goal of Into the Breach being to protect buildings and not eradicate the enemies, this leads to moments where you’ll use attacks to push enemies away from a threatened building, have units block incoming attacks meant for buildings, and even see if you can position enemies in their own line of fire. This is where the telegraphing comes into play, as each turn starts with enemies, with some I should add following the XCOM design philosophy of being as annoying as possible to fight, setting up their attacks before executing them once the player finishes his/her turn.

There are a variety of factors that players must factor in when playing Into the Breach. Beyond, “How much health do my units and enemies have?”, what is set to be attacked, attack properties, which units are close to which enemies, nearby terrain, bonus objectives, and map-specific gimmicks all factor into the wide possibility space presented. At times you’ll have to think outside the box in order to successfully protect all of the endangered buildings. In the case you mess up a turn or thought of a plan that might be better than the one you just executed, Into the Breach does provide two methods of redoing past actions. One is a button that allows the player to reset the entire turn once a match and the other is a quick undo move option that only affects movement (you can not reset a specific unit’s turn once it has attacked).

When it comes to units themselves, they can take control of a variety of mechs from an airplane that bombs enemies, to a robot that punches enemies, to a pulse mech that repels enemies. Besides the unique properties each mech possesses, the person controlling the mech also has an ability that can prove beneficial, from being immune to enemies’ webbing to allowing an additional restart turn in every battle. In the inevitable case where a dimension hop needs to be activated, one soldier must be chosen to make the journey and will retain all previous experience points. Although it is a cool system, if you get a soldier with a really good ability, like the ones I mentioned before, there is no reason to not send that soldier through the portal every time, meaning you’ll have the same maxed-out unit for every run and will only not send him/her if he/she dies a fiery death.

Speaking of which, Into the Breach finds a neat compromise with its permadeath mechanic to where it is still very much a threat, but not something that will ruin a run. While any unit whose health bar completely depletes will still permanently die like the unfortunate soldiers in games like Fire Emblem and XCOM, their mech will still be available in future battles and is only out of commission if its pilot perishes in battle. After an event like that occurs, an A.I. will take control of the mech until its original pilot can be replaced with a new one. While the mech will largely have the same abilities programmed into it, any bonuses its former pilot possessed will be gone, which makes a killed unit something to avoid. (Thankfully, all units have the option to forgo attacking in a turn to instead heal.)

Throughout the many runs of Into the Breach, you’ll unlock different islands to start at and tougher enemies will begin to spawn in earlier stages. On each island, you’ll need to complete a certain amount of levels before taking on a boss, which is just an assault on the island’s corporate headquarters with a superpowered enemy. Which levels you choose to tackle are based on their currency, energy rewards, and level-specific gimmicks. Each stage is randomly generated, which prevents optimum routes. You’ll have to choose which levels to tackle carefully as after 4-5 battles, the ones not tackled become unavailable as you’re forced to fight the island’s boss. Once two of the four islands are completed, you’re given permission to take on the final challenge. Whether you opt to do the final battle immediately or after leveling up some more doesn’t matter as the difficulty of the final challenge is based on when you choose to do it.

While it’s evident when playing Into the Breach how much thought has been given to the core mechanics, there is sadly one nagging problem created that cannot be reversed or fixed. At times the feeling of “darn, I cannot reach that enemy” spawns when you’re just one square off from being able to attack an enemy, or it’s blocked because another enemy is in the way, or an attacking enemy will hit another set of buildings, or attacking will cause some buildings to be destroyed. This might not seem problematic at first, but the negatives of this shine when you are one building away from failing a run and some enemy is just fortunate enough to where you literally have no method of stopping it. These kind of defeats are especially frustrating because it wasn’t player skill that determined the loss but rather a lucky enemy. It thankfully doesn’t entirely tank the experience as moments like these are rare.

Beyond its stellar game play, Into the Breach is no slouch when it comes to visuals and audio. The pixelated art-style provides plenty of visual appeal, with a fair bit of detail packed into the sprites. Into the Breach may not be the most visually impressive game in the world, but its graphics get the job done and accomplish what they set out to do. The music is quite similar, with sci-fi influenced beats that suit the overall tone and style.

Into the Breach is that nowadays rare kind of game where it is hard to poke holes in its design. None of the mechanics feel out of place, the systems take an established genre and injects it with a fresh twist, its focus is consistent rather than scattershot, and it effortlessly merges the tactical thrill of strategy games with the replayability of roguelikes. Overall Into the Breach not only deserves recognition as not only both a great turn-based strategy game and roguelike, but also one of the very best games to have released in 2018.