The new strategy title from Subset Games, Into The Breach, does contain some of the genes of its predecessor, Kickstarter darling FTL: Faster Than Light. It's difficult not to compare the two when trying to break down what makes the newer game tick, but whether or not you enjoyed or even played FTL, Into The Breach deserves its own time in the spotlight.
Players are charged with the defence of a world being overrun by swarms of giant insects that are bent on eradicating humanity. The human-inhabited areas are divided into four islands, each with its own special traits, from an icy island infested with rogue AI mechs to an archival island with ancient war machines. Each island is then divided into several scenarios that you can move into once adjacent, awarding some combination of grid power, reputation (used for purchasing gear, cores, and power should you escape an island alive), and energy cores.
You take control of a three-mech squad with different abilities, many of which are powered by energy cores. The starter squad has a mech that pushes and punches, another that slams targets with a cannon blast, and another that fires an artillery shell that damages the impact zone, scattering adjacent enemies. Plenty more can be unlocked, each with a set of complementary abilities within the squad. Energy cores expand these basic abilities, as well as adding health and movement. Each mech has its own pilot who can level twice to gain abilities that enhance their mech's performance and, if they're one of a few special heroes, add an extra, unique ability. Meeting global or squad achievements rewards you with coins, which can then be spent unlocking new mech squads, each of which will, in turn, have their own achievement set. Most abilities have something to do with moving targets on the battlefield, and it's this tendency to reposition that is the core of the game.
Each battle map is divided into squares, and following in the tradition of many tactical games, units can only move orthogonally. The game is entirely turn-based, with each side moving all of its units. Damage can be taken by taking direct hits from weapons, but also from being slammed into things, from burrowing insects that emerge from the ground to fires that appear when forests are damaged, as well as from environmental hazards such as lightning, earthquakes, and floods. Each insect type attacks in a different way, from the ensnaring, glass cannon mantis, to the long-range acid-splashing centipede, to the docile psion pod that can give every enemy on the board powers such as armour or regeneration until it's destroyed. Amid all of these interacting pieces you have your primary goal no matter the scenario: defend the civilians huddled in their towers. Loss of civilian life tanks your score, but it also reduces grid power, the only thing keeping the rest of the insects away. When your grid power is zero, the game is over, so it acts as a hit point track. Each of these buildings has a chance to survive any attack based on your current grid defence rating, but for the most part, players will have to push, crush, and redirect the horde of insects to keep as many people safe as possible.
There is such a wealth of map tiles, scenarios, hazards, insects, mechs, abilities, pilots, and development trees that a given scenario feels fresh even after playing way too much. You may find yourself in situations that seem hopeless, but careful planning can add to just the right combination of sacrifice and chain reactions to come away with a perfect result. No matter how many times you play, these moments are still great. Yet the game manages to keep all of these individual elements so easy to grasp at a moment's glance that you can break down what's going on and be able to figure out possible tactical paths. There is some advantage in the long game, trying to figure out what's best to keep alive, and what sacrifices might be smart in the long run, but the meat of the decisions are made to directly affect what's happening in a given turn. Adding to this puzzle feel you have an indicator which tells you exactly what order the enemy will attack in, letting you set up chain reactions of insects crashing into each other after giving them a nudge. You may also undo movement before you commit to an action, and you're given the ability to reset your current turn, usually once, as long as you don't end the turn.
Technically resets are never needed, but even veteran players will find they've missed the consequences of an action that causes the wrong kind of cascade. The resets are a kindness.
For the most part, the game is very forthcoming with its information, but there are a few screens where you can't quite be sure what a weapon does if you've forgotten or rare instances where you're unsure if a weapon will affect some targets the way you want until it's too late. The AI at times seems to make self-destructive decisions, although you may find these a relief and fitting the theme of the enemy's insect-level intellect. And with all the breadth of tactical choices and squad builds, some may be disappointed that the game seems to focus more on achievements than an over-arching campaign. Win or lose, you can carry over one pilot to the next game with their experience level intact, but beyond some parting words from each of your surviving pilots, winning just plops you back into the game start screen, no pilot-specific endings, nor any cumulative story beyond the snippets adding up to a better understanding of the characters and their situation. Apart from a few secrets, you don't seem to build up a lasting sense of accomplishment, but the fact that you can beat it a few times (like we have on Normal difficulty - hard is relatively brutal) yet still have fun with all these interlocking parts is testament to the game's solid design.
As you unlock mechs you'll also notice you can create your own squad, casting off whatever balance the provided squads offer. With each unique pilot rescued you're also able to set them as one of your starting pilots. With 50 coins to earn, you'll find there's a lot to do (some achievements are much easier than others). You're able to save your progress at any point, though in rogueish fashion you'll have to start from scratch if you don't like the way things are going, and losing on one island is game over, no reloads. It's important to understand that that sometimes you may find yourself in an unwinnable situation, either due to attrition or just a bad combination of circumstances; despite the puzzle feel, there is still some degree of chaos in all of it that the more meticulous need to be aware of. And tangential to that feeling you may have that there should be more to it, a successful campaign doesn't actually take all that long to complete. The game's good moments reside in the midst of a challenging situation, lending to a more pick-up-and-play feel than something with all-consuming, long-term depth. Given how quickly things can fall apart, perhaps this less heavily time-invested design is for the best.
If the above sounds at all intriguing, you should take the plunge, even if the lack of a large, ever-building campaign discourages you. There are so many ways to tackle each game, so many tactical options and choices, that it manages to remain a fun toy to play with whether or not you're interested in hunting for unlocks or just like the clash of huge robots and giant insects. The weight of all the individual elements of Into The Breach makes for a tremendous potential for variations. Beating the game is hardly the end.
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